When President Trump refused to take a question from a CNN reporter at the Chequers press conference last week, I imagine a lot of British viewers thought —as Theresa May clearly did — that he was being graceless, capricious and anti-freedom of speech.
But I think we’re in danger of underestimating the extent to which the media landscape has changed in the past few years. Gone are the days — if they ever existed — when political interviewers were dispassionate seekers-after-truth on a mission to get the best out of their subjects. Now, it’s mostly activism-driven, the aim being to advance your preferred narrative while showing up your ideological opponents in as unflattering a light as possible. When someone sincerely believes you are a shit and their only purpose is to persuade everyone else that you’re a shit, why would you choose to grant them that opportunity?
Well, you wouldn’t. Unless, perhaps, you sensed a chance to exploit their arrogance and complacency in order horribly to humiliate them. This is what happened when Channel 4’s Matt Frei attempted to ambush Sebastian Gorka the other day. Because Gorka is a former advisor to Trump, Frei had rather too glibly assumed — as those in the liberal London media bubble do — that anyone with such deplorable and vulgar associations must a) be very thick and b) exult so shamelessly in his manifest evil that he wouldn’t remotely mind being poked with a stick for ten minutes while being hectored on how thoroughly debased his cause was.
Gorka wasn’t having it. First, he was better informed than Frei — as he demonstrated to withering effect when Frei cited ‘12 named Russian agents’ who had just been indicted for ‘hacking into the DNC’ and trying to swing the elections for Trump. If that googly had been bowled at me, I’m not sure I would have known what to say: on the surface it sounds quite damning. But Gorka did know. ‘Clearly you haven’t read the indictment. Do some homework, please!’ he growled at Frei, who was evidently discomfited because his voice rose several octaves, and he began punctuating every sentence with lots of ‘you knows’.
Second, Gorka is a street brawler who has no qualms about hitting back twice as hard. ‘Newsflash: there’s gambling going on in this casino and I’m shocked!’ he sneered at one point, in mockery of Frei’s faux-priggishness. ‘What you’re doing here is literally the definition of fake news,’ he said at another. I found it all so exquisitely pleasurable I could hardly bear to keep watching more than a dozen times. It was like a rerun of that frightful drubbing that Jordan Peterson gave a few months back to another Channel 4 news presenter, Cathy Newman.
Obviously, if you find Trump and Gorka ghastly and you happen to identify with Channel 4 News’s impeccably woke political agenda then you won’t be amused. But that is rather my point. Channel 4 doesn’t do ‘news’ in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s pure propaganda, given the barest fig leaf of entirely undeserved credibility because Channel 4 is still notionally a tax payer-owned public service broadcaster.
Not, of course, that the BBC is any better — with one honourable exception: the Daily/Sunday Politics stable and its late-night version, This Week. What is it that makes these shows so special, so different? Well, there’s no way of saying this without blowing smoke up my big boss’s kilt, but I’m afraid it’s true that a lot of it is down to the presenter Andrew Neil. He’s tough, he’s fair, he has a sense of humour — and he sets the tone.
Probably all politics show hosts think they have these qualities, but they just don’t. David Dimbleby, for example: he’s good but he’s a BBC man through and through, which is to say that if you’re anywhere to the right of acceptable woolly Europhile centrism, he’ll cut you off mid-flow so as to give more space to Diane Abbott. Neil is, almost literally, the only BBC man fully devoid of liberal bias. He’s terrifying to be on the wrong end of but when he goes for you, you know it’s because of the quality of the argument rather than because he disagrees with your politics. Jo Coburn and the rest of the Daily Politics team have picked up on this, with the result that their shows are a pleasure to do, whichever side of the debate you’re on.
So no wonder the BBC has decided to cancel the Daily and Sunday Politics. I mean, when something is working as well as that why wouldn’t you? The pathetic excuse being proffered is that it wants to replace them with shows more appealing to younger viewers. The kind, presumably, whose idea of sophisticated political debate is some mouthy girl called Ash boasting to Piers Morgan on breakfast TV: ‘I’m a communist, you idiot.’ Yeah, you go girl! The only problem with communism is that it has never been tried properly, etc. I despair.