Should we refrain from criticism of government during serious crisis?
Something went viral last week. It was a message from an unknown everyman or woman who felt compelled to speak for Britain. It started ‘A message to all our Negative UK Press…’
“…We do not want or need blame. We do not want constant criticism of our government who are doing their very best…But time and again we see our negative press trying to trip up our politicians instead of asking questions that will provide positive and reassuring answers for all of us.”
Pinging around social media, it struck a chord with many. But like so much of what is easily passed on these days we must ask, is it healthy?
The writer or writers (it is unsigned) are asking us to do two things. They are calling for a temporary suspension of our judgement of right and wrong in the interests of national unity, or perhaps more accurately, our judgement of competency or incompetency. And they are asking journalists to alter their professionalism to let reassurance flow directly from government to the public. Like a calming placebo.
National unity is important. It is the part of a political culture that gives or hinders a government’s ability to govern beyond policy, budgets and laws. Without some things that everyone can agree on, political culture falls apart. If political culture falls apart then citizens start seeing each other as something less than human, like enemies, saboteurs or traitors. It also creates an opportunity for demagogues to make easy promises to ‘restore,’ ‘rebirth,’ ‘reawaken’ or ‘reconquer’ the nation. Hannah Arendt summarises this as:
“occasion for indulgence in lofty speculations about Power and State as though they were something beyond human reach.”
And in a disaster, like right now, it is even more important that a national effort should be expected.
But go too far and the viral message asks us to assume not just that government is doing its best, but that its best could not be improved through asking questions. It reinforces the inward-looking aspect of nationalism, especially the nationalism of an island, that assumes there is nothing we could learn by investigating other places with better pandemic outcomes than us.
Go too far also and the freedom of a sceptical press gets, not censored but, uncompetitive, unconfident, fat and flabby. Any flick through modern history shows moments of disaster are often a forming experience for journalism. Perhaps the most important part of political culture, the freedom of a sceptical press, is the last thing separating us from turning a temporary crisis into a permanent future historical nightmare.
This attitude connects to the ‘shut up and let it happen’ school of conversation that cut deep into our culture during the Brexit crisis. It is the first, long-term result of our conversation’s degeneration from “We should pay more taxes for better public services. Agree or Disagree” to “Brexit means Brexit.” The thing exists. Toe the line. You shouldn’t argue. You cannot argue.
This fresh, throbbing cultural wound goes deeper because of the constant comparisons of the pandemic with a war. And, in Britain, there’s only one war permitted to influence our worldview.
Almost nobody alive today lived through the second world war and the few who did were mostly children. As it fades in memory it grows as a cartoon. If we are looking for historical parallels that demonstrate the competence of a nation then the Suez Crisis is sixteen years more relevant than Britain’s finest hour. We also choose to forget the notable lessons of the Good Friday Agreement and the invasion of Iraq in favour of pretending everything is always exactly like 1940. This is compounded by most of us being shaped in some way by Margaret Thatcher who viewed everything through this same lens.
If we insist on making historical comparisons, we should at least do it accurately. From becoming Prime Minister in 1940 to the end of the war in 1945, Winston Churchill faced five votes of no confidence in his government which is extraordinary. His popularity throughout the war is unprecedented to 21st Century eyes. But his Gallup approval rating of 88% in July 1940 had dropped ten percentage points by 1942. In particular, and with their own reasons, The Daily Mirror and The Times explicitly criticised the Prime Minister because of his actions to suppress a Communist uprising in Greece over Christmas 1944 and January 1945 as well as on other issues such as the wisdom of the Prime Minister combining the job with being Minister of Defence.
So having remembered the reality of our own history — that negativity and criticism did us no harm then — we should reject calls for journalists to change their behaviour. It would elevate our politicians to a level of un-scrutiny never seen and furnish them in the dangerous space ‘above politics.’ We would arrive at the same place Hannah Arendt warns, this time because of too much national unity and not enough questions. It is a space even Winston Churchill was not privileged enough to go.
Let this be a message to all the professional journalists out there. Be positive, be negative. But most importantly be good at your jobs and then, one day, the nation might thank you for that. Until then, we will bandage our wounds from the culture war.