It took one ungainly bite of a bacon sandwich to see off Ed Miliband’s electoral chances. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, can approach a scone with the table manners of Augustus Gloop and everyone around him chortles benevolently like he’s their affable uncle and not an (as yet) unelected autocrat plotting the destruction of all we hold dear.
Then the BBC publishes the clip on Twitter. Naturally it does. So – on a week where the Great Leader has successfully avoided scrutiny – he gets to grin like the cat that got the clotted cream (smeared over its upper lip) – while Jeremy Corbyn faces an almighty fall-out for failing to apologise for anti-Semitism while being grilled by Andrew Neil.
Seriously, this cannot be OK: that the man who called this general election – the man on whom our futures still, unfortunately, appear to hang – is rewarded with LOLs for stuffing his face full of baked goods, while everyone else gets on with the job of outlining their policies to voters. Why are our broadcasters allowing him to play them like junk shop ukuleles?
For weeks, the BBC has pandered to his sense of entitlement, allowing him to dictate the terms of engagement. And so, like a Roman Emperor, he turns his thumb up and down to events as the mood takes him. Afternoon tea on the campaign trail in Cornwall? Don’t mind if I do. A couple of hours on saving the planet? CBA, as the kids say. Why don’t I just send my dad? Oh, and my embarrassing friend. The one who thought he’d win the youth vote by replying to Stormzy’s criticisms in black (type) face. “I set trends dem man copy,” Michael Gove tweeted – the internet age’s equivalent of appearing on the Black And White Minstrel Show.
Stanley and Gove arrived at the C4 studios like a Harvey Nichols Cannon and Ball, whining to be allowed in just so they could whine about being turned away. “Deep down you really hate us, don’t yer?” Yes, I think it’s safe to say we do.
Johnson’s no-shows are born of indolence, but, as luck would have it, they are also a useful strategy. His refusal to commit to the Neil interview – while the leaders of the other parties were desperate for airtime – imbues him with an aura of self-confidence.
Here is a man so sure his wares will sell, he has no need to hawk them like tat at an Everything-Must-Go sale.
In the recent past, of course, the promotion of his party’s wares has seen them exposed as fakes. The promise to increase the number of nurses by 50,000 fell apart when subjected to the slightest mathematical interrogation. Thankfully, however, he had sent Matt Hancock to talk about it, so Hancock was the one left looking like Baldrick counting beans. And, in the meantime, Johnson didn’t have to answer inconvenient questions about the potential opening up of the NHS to American pharmaceutical companies.
As for the C4 climate change debate: well, he played us all. If he had taken his place at the podium, there was an outside chance the post-match analysis would have hinged on policies. As it was, we were arguing over empty-chairing and Stanley, who popped up on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show the following day to troll the electorate about their putative inability to spell “Pinocchio”.
On reflection, I don’t think C4’s ice sculpture gimmick helped. Imaginative though the idea was, it played into Johnson’s court, distracting us all from the substantive issues and allowing him to file a complaint to Ofcom – another side-show. But at least C4 has attempted to hold him to account, and been threatened with a public service licence review for their efforts. The BBC, on the other hand…
For years, I have resisted the blanket criticism of the BBC. In my experience, most sloppy media coverage is down to a lack of time and resources rather than deliberate bias. But what this election campaign has demonstrated is that the broadcaster is incapable of self-reflection and improvement. Its myriad flaws – its tendency towards false balance, its pro-active platforming of alt-right men, its chummy use of Johnson’s first name, its tendency to fall for his bumbling “charm” – have been pointed out time and time again yet nothing changes.
The BBC cannot force Johnson to appear on any of its programmes. But it should have filmed all the Andrew Neil leader interviews before showing any of them to ensure an even playing field. And it should not have given Stanley a platform on BBC Breakfast the morning after the C4 debate. In doing so, it sent a message that expecting a pensioner to speak for his Prime Minister son is run-of-the-mill and not evidence of our broken politics.
The extent to which both broadcasters were being gamed was exposed as Stanley expressed his dismay at the way the ice sculptures and the Ofcom complaint had “overshadowed this important C4 initiative,” as if Johnson hadn’t engineered the overshadowing and the BBC weren’t – at that precise moment – facilitating it.
Initially, it looked as though the BBC might hold firm on its pledge to deny Johnson an appearance on today’s Andrew Marr show unless he agreed to undertake his Neil interview first. But after the London Bridge terrorist attack, it caved. In a craven U-turn, it said it believed it was in the public interest that the Prime Minister be interviewed on its flagship Sunday political programme.
So not only was the politician who once spoke of Muslim women looking like letter boxes being allowed to pick and choose his platforms, he was being handed an opportunity to turn the deaths of two people at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist to his own advantage.
I am writing this before the show airs, but I can imagine how it might play out and how it might benefit his campaign. There’s nothing like a fatal breach in national security to rally voters.
With the political process under siege, we have never needed our broadcasters more. We depend on them to challenge lies and the erosion of democratic norms, such as the Conservative Party Twitter account masquerading as a fact-checker service or Stanley masquerading as a legitimate spokesperson.
Johnson knows this, which is why the Conservatives are firing off Ofcom complaints and threatening to review C4’s licence.
And yet, at this crucial time, the BBC seems lost. Bombarded by accusations of partiality, it is haemorrhaging public trust but can’t work out how to staunch the flow. While C4 and Sky News fight their Ofcom cases, the BBC appears to be running scared.
So many of its decisions – like the editing out of the audience laughing at Johnson during the Question Time leaders’ debate – are obvious missteps.
It needs to move quickly. As the Labour Party in Scotland has discovered, once trust is squandered it is almost impossible to regain. Such a loss is in no-one’s interest. The newspaper industry is in decline. If our broadcasters won’t hold the line against an onslaught of populism, polarisation and bare-faced duplicity, then who will?