World

Inside the relationship between politicians and the media

7 March 2020

8:30 PM

7 March 2020

8:30 PM

Global system breakdown has defined all our lives for 13 years. From the banking system’s boom and bust to the rise of a new anti-globalisation, the populist generation of politician and political leader, to the mounting cost of global warming, to the exponentially charged proliferation of a jumping-the-species virus.

There is definitely no sleep till Brooklyn, or for the wicked. And we have a choice, as people, as nations, as culture. We can try to understand what is happening in a balanced, calm, rational, scientific way and rebuild some sense of control over our destiny. Or we can continue shouting at each other, in social media’s Tower of Babel, and turn Call of Duty4: Modern Warfare into the model of our future. Or, to put it another way, journalism we can trust, impartial journalism, matters more than it ever has so that as citizens we have the information that allows us to make those reasoned choices.

Having been mugged by Roy Greenslade into giving this lecture in honour of the legendary Hugh Cudlipp, this will be performance catharsis for me, very public psychotherapy even – after 35 years as a journalist, living on the adrenalin of reporting on events and trends that are no respecters of a normal working day and that have shaken and changed our world. But mostly what I want to do – with some trepidation – is talk about why we have to rescue impartial journalism from possible oblivion and fight back against the pernicious ideas that impartial journalism either doesn’t matter, or is just what I or you happen to think it is, that there is no distinction between the objective and the subjective, and that to argue otherwise is a fatuous exercise in impossibilism.

Even our leaders, with their deeds as much as words, show contempt for the idea of impartial news. Trump disintermediates – goes round – established media every waking hour by communicating directly and tendentiously with the American people via Twitter. Our own prime minister has shown a preference for being asked patsy questions by faceless and carefully selected citizens via Facebook rather than being interviewed by established television or print journalists. On Brexit day itself, 31 January, Johnson spoke directly to the nation through social media, not television.

Now for the avoidance of doubt, as someone who has tried to practice impartial journalism all my professional life, in newspapers as much as TV, let no one think I confuse a commitment to impartiality with some kind of belief that journalists like me have some kind of privileged relationship with the truth. To use a term of art, I’ve fucked things up far too many times for comfort in 36 odd years as a hack. But what distinguishes the impartial news journalist from the propagator of fake news is the response to the embarrassing evidence of our incomplete knowledge.

During the general election, I notoriously made a mistake on Twitter when I said that the health secretary’s special adviser was whacked in a fracas outside Leeds general hospital. But to clear up a few things about this. I was not spun by Cummings or a Tory official about this. Nor did I allege Labour’s involvement in the fracas in my Tweet. Having read about the fracas on Twitter, I rang two people who were eyewitnesses who both told me that the adviser had – in the words of one – been ‘lamped’.

Subsequently, a film emerged that showed that the adviser had been knocked not very hard in the face by accident, not deliberately. So I took down the tweet and then put up another tweet apologising for my mistake. I was not under pressure from ITV to make the correction. I simply said sorry because that is what I would always do since I am well aware I do not have privileged access to the truth. This was a routine cockup, not a conspiracy – and it wasn’t the first or last such boo boo I’ll make

What matters about this incident is that it was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people as a conspiracy to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. My tweet in which I said ‘I apologise for getting this wrong’ was seen as confirmation that I am a Tory stooge. Jeremy Corbyn himself – or whoever manages his account – tweeted a screenshot of my deleted original tweet, along with tweets by Laura Kuenssberg, my colleague Paul Brand, and Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun, and said ‘this is what media bias looks like’. Unsurprisingly I thought this was offensive and wrong.

The important point perhaps is that the correction was made instantaneously. This is both a trivial and important point. It reinforces the importance of sustaining and reinforcing a culture of impartiality and striving for truth in news. But in today’s world of identity politics and argument based on who we think we are rather than what we think we know, saying sorry seems only to encourage the hate.

In fact, unlike Prufrock’s life measured in coffee spoons, mine sometimes feels measured out in Twitter stream hate – for allegedly destroying Northern Rock and the British economy 13 years ago, or not being quite excited enough about the joys of Brexit, or for expressing deep sadness that the party to which my Jewish dad had devoted his life had apparently become a haven for anti-Semites.

The hate felt most extreme this past autumn, before and during that nightmarish general election, when different halves of the country could not understand that my job was not to throw myself in front of the Boris Johnson bulldozer to prevent him winning the election, or to cheerlead for ‘getting Brexit done’, but to adjudicate on what all party leaders were saying – and evaluate which were more likely to make more of us safer, more prosperous, happier.

For God’s sake don’t feel sorry for me. I love what I do and unlike some colleagues or many in public life, I find it relatively easy to ignore the furious loons. It is simply that I know that in renewing the case for impartial news, I am preaching to the angry and the unpersuadable. I confidently expect that those who already agree with me will nod in melancholy support. But far too many – some of them in positions of considerable power – will dismiss every word as simply the propaganda of the mistrusted and loathed MSM, the mainstream media, as the voice of a self-perpetuating oligarchy of vested interests, as an exercise in exhibitionist onanism (as the current PM might say).

So what is impartial journalism? Well, it should not be bland. And it is not journalism devoid of views. It is journalism that expresses a view – that this or that is likely to happen, that this or that politician is more likely to be right about a certain important issue – based on evidence, but never on political affiliation, or religious leanings, or commercial interests or prejudice.

At times, I have been very passionate in the way I report, perhaps too passionate. At the BBC, I argued that the banks had been reckless and disgraceful borrowers and lenders who were jeopardising our livelihoods. I got away with it because I had worked in the salt mines of banking and markets journalism for years and actually knew what I was talking about. Which meant I redoubled my efforts when politicians, bankers, regulators tried to shut me up.

MPs who should have known better argued that the equivalent of wartime-style D Notices should have been issued to close me down. One of the reasons I love the BBC is it never blinked – and not only because there were times when my bosses didn’t have a clue what I was saying.

At ITV, in covering Brexit, I made my bosses anxious by insisting on saying what I believed to be true about the economics of Brexit, in the face of considerable resistance from our lawyers. I argued that leaving the EU would make us poorer, at least for a decade or so, because there is an inescapable cost from introducing friction into the UK’s trading relationship with its most important market. I have gone through these arguments so many times I won’t bore you with them again today. But the important point is that I was being impartial – just as I was during the banking crisis – because I set out the evidence in explaining my conclusion, my view.

That said, and unlike George Osborne, who had a politician’s skin in the game and could therefore never be impartial, I argued that the costs would be real but not catastrophic. I also said there could be reasons to leave the EU that had nothing to do with our prosperity, and everything to do with ideas about the importance of national self-determination. But even so, the Brexiters alleged I was a Remainiac who should be locked in a soundproofed cell.

The regulator Ofcom adjudicated in ITV’s favour when Vote Leave complained we were failing in our obligation to be duly impartial. But even though the bad penny of Brexit’s economic costs have of course turned up, Cummings and co had the last laugh. Because as a genius impartial journalist, I had assumed that the lessons of history – that citizens vote for what will make them richer or stop them getting poorer – would be the iron rule that determined the referendum outcome. But I had under-estimated both the resonance of so-called ‘taking back control’ and that vast numbers of voters on low incomes who were so disillusioned with the political establishment that when Cameron and Osborne said Brexit would be self-harm they saw the fear in their eyes and decided to punish them. So to repeat, impartiality is about fact or evidence-based journalism, but again please don’t confuse that with immaculate powers of foresight.

Here though is where it all gets a bit messy. As someone who worked with immense pride for the BBC for a decade, I watched with disappointment the corporation’s coverage of the referendum. Because, as I’ve argued before it felt to me that the BBC was confusing balance with due impartiality.

Balance, or hearing a range of competing views, is of course important. But the duty of the reporting journalist is to weigh up those competing views and say that on the weight of the evidence this or that view is more likely to be correct. It was no service to the BBC’s viewers and listeners to hear one business leader or economist say Brexit would make us poorer, and another say it would make us richer, and then not be given help by presenter or journalist in assessing which was more credible.

After the referendum, the Brexit-leaning Daily Mail heaped praise on the BBC for not giving any kind of view during this political battle of our age. Maybe that shows the BBC’s view of impartiality is right and I’m wrong. But I don’t think so. And when ministers attack the BBC, as they often do, for failing to appreciate the strength of pro-Brexit feeling in the UK, that is absolutely not evidence the BBC is failing in its duty of impartiality. Brexit might absolutely be the best path for this country. But neither the BBC or ITV should argue that simply because a majority of the people see it that way.

Among the many things that I wish in life, I wish the BBC was more confident in its news coverage. As it happens, only once in my time at the BBC did its bosses stop me saying what I wanted to say. A couple of days before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and just ten minutes before going to air on the Ten O’Clock news, a piece I had made on the economic implications of Scottish independence was pulled, on the orders of the corporation’s most senior executives, who feared the ire of Alex Salmond.


The least edifying aspect of the incident is that the assorted bosses subsequently rang me to distance themselves from the decision, just in case it leaked and became a cause celebre. What this shows, of course, is why it is so hard for the BBC to stick its neck out and give a view. The backlash against it from politicians and media when it makes a mistake is so disproportionately great that sheer terror grips those who run it.

It is, of course, vital to repeat that impartial journalism is a standard that none of us as individual journalists can ever attain. It is what we aspire to. It conditions what we research, how we weigh the evidence, what we say and how we say it. It is why, when I was a business journalist, I chose not to invest in stocks and shares, because I did not want the perception of the impartiality of my reporting to be undermined by the idea that I might be favouring a company to get richer.

All serious business and financial journalists abjure direct investing. But it wasn’t always so. When I was a cub reporter in the 1980s, the Daily Mail tried to recruit me. And one of the perks of the job they offered was that they had close relationships with stockbroking firms who gave the Mail hacks privileged access to offerings and placings of new shares at the discounted flotation price – a reward for bullish coverage. I made my excuses and left, as they say. But that kind of incestuous relationship between hacks, brokers and bankers was rife at the time, and – thank goodness – has largely been swept away.

Also, from the age of 24, I’ve not been a member of a political party, because I never wanted to be seen as a pamphleteer or propagandist. Building what used to be called in the City a Chinese Wall between my private political convictions and how I research and present my stories has been vital to my credibility. Though some of you will say I am kidding myself. There is an argument that in today’s climate of mistrust of the media, journalists like me should be more frank and open about our underlying convictions. I am not sure.

But although I can credibly claim not to show sympathies for any particular party, there are some facts about me that condition how I am seen and that I’ve chosen not to hide. In the current febrile political climate, it matters – and I say this with regret – that I am Jewish.

Five years ago, the idea that I would ever have begun a report by saying ‘as a Jew’ would have been unthinkable. But when reporting on the toxic question of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, I feel I have to say it – because although I strive to be as impartial in covering this issue as I would be when covering a general election or reporting on a corporate takeover, I cannot shed my Jewish identity in the way that I can cease to be a member of a political party or can dispose of shares in a company.

To be clear, this is not a matter of religion. I have never been a practising Jew. I have always been a proud secular Jew. What matters to Jews like me is that if we had lived in Germany, Austria or Poland during the second world war, we would have been sent to the gas chambers, whether or not we thought of ourselves as Jews. It is a matter of birth. And it matters that all my life I’ve encountered anti-Semitism, and also that anti-Semitism has become much more prevalent in recent years. There is an argument, I suppose, that because anti-Semitism is a personal issue for me, I should not report on it, that as someone who believes in the importance of impartial journalism I should always stand aside when a story about anti-Semitism and Labour needs to be covered.

Possibly that is what Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, believes. When I pointed out to him during the general election that Corbyn had refused to be interviewed by me – even though Johnson, Sturgeon and Swinson had each been interviewed by me twice – he said, and I quote from a text he sent, ‘your reporting on Labour has not been remotely fair or balanced and included a high degree of slanted editorialising, reaching a low point in your broadcast on the 10 on 26/11’.

He was referring to a two-way I did on the unprecedented decision of the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to write an editorial in the Times newspaper in which he explicitly raised the question, on behalf of the orthodox part of the Jewish community, to question whether Corbyn was fit for high office, given Corbyn’s failure to root out anti-Semitism from Labour over the previous two and a bit years.

I reviewed that two-way. It was impartial, both in respect of Ofcom’s rules and as a matter of common sense. The point I made was how shocking it was that the leader of an important section of the Jewish community should feel obliged to speak out during a general election and that he was moved to do so by the deep hurt and fear felt by many of his congregation. This alienation of an important part of a British community could not be ignored, which is why I was surprised – to put it mildly – that Milne cited it when disqualifying me as a suitable interviewer of his boss.

Would Milne or any of us have qualms about a woman journalist reporting on gender pay inequality or a gay journalist covering gay marriage in the church? I doubt it. In a way, it is extraordinary any of this needs saying. But it may do in this era of identity politics trumping the politics of economic distribution.

I am not so naïve as to believe that impartial journalists like myself are free from bias. Deep in my psyche are prejudices I can’t see – even though I am especially privileged to have a partner who has an unusual ability to expose my capacity to confuse myth with fact. I was reminded of how really hideous prejudices can persist in institutions we think of as liberal when I read Cudlipp’s history of the Mirror, written in 1953: Cudlipp pointed out that the trust deeds of the Observer newspaper at that time stipulated that neither a Jew or a Catholic could be its editor.

My point is that if no individual journalist or media institution has a monopoly on truth, the only way to provide citizens with the truths they need to run their lives and make rational decisions about who should lead us is through the intermediation of a rich ecosystem of news organisations that are consciously diverse employers and which are very different each from the other.

Impartial news cannot depend for its survival on a single or small number of champions. There is an enormous amount of attention being paid – rightly – to the determination of Dominic Cummings to force through wholesale financial and cultural reform at the BBC. If this were to weaken the BBC, if this were to lead to it abandoning impartial journalism, that would be bad.

So I gulped slightly when the newish culture secretary Oliver Dowden put the BBC on warning to guard ‘its unique selling point of impartiality’, suggested it was too narrow and urban in its outlook and then said the government would be taking ‘a proper look at our public service broadcasting system and the BBC’s central role’ to ascertain whether it reflects and is close to the British people. If this or any government is the arbiter of impartiality, we are in deep trouble.

All that said, for all the importance of the BBC, it is not the sole guarantor of a healthy news media capable of holding power to account. The BBC contributes to the ecosystem that holds power to account. But it is only part of it. And if you will indulge me for a second, I cannot resist sharing with you Ofcom’s findings that ITV is seen by viewers as more trustworthy than the BBC, and that on perceptions of impartiality the BBC is quite a long way behind Sky and CNN.

But then I thought yuck, because declining trust in any provider of impartial news, especially declining trust in the BBC, is bad for our collective mission. Those who supply it – ITV, the BBC, Channels 4 and 5, Sky – thrive or fail together. Even when competing, the taint of one can infect the others, the triumph of one can lift up all boats. Each of us needs competition from the others, to keep us honest, on our toes, striving for the truth, fastidious.

This is why Ofcom’s review of how to reinvigorate public service broadcasting in this new age of digital streaming is so important. It matters that all of us resolve there is a commercial interest in remaining as public service broadcasters. Because if we don’t, then we would no longer take on the licence condition of committing to provide impartial news. And that, in my view, would be deleterious to democracy.

If each or any of us decided to remodel ourselves as Netflix-style streaming services, freed from the obligation to provide impartial news, the providers of fake and toxic news would be the only winners. By the way, my clear understanding is that ITV wants to and will remain a public service broadcaster for years to come, even though providing national and regional news, and my show, isn’t cheap – unless, that is, Ofcom does something utterly barmy and refuses to compel makers of Smart TVs and the likes of Sky to make it incredibly easy to find and tune in to us and the other public service broadcasters. Due prominence is what we all want and I think merit, an ecosystem in which virtue in broadcasting counts for something against the bottomless purses of Netflix, Apple and Amazon. Here speaks the not very impartial journalist.

Finally, I want to return to the issue of trust, a virtue that is becoming more and more defined by its absence from the public’s view of our important institutions, including journalists. I want to link this to the related imperative of holding this government – like any government – to account.

First, it is not a party political point to wish that Labour would get its act together and behave as an effective opposition. But whoever wins the contest to lead Labour will have their work cut out. In a parliament where Johnson has an effective majority of 87 and has purged most dissenters from his own ranks, the opposition will struggle for some time to seem relevant. I remember interviewing William Hague shortly after he became Tory leader, following Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, and thinking ‘nice bright chap, shame nothing he is saying will make a blind bit of difference to anything’.

The point is that for Boris Johnson right now, only the media can effectively hold him and his administration to account. And this matters all the more because the plans of this government are radical and go to the heart of the way in which fundamental decisions are made about how this nation lives and breathes – including a significant institutional and constitutional reform programme going well beyond the inevitable changes that flow from Brexit.

It is a very big deal how Cummings and Johnson want to remake Whitehall, change the law for the protection of human rights, reduce the power of the courts to over-rule the prime minister, alter the scope and role of the BBC – and suspend our precious civil liberties to combat this horrible virus. My own current obsession is that our vitally important future trade and security relationship with the EU is being negotiated not by a Whitehall official accountable to the Whitehall hierarchy, or a minister who can be grilled at the Commons dispatch box, but by an unelected political adviser, David Frost. He is accountable only to the prime minister. Someone has to keep a close eye on all this, and who else if not the media? By the way, the internal contradictions in this government were captured by Frost himself when in a recent speech he prayed in aid the 18th century philosopher of cautious conservatism Edmund Burke for the underlying justification of Brexit, but whose own job is the very definition of institutional upheaval that would be a Burkean anathema.

If the media’s role in shining a light on government is more important today than ever, then it was wholly predictable that one of the first actions of Cummings and his director of communications Lee Cain after the December election was to attempt to show that they – not lobby journalists – are in charge. They have done this by moving the twice-daily lobby briefings out of parliament, where journalists feel at home, to their own territory in Downing Street. This is important symbolism. And they have also tried to ban some news organisations from important briefings. There has been a bit of public outrage about this – far more than I would have expected, given the relatively low esteem in which the media is held.

But let’s not be naïve about this, all prime ministers try to tame and control the news media, either through seduction or coercion. In Cudlipp’s time, when the Mirror was the best selling and therefore probably most powerful newspaper, Harold Wilson gave no fewer than six peerages to Mirror executives, including one to the great Hugh himself.

In James Margach’s compelling 1979 account of his relationship with 11 serving prime ministers, the Abuse of Power, the former Sunday Times political correspondent wrote that ‘prime ministers are men who may be in a job one day and out the next, and so, having pursued power and seized it, they proceed to use and abuse it in order to dominate the press in an apparently paranoid pursuance of survival’. As I said, that was written in 1979. Cudlipp’s own history of the Mirror, ‘Publish and be damned!’ recounts how Churchill and his War Cabinet tried to silence and even suppress the Mirror during the war because the Mirror was an unusual and influential critic of his conduct of the struggle with Hitler. In fact, Johnson seems to have at least one big thing in common with his hero Churchill: both earned big bucks writing for newspapers and then when in the highest office saw the media as the enemy.

I was first a political editor in the 1990s, in the years before and after Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. In the dying days of John Major’s administration, when he was subject to constant criticism and revolt from his own MPs, the press had a clear advantage in its war with Downing Street.

Back then, Lobby hacks were unashamedly collusive. Late afternoon every day, the political editors of what were then known as the ‘white’ newspapers would go into a huddle to agree the latest attack line against Major. I was political editor of the pink ‘un, the FT, and sanctimoniously stood to one side. The press was a galloping herd that destroyed Major under its hooves. Which is why when Blair’s most devoted aide, Alistair Campbell, became Downing Street director of communications, he got his revenge in first – by explicitly treating most political journalists as the opposition, co-opting a small number of journalists he trusted as the recipients of useful insider briefings, and turning the daily scheduled briefing of the lobby into an exercise in ritual humiliation of the hacks. I had a volatile relationship with him, which veered from him once giving me a scoop on something of genuine significance – Blair’s overt courting of Rupert Murdoch – to him shouting across the press gallery floor ‘you cunt Peston, still working for the Tories’.

So an important question is whether the continued existence of a cadre of political lobby journalists – endowed with privileges by parliament, living cheek by jowl with each other in a rook’s nest at the top of the Palace of Westminster – helps or hinders trust in the media, in this era of institutional mistrust.

To be clear, there is no longer explicit collusion between hacks, and there is much less hole-and-corner secrecy. When I first became a lobby member in 1994, it was against the rules to even tell your girlfriend about the twice daily meetings with the prime minister’s spokesman, let alone discuss it in a public forum. And the room in which we interrogated the PM’s spokesman was also used by the lobby branch of the freemasons. It was an era where ministers divulged tidbits to their journalistic chums on the golf course. And where ministers, especially Tory ones, assumed that they could order a bottle of champagne on the FT’s account before I even arrived. None of this was healthy.

One of Campbell’s positive reforms was to end the veil of total secrecy around the daily lobby briefings. Whereas hitherto there had been no attribution of what we were told by the PM’s spokesman, and then for a brief few years attribution was to nebulous Downing Street sources, Campbell came up with the reportable phrase ‘the prime minister’s official spokesman says’ – which is the formulation that is still deployed today.

In theory, this puts the prime minister and government on the hook for whatever is conveyed in those lobby briefings. It is much harder than it was for an unscrupulous PM to deny what is said by his or her spokesman than was the case before the Campbell reform, but I wonder whether in this age of mistrust there is a need to go further – and livestream the briefings as they happen, to provide reassurance to the wider public that there aren’t insidious masonic practices extant?

There could be an insidious paradox of course about increasing the transparency of these lobby briefings. Which is that they could become devoid of materially interesting information, and become occasions for simply the transmission of diary schedules and the like. And this would deliver an incentive to ministers and officials to do more briefing of selected journalists offline and in secret, which could provide more rather than fewer opportunities for the government to fly kites and test out possible policies with impunity.

It is tricky and delicate setting the calibration in a relationship between media and government or power that forces government to take responsibility for its words and yet doesn’t turn off the taps of useful information. For any individual journalist, there is never a dilemma about publishing what a powerful person has said about what the PM or government is planning to do unless what is being said is palpable nonsense.

So I was surprised to find myself under attack, along with a small group of other journalists, a few months ago for publishing what Dominic Cummings had allegedly told us (I choose my words with care) about – as one example – how the PM hoped to get around the provisions of the Benn Act that made a no-deal Brexit at the end of October nigh on impossible. Peter Oborne accused me and a few others of being captured by Downing Street, in a long article for Open Democracy that attracted attention.

The background is that I had published a series of tweets on this and related issues, such as the prorogation of parliament, that I attributed to a senior Downing Street source rather than to a named individual. Now obviously under the normal convention, I can’t name that source, even today. But let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s contend that Dominic Cummings was the source and that he told me – for example – that the PM would rather break the law than sign a letter to Brussels asking for a Brexit delay, under the terms of the Benn Act, and that he would also send a side letter along with the main letter, which he hoped would render the Benn Act request null and void. Which I duly tweeted. You might say this was just a stunt – because in the event although the PM did everything I said he would, the EU ignored him, the issue never went to court (though some lawyers and MPs were nervous this would happen) and Brexit was delayed from the end of October to the end of January.

The question is whether journalists should ignore stunts, or rather – as I believe – we should put such posturing into the appropriate context so that it can be properly understood and scrutinised. As a journalist, I always want to name those I am quoting. It is frustrating when I can’t. But the tag ‘Downing Street source’ gives a big clue to whom I’ve been talking. As an ex-Chancellor said recently, it’s all clear from the comings and goings.

And in the end, the question is whether democratic debate is enhanced by knowing what Johnson and Cummings want to do, even when those ambitions are often more about shaping a campaigning narrative than about the ostensible target. I was completely explicit when broadcasting, blogging and tweeting that stunts like the PM not signing the Brexit-delay request were all about how an Old Etonian Balliol man, advised by the son of a landed squire, wanted to get Brexit done ‘for the people’ in the teeth of sabotage by metropolitan, privileged internationalists who wanted to stop Brexit.

Johnson as hero of the northern working class may be as counter-intuitive as Trump draining the swamp. But my goodness it worked. And just because the message was not properly understood and counter-acted by Johnson’s opponents is no real reason to shoot the messenger. Or at least that is what I beseech.

It is really not that long ago, within my working life, that prime ministers and governors of the Bank of England shared secrets with newspaper editors and proprietors for the express purpose of making it harder for those secrets to enter the public domain. Because once those editors and proprietors were sworn never to reveal those secrets, their hands were in the blood. In the 90s and noughties, I attended many of these cover-up lunches. We all felt special that we knew important stuff the rest of the country did not. But we were betraying our readers and knowingly colluding with the powerful. As far as I am aware, that kind of establishment ‘pas-devant-les-enfants’ stitch-up happens only rarely now.

So here is the painful paradox. In the era of Cudlipp’s and the Mirror’s pomp, when media owners and prime ministers colluded in cover-ups, public respect for the institutions that underpin our freedoms and way of life was strong. Unless we abandon democracy and adopt Chinese-style controls on what can be said on social media – and I am not suggesting that – we need news organisations whose primary function is to shine the brightest light on big government and big business, such that the rogues who are always drawn to power cannot misbehave with impunity.

Impartial broadcasters, as much as a robust press, are not so much the plumbing as the sewers of a healthy democracy. I say that in praise of sewers. Because just imagine a United Kingdom in which all those ‘S H one T’s’ who rise to the top aren’t eventually flushed away. There is a dignity to working in these sewers. It’s what keeps me going. Thank you.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Robert Peston is ITV's political editor. This text is taken from the 2020 Hugh Cudlipp journalism lecture, which he delivered at City University on Friday night.


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