In defence of the press: You get the media you’re willing to pay for

I was heckled many times as a hack. The Tory faithful once groaned when I asked David Cameron a question at an event.

The media is producing some of its finest journalism during the crisis, but it will always have critics, argues Steve Hawkes
The media is producing some of its finest journalism during the crisis, but it will always have critics, argues Steve Hawkes

Little did they know, the No. 10 machine had encouraged me to ask Cameron that question because they wanted to address the issue and get an answer out in public.

To me, it’s no surprise to see shock surveys revealing the nation’s alleged lack of trust in the media during the coronavirus crisis.

One, it makes good headlines. Two, journalists are always viewed alongside estate agents, used-car salesmen and – notably – politicians as the lowest of the low.

The unique nature of the coronavirus crisis has meant huge audiences for the daily press conference.

The nation has built its day around the 5pm televised update, with political events drawing viewing figures on a par with an 80s Cup Final.

This has introduced far more people to the inner workings of the Westminster lobby – and clearly some don’t like what they see (however much they come back for more).

There have been mistakes.

The ‘gotcha’ style of some journalists, and single-source stories that alarm an already panicked country, not only infuriate the Government, but upset viewers who are sorely looking for more positive, and more accurate, information.

Critics moan that from being international trade experts last year during the acrimonious talks with the EU, journalists are now overnight experts in epidemiology.

Yet there is no one size that fits all.

And let’s remember where we have come from. We entered the pandemic with a monster hangover from Brexit.

Last year left a public bitterly divided. Remain supporters still loathe the right-wing press, while Leave backers despise the BBC.

In a YouGov poll last month that claimed 60 per cent didn’t trust broadcasters, the largest black mark for the TV channels came among those who voted for Brexit.

But what’s being sorely forgotten in all the conversation is the quality of the work being produced day in, day out by so many newspapers and TV channels.

The Daily Mail has shone a light on the 2,700 cancers being missed each week.

The Sun has gone back to its roots as a campaigning paper and largely caught the mood of its readership with its positivity during the crisis.

Both the BBC and ITV led the way with reports on intensive care units, and award-winning columnists continue to excel.

And let’s not forget the reaction when The Sunday Times set social media alight with its Insight Team investigation into the Cobra meetings ‘missed’ by Boris Johnson.

A few liked the investigation so much they went to the trouble of taking it from behind the paywall and sharing it for free.

There’s the rub.

The newspaper industry is in a dire state, with staff being furloughed and big-name journalists facing 20 per cent cuts in their salary.

But we get the media we pay for. And for what’s arguably loose change in today’s world, newspapers and TV journalists still routinely set and lead a high-quality debate.

A more interesting YouGov poll may be its media ‘tracker’.

Interestingly, between March and April those with a favourable view of the media industry went up, from 15 per cent to 20 per cent – the highest since at least November.

Steve Hawkes is head of strategic media at BCW and former deputy political editor of The Sun

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