When Sky News presenter Kay Burley ’empty-chaired’ Tory chairman James Cleverly, people were in uproar. Some praised her whilst other insisted the humiliation is complaint worthy. But ultimately, isn’t holding people accountable, politicians especially, the job of any journalist with integrity?
During the absent interview Burley lists off what she intended to ask the chairman about, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggesting he is smarter than the Grenfell Tower victims were for following the fire-service’s advice to stay in the building. She also wanted to ask him about ‘the failure to publish the report into Russian interference’ and ‘whether it was a good idea to defend billionaires at the start of the campaign’.
Her outrage was clear and rightly so. Cleverly insists that he was not booked in to appear on Sky News that day but Burley, in the interview emphatically states that No. 10 ‘absolutely reassured me … they would be doing this programme’. Whether this was a cowardly move by the chairman or an organisational failure on the part of No. 10, it is not acceptable. This is a general election campaign, and arguably one of the most important for generations. We are voting for our fourth PM in five years and there is a slew of new voters who weren’t enfranchised during the Brexit vote. This country wants and needs to hear these questions answered and the Conservatives have failed to make that happen. It brings into question their ability to govern their schedule, let alone the country.
The job of journalists and the media industry is partly to defend freedom of information. They should provide the facts in an unbiased way to allow people to make up their own minds, whilst still holding their own personal opinions. Politics, particularly during a campaign period, is often played like a game. Political parties create catchy slogans and eye-catching videos, they go on tours of the country in an attempt to increase popularity and show that they really do care. Journalists need to be the ones to throw stones at the glass house politicians often put themselves in to reveal what’s inside, what the real intentions and policies are, and then present these to the public. Kay Burley wasn’t being biased in making her point, she was defending the people’s right to know.
Honest journalism is integral to democracy. The media is a tool which is often used to disseminate lies in the era of Photoshop, doctored tapes and misleading angles. It is therefore essential for journalists to be able to ask straight questions and get straight answers. If politicians really value the people that they represent, then they will be honest, but it is also important for the directors and writers of the media to not facilitate their all too regular lies. Journalist Paul Mason recently tweeted a picture from the back of Boris Johnson’s launch event for the general election depicting a largely empty hall captioned:
‘Morning, media students: this is a shot of Boris Johnson’s launch event. Now watch last night’s TV news coverage of it and repeat after me, I must not manufacture consent …’
Inevitably, the TV news coverage shows Johnson centre stage with the rest of the visible background full of supportive audience members. Whilst this is not an outright lie it is certainly misleading, something every political party and politician is unfortunately guilty of at one time or another. As a media student myself I see the importance of presenting to the audience the facts. Film, entertainment radio and fictional television use the art of deception, but news coverage reflects real life, it is our way of getting past the door of No.10 into a world we only have limited access to. It shouldn’t lie to us; it also shouldn’t tell us how to feel. By presenting the reality of that largely empty room, viewers can then make their own assumptions and judgements with all the information available.
Ultimately, what Kay Burley did was show us the reality of that interview; James Cleverly was not there, for whatever reason. To pretend the interview was never happening would have been misleading. Burley didn’t create or manufacture the situation, it was just a fact and she presented that to her audience along with her questions, to allow them to make up their own minds.
She didn’t place a value judgement on the chairman personally, she simply allowed the facts to speak for themselves.