Last week Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons in the UK, criticised the media’s coverage of Brexit for its lack of patriotism. “It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit more patriotic,” she said while being quizzed on the BBC show Newsnight. “The country took a decision, this government is determined to deliver on that decision … we all need to pull together as a country.”
Her words are reminiscent of Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell’s request last year that the BBC be “unashamedly British” and revive its practice of playing the national anthem at the end of a day’s programming. Around the same time in Australia, senator Brian Burston of the right-wing One Nation party claimed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had suffered a “cultural Marxist takeover” and called for its replacement by a Patriotic Broadcasting Corporation, “whose explicit mission would be to represent the identity and interests of mainstream Australia” (read: white people).
These suggestions have all been met with their fair share of ridicule. The BBC answered Rosindell’s request by playing the Sex Pistol’s God Save The Queen, and TV presenter Robert Peston mockingly decorating the set of his show with union jack bunting in response to Leadsom’s call.
But there’s a serious side to the matter. The trouble with patriotism is that it’s inherently biased and therefore wholly unsuited to unbiased journalism; the moment a reporter lets their national favouritism creep into their work is the moment they lose their objectivity. So any calls for broadcasters to start waving flags should be treated with suspicion. It’s not an indulgence of cynicism to suggest that Leadsom’s hope for a more patriotic media is code for a media that is less critical of the government. She even gives the game away by saying an extra dose of national pride “would be helpful” – to which we have to ask: helpful to whom?
Emily Maitlis, who was interviewing Leadsom, picked up on this underlying threat. “Are you accusing me of being unpatriotic for questioning how negotiations are going, questioning whether you have the position of strength that she [prime minister Theresa May] said she wanted?” she replied. And Tim Farron, the outgoing leader of the Liberal Democrats party, called Leadsom’s suggestion “a sinister threat to the free media,” adding: “this isn’t a George Orwell novel.”
There are genuine grounds for concern here because this line of thinking endorsed by Leadsom, Burston and others has led to gross restrictions of political, civic and press freedoms in various countries around the world. In India, freedom of expression is being openly curtailed to avoid ‘anti-national’ utterances against the government. In Russia, president Vladimir Putin has warned people away from criticising the country’s past by demanding Russians “treat every period of our history with care.” And in China, the state-run Xinhua news agency even tells citizens how to be patriotic, criticising protesters as performing ‘a disservice to the spirit of devotion to the nation.’
To put it bluntly, the more patriotic the news becomes – the more it’s made to kowtow to the country and its leaders – the less room there is for real journalism. We see this in the broadcasters of such liberal bastions as Azerbaijan and North Korea, whose news coverage is undoubtedly patriotic but devoid of objective, incisive reporting. Take a look at the state media of Turkmenistan and try to find any examples of sharp, insightful journalism, let alone anything critical of the government.
Of course, patriotism needn’t be blind allegiance to the country and its leaders. As National Questions looked at in our previous post, there are plenty of examples of national pride fuelling dissent, protest and reform from people who feel their country isn’t living up to its own name. But there are plenty more examples of patriotism and patriots slipping into a muted respect and support for their country, regardless of who’s in charge and what they’re up to. The aim of those who endorse patriotic news coverage is to channel this respect and support towards the government – which they’re at pains to equate with the country – and bask in the patriotic immunity to criticism it provides. Those who still insist on speaking out can be quickly dismissed as unpatriotic, enemies of the people.
The truth is that many of us already have to endure patriotic broadcasting. It’s called propaganda.
Photo credit: Grm_wnr