Robert Peston. Credit: Alex Broadway/Getty

April 3, 2020   5 mins

We live in the age of the omniscient anchor. Not that the news-frontmen and women are really omniscient, of course, but in Britain and (even more so) in America there is a type of presenter who is held up — and certainly held themselves up — as though the world and everything in it was really rather simple. All answers had one source — and that source is them.

Blessed with the power to dilate at length on the solutions to all problems, when they bother to ask a question you can tell by the narrowing of the eyes that they already knew the answer and are only asking the in the hope that the interrogee does not.

How blessed we were to have such beings. And how much the current crisis has exposed them.

Take Cathy Newman. During the present crisis the Channel 4 anchor has continued to try her usual journalistic schtick in a situation with no appetite for it. Seeking to remain rude as well as relevant, she tweeted following a Downing Street press conference in the middle of last month that “Today all the talk from the amigos is about ramping up testing.”

I suppose it is fine to use a derogatory and demeaning name for the Prime Minister if you really must, but why deride the country’s two leading experts on the virus in the same way?

What had these medical experts done that allowed Newman to dismiss them in such a silly and inaccurate manner? And weren’t people like Newman precisely the sort who spent recent years pretending that Michael Gove once said that this country had “had enough of experts” and that this unfinished sentence was the vital lens through which one might understand the ignorance and absurdity of the masses. I digress — as did Newman, who went on: “A few days ago it was all about limiting it to those already ill. Big change.”

Of course, what Newman was doing here is what a large number of journalists – most prominently Piers Morgan – have been trying to do since the corona pandemic began, which is to continue playing the same games that the media has become obsessed with in recent years.

Political games of their own invention. Not just ‘gotcha’ journalism, but a journalism which has invented a set of tropes to keep any story running for as long as possible. Among the most popular is the ‘U-turn’. It is impossible to chart precisely when the U-turn became such a common journalistic device, or when this morally-neutral action became a synonym for something disgraceful.

As all drivers will know, a U-turn is in fact a handy little manoeuvre. When driving down a road at the end of which you see a wall there are a couple of options before you. One might (a) continue driving towards the wall, proud that you have not altered your initial principles or compromised yourself in any way, or (b) One might perform a U-turn and continue on with the day.

So it is with governments. If, in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis the government decides — based on the latest expert advice — that it should change its thinking, then this is not necessarily some great scandal, even if some redundant parts of the media continue to shout ‘Gotcha!’ as they spot the ‘U-turn’.

Others continue to pretend that there is no situation so complex that they cannot land on the nub of the matter in super-quick time. Of all the people left exposed for having played this game none has been shown up so badly as Robert Peston.

Ordinarily Peston is to be found on ITV, presenting a show whose viewers are generally treated to some second or third-rate figure like Emily Thornberry attempting to demonstrate why they should be Prime Minister. It is unwatchable stuff, even for political obsessives.

Well-remunerated though the job may be, however, there is a price to pay for fronting these programmes. One is the feeling that since you are up there you must be up there for a reason, and that although you don’t always feel like you know much you must do — or you wouldn’t be up there, would you?

I know a journalist who was once introduced by accident as an ‘aviation expert’ on a programme and had that momentary flicker “Well if I’m being introduced as an aviation expert then I must in fact be an aviation expert.”

Since the beginning of this crisis Peston has been attempting, less successfully than Piers Morgan it must be said, to show himself to be the one who still knows the crucial questions to ask. No area of oversight or ignorance can ever be conceded or otherwise admitted to. Why does Britain do less testing than Germany? Why does [insert country name] have better provisions than [insert other country name]? On and on it goes, not to get to any truth but to play the old game that journalists of Peston’s generation and ilk have been playing for years.

Deprived of any story that would allow them to be Bernstein and Woodward, they had to make do instead with showing that they knew more than, say, Chris Grayling and could by constant interruption expose such a person as not being sufficiently on top of their brief.

What is so beautiful about Peston’s interview this week with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam is that even when he is shown up Peston cannot shut up. Because his primary goal is to ensure that he does not come out of it looking bad, or as though he doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Each time he opens his mouth it is clear once again that he is trying to ‘gotcha’ the Deputy Chief Medical Officer based on information that he, Peston, has clearly crammed up on only minutes earlier.

Even now, after the interview has gone viral, Peston is trying to mop up on social media in a way that is positively Newman-esque — by pretending that he is a victim. “I was slightly taken aback at the ferocity of the Deputy Chief Medical Officer’s response,” he declared.

People can judge for themselves whether van Tam was ferocious or just calm and patient, but the ego will not let it go, and so he continued: “Just to be clear, I do understand the difference between an antibody and an antigen test. What I wanted to gauge was whether this rapid antibody test could help solve the problem of insufficient PCR (antigen) testing capacity. This was not an unreasonable line of inquiry, in…”

And on he went.

It is tempting to say that this is an unprecedented situation and so the media is doing the best it can — but that isn’t the case. Instead the same style of journalism has been on display and been revealed to be vapid.

After the killing of Qassem Soleimani in January there was a noisy if less virulent outbreak of the same problem. Presenters and pundits who had barely if ever heard of the Iranian general filled the airwaves with their golden insights.

“Was this a Franz Ferdinand moment?” was the sort of ‘clever’ question they asked repeatedly. No it clearly wasn’t, but the charade carried on regardless, with the presumption that nobody would remember next week, and besides which, something else would come along soon.

As indeed it has.

Of course there is, and must be, a place in every society for people asking awkward questions. But asking awkward, difficult questions is a different thing from asking the wrong questions, or asking questions which are ill-informed. And perhaps, during an epidemic unprecedented in our lifetimes, and in which very difficult decisions must be made based on highly complex scientific calculations, that kind of gotcha journalism is no longer a public service but a public nuisance.

Journalism is at a difficult enough juncture, and there are many people in the trade who know a great deal. But the whole profession would be enormously helped if its most prominent representatives stopped giving off the impression of thinking that the primary problem with real experts is that they don’t listen to journalists enough.


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.