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As Channel 4 was discussing climate change, the Conservatives were fighting a different battle
Last week the Conservative Party stated that they will seek to review the licence of Channel 4 following a dispute over its environmental leaders’ debate. In return, the editor of Channel 4 has accused Johnson of behaving like Trump and trying to intimidate the press.
The debate erupted after Boris Johnson – the leader of the Conservative party and Prime minister – refused to take part in the debate. Instead Johnson sent his dad (who is not a politician) and Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as a substitute. This was rejected by Channel 4 who had commissioned the leaders of five other UK parties.
Given that Channel 4 had offered the Prime Minister the right to attend up to the 7pm broadcasting deadline, the timing of the breaking news story is particularly relevant. An hour before the debate started the Conservative Party put together a statement about broadcaster bias and its refusal to allow Gove to be substituted in for Boris Johnson. This calculated response was not a reaction to the broadcaster’s decision not to permit Gove to take part, but part of a premeditated attack on the broadcaster and an attempt to deflect attention away from the climate change debate itself.
Is Complaining Justified?
Everyone has a right to complain about public services, and this includes broadcasters. Many people do. And the Conservative Party are within their rights to appeal the decision(s) made by Channel 4 to Ofcom the media regulator. Equally it is important to note that accusations of bias against the media are not the monopoly of the Conservative Party and have come from a plurality of groups (in different guises) throughout this election.
But the Conservative’s threats – implying that Channel 4’s actions could have repercussions if they win December’s election - are markedly different from the formal approaches of other parties; Jeremy Corbyn has previously stopped supporters booing a journalists who are perceived to be bias against the party when they questioned him.
Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon have both officially lodged separate, legal, complaints against ITV after being excluded from a leaders debate on 19th November.
We shouldn’t be surprised
Last week was not the first time the Conservative Party has set out to deliberately distort the media in this election; previously one of the Party’s Twitter handles were rebranded ‘FactcheckUK’ to present itself as an independent fact checking organisation. Possibly more shocking than the event itself was the response from the Conservatives which was unrepentant – one government minister stating that “no one gives a toss”.
The Party also purchased Google adverts to deliberate mislead people searching for the Labour Party manifesto and edited news clips of Labour candidates being interviewed to misrepresent their arguments. One national broadcaster, the BBC, has written to the party asking it to remove adverts on social media claiming it distorts the views of its presenters. Equally there are serious questions about the level of scrutiny Johnson is open to following the revelation that he is not confirmed to do a BBC interview with the BBC’s top interviewer Andrew Neil, as other party leaders have done.
Such attacks are not orchestrated in isolation. Throughout the Brexit campaign Johnson and his allies sought to promote British democracy; the headline message of ‘take back control’ argued that Westminster’s parliament (rather than Brussel’s) should be the seat of decision making in the UK. Yet since becoming Prime Minister Johnson and his team have abandoned this by deliberately and callously undermining the very institutions which are needed to uphold democracy in the UK.
Following the decision of the judiciary to declare the prolongation of parliament unlawful Johnson and senior minsters implied that the courts were biased and acting against democracy. Such rhetoric continued as ministers openly expressed their opinions that the supreme court’s ruling was wrong, with one suggesting it amounted to a coup.
The proposed suspension of parliament ahead of the looming October 31st deadline weakened it. Institutions are unable to “take back control” if they are prevented from assembling. Equally once Parliament resumed the government quickly set about undermining its role in passing legislation. Following the passing of the European Union Withdrawal (2) Act (commonly referred to as the Benn Act) Johnson rebranded it the “surrender bill”.
This wasn’t merely about political difference but an attack on Parliament. There were no questions of improper rules being followed in the legislative process but - as in the case of the judiciary - Conservative MPs were keen to imply that Parliament was working against the country and against democracy.
Why is this important?
Here it is not the accusations of bias that are problematic – these are part and parcel of responding to unfavourable media stories and there are robust mechanisms in place to deal with such complaints. What is problematic is the continuing relationship between those at the top of the Conservative Party and the institutions that are fundamental to upholding democracy in Britain.
Democratic societies rest upon the consent of the loser. Which requires those who are unsuccessful in winning elections continuing to participate in engaging with democratic institutions and practices (as opposed to attempting to capture institutions of power). Continual attacks and threats on democratic institutions that do not produce particular outcomes should be viewed as deeply worrying. Given their actions since Johnson became PM serious questions must exist as to whether or not the Conservatives and/or Johnson would be capable of offering such consent to a new Prime Minister, either if the Party lost the election outright or if Johnson himself was unseated in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
Christopher Kirkland is a lecturer in Politics at York St John University. He has published research covering British politics, including on crises in British politics, the 2014 Police and Crime Commissioner by-elections and legitimacy in low turnout ballots. His latest book classifying elections in Britain is available now from Palgrave. He tweets @ChrisDJKirkland. His full profile can be found here. Image credit: Screencap/YouTube.