The reactions by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump to their respective falls from grace have two features. One is that familiar outburst we’ve all witnessed where the red-faced three-year-old lies prostrate on the floor of the supermarket screaming with rage that they’ve been deprived of the sweets they were eyeing. Johnson’s angry rant about the privileges committee as a “witch hunt, a kangaroo court whose egregious bias and deranged conclusions” sought to “drive me out of Parliament“ is just such a tantrum in longer trousers.
His promise to gracefully and humbly accept the judgement of the committee if they find in his favour is that moment when the now purple-faced but scheming child pauses his wailing to inform the parent that he only intends to stop the racket if he gets his way.
Tantrums and conspiracies
There is another more strategic feature of these tantrums. They also provide a paranoid, ‘victim’ narrative intended deliberately to undermine the authority of the institutions passing judgement. According to our two manbabies and their posse of supporters (Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Brendan Clarke-Smith and others) the privileges committee and the US courts are ‘not what they seem’. The vindictive, ‘trumped up charges’ they delivered reveal them to be part of a conspiracy, driven, typically, by the Left. It is, they argue, these dark forces – notably Leftie lawyers, Remoaners and Harriet Harman – who are, ‘in fact’, attempting to undermine our sovereign freedoms and rights and posing a threat to democracy.
The two ex-leaders know they are on a roll with this tactic because it appeals strongly to that part of people’s psychology which is vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The tactic beefs up the conspiratorial thinking of their support base, helping to immunise them from the truth. Many a Covid-denier, lying in hospital surrounded by Covid evidence and expertise, went to their Covid deaths still furiously insisting they had flu. If conspiratorial thinking can go this deep and be this effective in denying the overwhelming reality of something, then it’s a powerful tool. In his petulant ranting, Johnson is preying on conspiracy vulnerabilities, priming his supporters to reject all counterevidence and accept his view of the committee as pernicious. It’s a simple enough device – ‘if I invoke a conspiracy, the conspiracy-minded will be more inclined to believe my accusations’.
Rest assured that, if the tables were turned and it was Keir Starmer or Joe Biden that had been ‘found against’, then these man-babies and their groupies would be pressurising us unsparingly to ‘stop our puerile attempts to challenge the integrity of the venerated, impartial institutions passing judgement and show respect!’ As Johnson’s absurd lament that “it’s a dreadful day for democracy” shows, the term ‘democracy’ is nowadays just political window dressing – a tutu to place on any old ideological pig.
The media’s ‘helping hand’
Attempts to weaponise our vulnerability to conspiracies might be ineffectual if they went no further than the angry tantrums of individual manbabies. But Johnson and Trump’s campaigns to save their skins by undermining the truth are turbo charged by the mainstream media. News coverage of the recent court and committee inquiries supports our ex-leaders by reducing verdicts on them to matters of opinion. This reduction isn’t always deliberate and stems partly from easily abused ideas of ‘how to do impartiality’ used by press media across the political spectrum.
The press has a democratic mandate to air both sides of an argument. Offering different vantage points widens the scope of information presented to us and makes us responsible adjudicators by inviting us to ‘decide for ourselves’ which viewpoint has greater veracity. This approach is a cornerstone of open, democratic societies.
The problem arises when both-sidesism is transferred from genuine matters of opinion to contexts that aren’t or shouldn’t be. Before complaints kick in about how this distinction sounds more typical of totalitarian states, note that it’s one we already use. When, for example, a final verdict is given in a court of law, it is generally accepted. X was ‘found guilty’. The verdict is definitive and we proceed on that basis. We sometimes question the evidence. Was it sufficient? Did the defendant receive a proper hearing? But what we don’t ordinarily do is challenge the integrity of the court, the judges, or the entire legal system in which they operate.
Both-sidesism, intrigue and news surfing
Yet this is precisely what the mainstream news media frequently does. The privileges committee, for example, consists of a cross-party group of MPs selected to “investigate cases which may prevent or hinder the work of Parliament” including “breaches of parliamentary privilege”. Subject to approval by the Commons, it “has the power to recommend sanctions including fines, imprisonment, or expulsion”. Yet the committee verdict that Johnson deliberately misled parliament is not treated by the press as conclusive.
Instead, we are bombarded with endless both-sidesism. Within minutes of the verdict being published on 15 June, Sky News was not alone in trotting out interviews both from supporters and dissenters in equal handfuls. The coverage was filled with the likes of Rees-Mogg insisting that the 90-day suspension is grossly disproportionate, and the committee flawed. In interviews, questions were frequently posed such as ‘So does Johnson have a point?’ ‘Is it a kangaroo court, would you say?’ ‘Is the verdict actually justified?’
These are extraordinary questions to be asking on a public news platform. Their effects are quite deadly since they introduce the possibility of interpretations that undermine the verdict, encourage listeners to take a partisan approach and beckon in the conspiracy mindset. And once the verdict has been questioned it becomes easy for viewers to push it into particular ideological boxes labelled ‘mere woke leftism’. This tendency of the media to reduce verdicts to opinions is exactly what Johnson and Trump want. They need media both-sidesism to help them weaponise judgements against them and translate them into political conspiracies.
If an ordinary criminal shouts ‘kangaroo court’ on his way out of the courtroom, we don’t then sit around debating the validity of his complaint. We treat it as no more than the rantings of someone annoyed at the judgement against him. So why should the news media treat Johnson any differently?
Fawning, clickbait and dangerous snapshots
It’s partly, of course, that Johnson’s protracted public whining is assumed to be interesting simply because he’s a political celebrity. But, ultimately, should Johnson’s status matter? Aren’t we all supposed to be equal before the courts and parliamentary inquiries? No one in the executive is above parliamentary scrutiny and decision making. So, as per a court of law, if due process has been established, then once the committee’s verdict is given, Johnson’s rantings should have no more credibility than those of ordinary criminals. That should be ‘the end of it’. And yet the mainstream press repeatedly harks back to ‘the alternative viewpoint’ like moths to a flame.
Aside from the perceived need to fawn to celebrities, the press uses both-sidesism liberally and uncritically because it’s a compelling form of clickbait. Presenting a verdict for what it is simply gives information. Whereas presenting it as ‘a matter of opinion’ taps into our need for story-telling and drama. A decision becomes transformed into a far more engaging and titillating battle between opposing forces. It also takes on competitive features such as who can argue their case best, and contains potential winners and losers. News media ‘both-sidesism’ is a form of soap opera that keeps viewers hooked.
Unfettered both-sidesism in reporting on events like the privileges committee verdict not only feeds off our weakness for stories and conspiracies. It also gives a highly misleading picture to the many news audiences who skim, surf and dip. If you don’t follow the details of the committee report but instead get random snapshots containing yet another Johnson apologist plying their narrative, then it becomes easier to hear the defence as a reasonable and legitimate grievance instead of the pathetic railing against the final verdict that it actually is.
Are the arguments presented here partisan – attractive only to critics of Johnson and Trump’s right-wing viewpoints? No, because they aren’t to do with political allegiance but with how we should respond to institutions we have democratically created to operate independently of ourselves and whose verdicts we have agreed to respect. It’s no more appropriate for the mainstream media to repeatedly air Johnson’s complaints that the committee’s verdict is a personal attack on him than it is for me to keep publishing the idea that my speeding ticket is a personal attack on me by the police. There are people who try this line in court but, needless to say, they get short shrift. Decisions are unfair sometimes. But we abide by them because they are generally definitive.
We can’t stop man-baby ex-leaders throwing their toys out of the pram but the mainstream media really needs to examine its role in legitimising their paranoid narcissism. Rampant media both-sidesism serves to undermine court and committee verdicts, to muddy public perceptions of these verdicts, and ultimately, to foster the survival of tried and denounced leaders whose political careers should have been over years ago.