The link between a journalist in Cumbria needing police protection from local thugs and strained relationships between Number 10 and national newspapers is perhaps not obvious at first glance, writes Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.
Yet both incidents spotlight the growing perversion of the manner in which our free media is now seen by some sectors of society and highlights the dangers created should the discourse between politicians and journalists become ever more fractious.
The weekend statement from Number 10 that it would not be engaging with some newspapers on the Dominic Cummings trip to Durham story could be dismissed as just another facet of The Westminster Bubble. After all, the UK national print press, although it would contend – accurately – that it strives to be impartial when reporting the facts surrounding the news, is free to be partisan.
Unlike broadcast news, which is required by regulation to be impartial throughout, newspapers and magazines can and do take sides.
It is therefore a given that whatever the hue of the party in power it will find itself at odds with a swath of the printed press at some point. No administration then comes into power without knowing it will need thick skins and steady nerves if it is to face off the barrage of questioning from those press in the opposition camp and at times – to our system’s credit – from publications that are usually more sympathetic.
How any administration handles such matters is a true mark of a mature government. The temptation to foot stamp and reach for the playpen bricks either through irritation or frustration must be great. To react all too humanly will be seen as defensive, even childish. To refrain from doing so and remain even-handed – albeit it through obvious gritted teeth – brings respect.
Just as importantly, allowing the tricky questions to be put and responded to with the same candour as the softball pitches from supporters sends a strong message to those elsewhere, especially in regimes that would wish to stifle open debate and strangle a free media.
This is why last weekend’s statement from Number 10 that it would not be answering questions from ‘campaigning newspapers’ on the Cummings debate sent out all the wrong signals and prompted condemnation from many quarters, the Society of Editors amongst them.
But there is another, perhaps even more important underlying risk created when politicians seek to stir up mistrust and dislike of journalists who they find troublesome. Not only does such an approach feed into the ‘fake news’ hyperbole that now undermines the credibility of much of the excellent and accurate mainstream media reporting, but it places lives, limbs and livelihoods at risk.
Put simply, when the message from the top is that journalists – or some of them – should not be treated with at least the respect due their role, then it opens the way for the thugs, the goons and the righteously-menacing to take action.
Not for one moment am I saying that this is ever the intention of our political class. But by pointing the finger at the messenger the risk is that those who need little persuasion to act wrongly will do so.
We have seen this in Northern Ireland in just the last few weeks where the men of violence on both sides of the sectarian divide have targeted journalists for reporting on their communities. There, as we witnessed last week, the community has risen as one voice to condemn the very real threats to harm and even kill journalists. And that condemnation has come unequivocally from all sides of the political debate.
We are witnessing similar support in South Cumbria, where local journalist Amy Fenton of The Mail has been placed under police protection after threats made to her life. Her crime? Reporting accurately local police investigations.
Whether those who have issued such threats – in the Province or Cumbria – were emboldened or persuaded in their cause through some perverse belief that journalism and therefore journalists hold little value in society we cannot know.
And I stress, I cannot believe that any politician seeks to see journalists harmed or believes their actions create the atmosphere where dangers arise.
Yet politicians can play a tremendously important role in helping to reinforce the strengths journalism brings to any community and that in the end the values our society rely on the most – transparency, honesty, accountability, free speech, freedom – are best protected through the role of a free media safe to carry out its work.