British journalists are being “played like an instrument” when they publish stories based on Government leaks and anonymous sources, a prominent media academic has claimed.
The comment from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism director Rasmus Nielsen, was one of many criticising the British press made by a panel of foreign journalists at a conference on Brexit and the Media today.
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Nielsen was asked how the media should report on leaks as debate rages among journalists over whether Number 10 officials should be allowed to brief anonymously to the press.
He gave the example that the UK press has recently been reporting as if Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a Brexit deal ready to go, even though he said “currently there is no proposal as recognisable from Brussels’ point of view”.
Nielsen (pictured, centre) said the “British press is being played like an instrument and it doesn’t care.
“It’s very hard for me to accept that British journalists don’t understand what’s going on. Of course they do.
“They are smart, hardworking people who care about this.”
Stefanie Bolzen (pictured, left), London-based correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt, agreed, saying that she was previously “in awe” of the UK media.
During her time as a correspondent in Brussels, she said she viewed UK journalists as sharp, quick and well-informed during briefings.
“I now often find myself shouting at the radio thinking why don’t you ask about the substance, you let them get away with it so often,” she said.
“So much of what MPs say here is without substance and it isn’t questioned.”
She later added: “I think they [journalists] just get carried away with another leak or another non-paper that just has no substance and you sometimes think ‘stop, take a step away and look at the whole picture’. That’s absolutely nothing.
“It feels like a constant hot air circle where if you wake up the next morning you are where you were the day before.”
Bolzen referenced the reported call between Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that took place on Tuesday morning.
Merkel has refused to comment on what was said during the call, but Downing Street has been briefing that she told the PM a Brexit deal is now “overwhelmingly likely”.
Bolzen said: “The idea you would just report on this call without any proof and then the Germans aren’t commenting on it because it’s true – wow.”
On the previous panel, Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, said journalists ought to tell Number 10 to speak on the record if they want their words reported, pointing to Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ “midnight ravings”.
She said: “I think journalists have been co-opted into being useful idiots for Number 10.”
Nielsen suggested that one option for countering the current way of reporting on Brexit in the UK is for British editors to commission more pieces from European media.
But, the foreign correspondents present criticised the amount of access they are given to UK Government departments – with two saying they are currently battling to gain lobby accreditation.
London-based Le Monde correspondent Eric Albert (pictured, right) said he and his colleagues have been “struggling” to gain access but that it has improved in the past year or two.
New York Times London bureau chief Mark Lander said this is a “major problem for the lack of understanding” on Brexit.
When there is no access, foreign journalists only have two options, he said.
These are to either “deflect to the local media which in this case is the British press with all the problems that entails”, or write “less informed” stories with more speculation, which he pointed out is not an ideal way to cover a major story like Brexit.