15th July 2021
When the question came, it was superb.
Take a moment to listen to this question to the prime minister from the Sky political editor Beth Rigby – and hold on to hear her follow-up.
Sky's @BethRigby asks Boris Johnson if he and his ministers have 'stoked division' and questions if his 'own record undermines his image as a unifier'.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) July 15, 2021
As a question from a political journalist to a prime minister, the question could not be bettered – in form, content, or delivery.
Superb – but not exceptional.
The fact is that there are some outstanding journalists – in the United Kingdom and the United States – capable of asking excellent questions.
In the United States even before the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, many of his material and manifest lies, faults and failures were already in the public domain – thanks in part to diligent investigative journalism.
But it did not matter.
A sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Trump anyway for him to win the electoral college, if not the popular vote.
Similarly, sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Boris Johnson and his governing party to win the general election in 2019, if not the popular vote.
And Johnson’s material and manifest lies, faults and failures were also in the public domain.
It did not matter.
It is a public good – that is a good that does not need any further justification – that journalists as brilliant as Rigby and others ask these questions.
But it is not enough.
How do politicians get away with it?
Here we must turn to the speech that the prime minister gave before the press conference.
The speech was a policy speech – not a political speech to a party conference or a rally.
The speech was also a formal speech as prime minister, with the text formally published on the government’s official website.
And it was perhaps the worst formal policy speech ever given by a prime minister.
Look at the state of this:
Here is just one sentence:
There are prisoners in Belmarsh with shorter sentences.
The speech is gibberish, for sentence-after-sentence and paragraph-after-paragraph.
And even if you want to give the benefit of the doubt – as not even lawyers and legal commentators speak as precisely as they write – this is not an unofficial transcript but the version approved for formal publication on the official government website.
And regardless of form, there is not a single concrete policy proposal in the speech.
Just words, words, words.
How does he get away with it?
We have a juxtaposition, a tension – if not a contradiction – in our political and media affairs, and it has implications for all policy-making and law-making.
We may well have first-rate media questions – but we also have low-level political accountability.
Because politicians with executive power – at least in the United Kingdom – rarely have to be publicly accountable when it can really matter.
A prime minister can brush off a journalist’s question.
A prime minister can brush off the leader of the opposition.
A prime minister with a majority, and ministers generally, are not publicly accountable to anything in any meaningful way for their policy-making and law-making.
Even general elections are not a real check or a balance – as the government reneging on manifesto commitments show.
There is, of course, political accountability to their own back-benchers – but that is rarely in respect of specific policies or laws, and that accountability is informal and often hidden in private meetings and communications.
That is not public accountability.
And so we have the concurrent spectacle of the best of questions and the worst of speeches, and there is little or nothing anybody can do to make the situation any different.
Thank you for reading.
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