The public are casualties in the hostile relationship between the Government and media

Boris Johnson is undoubtedly a polarising figure. Some have claimed, and continue to claim, that once his prime ministerial ambitions were fulfilled, he would be a little lost in the role.

The public are casualties in the hostile relationship between the Government and media

That may be unfair, particularly mid-pandemic, but what is clear is that the Government, under the guidance of Dominic Cummings, believes brutal campaigning techniques will win the day, even while in power; and the first casualty of this has been constructive Government-media relations.

The media is considered a hostile force to be vanquished, or at least sidelined as much as possible; preferably to be replaced with benign social-media initiatives.

Alastair Campbell, eat your heart out.

In a polarised political environment, some media may be short on objectivity, but denigrating their role as scrutineers has not been helpful. This has been painfully obvious since the arrival of COVID-19.

The BBC has been publicly threatened, until recently the Today programme boycotted, and ITV's Good Morning Britain, of course, remains anathema.

Yet many leading media outlets are now seen as more honest than the Government, and a better source of objective analysis.

The weakness of constantly being in campaigning mode has been uncovered and the Government’s satisfaction ratings have suffered accordingly.

We have been treated to the propaganda of superficial phraseology such as ‘ramping up’, to unattainable targets, items of PPE equipment such as gloves counted singly rather than in pairs, and a raft of ministers refusing to admit any mistakes – even the obvious ones.

SAGE deliberations and its membership, until recently, have mostly been kept secret.

In response, the Government’s confusing policies and messaging have been savaged by even the most sympathetic media.

If ministers had shown more humility, admitted to mistakes with a focus on learning from them, invited the media more readily into deliberations and generally been more transparent, many more missteps would have likely been forgiven.

The effort put in to rescuing Cummings was excruciating, and a final blow to more constructive Government-media relations at this time.

In return, the media should be expected to meet the Government halfway, recognising more readily that some of the current, unprecedented, health decisions will never be easy to get right.

A focus on fact-checking is needed, as opposed to trying to trip ministers up – Sky News led one bulletin with an innocent verbal stumble by a minister which she had corrected within seconds, a tactic that is wearing on people under immense strain, creating more heat than light.

We have experienced immense political and social change over the past five years, and we do not want US-style media relations, with a CNN-versus-Fox News analysis of politics, to become the new normal here in the UK.

Neither do we want populist Government arrogance.

Resetting Government-media relations as the pandemic hopefully recedes, with an open and frank analysis of what went right and wrong, and short-term and longer-term lessons to be learned, rather than simply apportioning blame, would at least be one positive outcome for the public from this terrible crisis.

Julian Samways is managing director of JPES Partners 

PRWeek UK is committed to having a more diverse selection of commentators in our articles, and is compiling a list of BME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) PR professionals who are willing to be quoted. To be added to the list, please email and include your specialist areas of expertise, and/or preferred subjects for commentary. 

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