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The Press Isn't The Enemy - Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn Need To Stop Treating Us Like We Are

11/05/2017 11:46

I'm proud to be a journalist. A free and independent press is one of the most vital institutions in any functioning democracy. It is our job to speak truth to power, hold leaders accountable, and relay to the electorate the stories that need to be told. Sometimes we get it wrong - we're only human - but I am confident that journalists throughout the country take our jobs, and our responsibilities, seriously.

This is why I'm so disheartened by the way Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are treating us this election. The Prime Minister is refusing to take spontaneous questions from journalists, instead relying on screened questions from pre-selected journalists handpicked by the Tory PR machine. Owen Bennett, the Deputy Political Editor of HuffPost UK, has pointed out that they're not even allowed follow-up questions.

According to the Press Gazette, even the Daily Mail and Sun have pointed out how problematic is that the Prime Minister is stage-managing every appearance. It offers no chance for an organic, natural exchange - which means that the only information the public is getting from her is rehearsed soundbites that give no real insight into her policies or abilities.

Not to be outdone, Jeremy Corbyn took revenge on a journalist for printing, verbatim, what he had said in an interview. Yesterday, news broke that Buzzfeed would be denied access to the Labour leader following publication of an interview with Jim Waterson in which Corbyn said he would stay on as party leader should he lose the election. This was quite the scoop for Waterson, who naturally ran with the story. Buzzfeed even made it the headline, because of everything else in the story is fairly run-of-the mill.

It's actually a flattering portrait of Corbyn, in which he comes off as affable, intelligent, and compassionate. He talks about being moved by the bullying of Bex Fowler on EastEnders and encourages people to read things that challenge their worldview. Yet Corbyn took exception with the fact that Waterson had quoted him, apparently unaware that in an interview that's precisely what happens.

The problem here is Theresa May is saying too little and Jeremy Corbyn has said too much. One is so afraid of messing up she won't speak with reporters, and the other is upset that a reporter wrote exactly what he said. It's farcical, but it's also frustrating.

I get that Theresa May is trying to play it extremely safe, and that many in the Corbyn camp feel the media is unfair to him. Both are understandable - May doesn't want a gaffe that could compromise her strong position in the polls and Corbyn has beaten dog syndrome after two years of relentless negative coverage. But in the end, none of this matters one iota when compared to the importance of a free and independent press able to question the country's leaders.

Journalists need access to politicians, especially the two most likely to become the next Prime Minister. We need to be able to ask the tough questions and report on the facts without fear of reprisal or punishment by the powers-that-be. It's disturbing to see the two main party leaders both treating the press with such contempt.

You need only look to America to see how quickly this can sour. Donald Trump vilifies the media almost daily, calling reputable news sources like CNN and the New York Times "fake news" because he doesn't like what they wrote about him - which is frequently simply quoting him word for word. Similarly, his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, routinely ignores questions from journalists he deems hostile, and at times has even invited only select outlets to a press briefing. This isn't how democracies function. A free press isn't a privilege, but rather a democratic right.

So Theresa May needs to start answering questions like a grownup and Jeremy Corbyn needs to stop throwing a temper tantrum because a journalist dares to print exactly what he said. If May is too afraid of taking questions, and Corbyn too naïve to pivot or stop talking, then how are either of them supposed to negotiate with the European Union? Trust me, Juncker and his colleagues are going to be a lot tougher than any journalist they're going to encounter on the campaign trail.

Journalists aren't the enemy here. We're just trying to do our job - one that is vital to British democracy. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn should start treating us like it.

This is basic stuff, and it's non-negotiable. Theresa May needs to start taking impromptu questions from reporters, and reporters should stop questioning her until she does. Put the pressure on her. In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn needs to allow Buzzfeed continued access on the campaign trail and accept that nobody tortured that answer out of him. Both need to take some responsibility for their own words and stop blaming reporters for their screw-ups.

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