Tony Blair once remarked, during one of the periodic feeding frenzies that engulf British politics, that public life was becoming a game of ‘gotcha’. These days feeding frenzies, like Atlantic hurricanes, seem to strike with increasing frequency. No week passes without someone, somewhere calling for this or that minister to quit. When a minister does resign the focus quickly switches to whomever is next in line. No sooner has the defence secretary gone than Damian Green enters the frame, until Priti Patel obligingly puts her head on the block, only to be followed by Boris Johnson, and so on.
Now, three weeks on, Damian Green is again back in the spotlight. At the time of writing his prospects do not look good. The danger is that his fall — if that is the outcome — will trigger demands for a search of all the computers in the Palace of Westminster to determine who has been watching pornography in office hours. Given that about 5,000 people work in parliament there is a huge potential treasure trove. A vast feeding frenzy beckons.
It’s easy journalism, of course. In recent years, emboldened perhaps by the Great Parliamentary Expenses Meltdown, tabloid culture has spread into the mainstream. The BBC, I am sorry to say, is one of the worst offenders. Incredibly, they even used a helicopter to track Priti Patel’s movements from the moment her plane touched down at Heathrow. If that isn’t skewed priorities, I don’t know what is.
There is a PhD thesis to be written on ‘Great Feeding Frenzies I Have Known’. One of my favourites was when, in the spring of 2002, it was alleged that Tony Blair had tried to manipulate himself a more prominent seat at the Queen Mother’s funeral. The story blazed for days and then suddenly died, as though someone had flicked a switch — which I suspect they had. Word came from the Palace that the Queen was not happy with this misuse of her mother’s funeral and the nonsense stopped instantly.
‘Obama snubs Gordon Brown’ was another favourite. In the wake of the near-global banking collapse, when Brown was trying to persuade world leaders (in retrospect, his finest hour) to pump liquidity into their economies to avoid recession, the British media became obsessed with such snub stories. The line seems to have been decided before Brown had left London and was pursued by lobby correspondents all the way across the Atlantic and even into the Oval Office. Obama was astonished. He rang Brown afterwards to commiserate. ‘They were like hounds,’ he said.
The overall effect of this constant demand for sensation is that it feeds the anti-politics sentiment which is deeply embedded in our culture. There are occasions when a casual survey of our media might leave you with the impression that we live in the west European equivalent of the Congo.
Occasionally, the game can be dangerous. It was wholly irresponsible of Andrew Marr to ambush Michael Gove with a question about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran. Gove had no responsibility for the matter. It had been clarified the previous week. There was no public interest in asking the question of a different minister to the one who had overall responsibility. It was just an attempt to wrongfoot Gove which backfired badly — at the expense of Mrs Ratcliffe.
Lately, the rolling news media have developed a new trick. That of shouting a provocative question at passing politicians, not in the hope of getting a reply (most senior politicians are too savvy for that), but merely in order to get the question on air. ‘Is it true you are a serial killer, minister?’ (I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)
No sooner does Theresa May put her head out of the front door of No. 10 than she is met with cries of ‘When are you going to resign?’ and somehow or another they always find their way into the clip on the evening news bulletins. It is intended to undermine and demoralise, and no doubt it does.
It is tempting, of course, for the opposition to play the game by joining in the chorus of unproven allegations and demands for resignations, but they need to bear in mind that it could well be their turn in due course. What goes round comes round. Blair has several times expressed regret that he made such a big issue of alleged ‘sleaze’ during the last two years of the Major govern-ment for that reason. It came back to haunt him.
There is another, more serious, side-effect of trial-by-feeding-frenzy. More important stories get crowded out. The Rohingya catastrophe has disappeared from the headlines. Scarcely any mention has been made of the desperate plight of several hundred thousand people who are trapped in a suburb of Damascus that has been under siege for months. And in Kasai in the Congo, three million people are said by the UN to be facing starvation, a story more or less unreported.
A neighbour of mine remarked the other day that one had to wait until two-thirds of the way down the news bulletin, if then, to find out what is going on in the world outside our little bubble.
Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister and a journalist by profession.