If you’re bored and you hate yourself, I heartily recommend spending an hour perusing the ‘Expert Activists’ archive on Guido Fawkes (the take-no-prisoners Westminster gossip blog who have, in the words of the Independent’s Jon Stone, reinterpreted “the guy who wanted to blow up parliament to the guy who would jump in front of a bullet to protect the prime minister from criticism”). Since 2012, the team at Guido has waged a campaign to unmask talking heads and expert authorities who appear on broadcast media as partisan activists. According to them, the failure to declare the political leanings of interviewees constitutes an unacceptable assault on transparency. They liken the matter to fund managers being asked whether they own stock when being interviewed about it: their participation in news media could affect an outcome that they have a material interest in.
It might come as a surprise then, that across seven pages of content only one story is about an undeclared Tory (a former Conservative adviser, who’d had the temerity to take a view on schools reopening that was at odds with Boris and the lads down in SW1). The fact that there exists a thriving rightwing think-tank ecology, which enjoys considerable access to both the government and national media, seems to be of little interest to Guido Fawkes. Despite the revolving door between Tufton and Downing Street, there are no mentions in the ‘Expert Activists’ archive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Adam Smith Institute, or Institute of Economic Affairs, whose network of thinkfluencers are as ubiquitous on the telly as Rita Ora. I’ve appeared alongside representatives from these organisations many times: rarely, if ever, are their political leanings mentioned.
Meanwhile, parents invited to share their opinion on the BBC are described as “far-left fanatics”. A headteacher criticising the government’s inadequate distribution of laptops to children from deprived households is a “Burgon Loyalist”, while the Observer’s open letter from scientists condemning Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules is rendered suspect due to the “anti-Tory or anti-Brexit” leanings of its signatories. Guido claimed victory when Sky News amended a chyron describing teacher Ellie Sharp from “Teacher” to “Teacher and Trade Union Activist” to finally “Teacher and Momentum Activist”. Guido is only worried about transparency when there’s somebody being critical of the government on the telly. There aren’t any articles in the ‘Expert Activist’ archives flagging concerns about a talking head offering a pro-government line.
It’s pretty clear from this selective outrage that Guido’s preferred narrative is one of reds-under-the-beds being in cahoots with a culturally Marxist media establishment, in order to pursue seditious and anticapitalist goals via a three-minute talking head spot on Sky News. But another implicit value judgement is that people who have an active political life – especially on the left – cannot be trusted to give an objective opinion based on their professional or lived experiences, because they are not neutral.
Indeed, Guido Fawkes is not alone in implying this through its coverage. During the 2019 general election campaign, journalists raced to identify a man filmed berating Boris Johnson at Whipps Cross hospital. Laura Kuennsbuerg beat her colleagues to the punch, tweeting in a reply to a BBC Politics video “Turns out the man who challenged the PM is also a Labour activist”. She further tweeted: “This is him here”, pointing her followers towards a tweet thread from Omar Salem – a Labour member whose baby daughter was critically ill and being treated in hospital at the time. The subtext in these tweets is that Salem, by virtue of expressing his politics through activity as well as mere opinion, cannot be considered an ‘ordinary’ member of the public.
But there are differences and occasional tensions between neutrality, balance and objectivity. You could claim to be neutral on the issue of whether it is possible to tell if someone’s a criminal by the shape of their forehead, but it wouldn’t make you objective. You might seek balance on a discussion around climate change by inviting a flat earther, but that’s not a neutral act. And someone who holds partisan political values, but happens to work as a teacher or a doctor or an ice cream man, can be an objective authority on whether government policy has been good for their sector, depending on what kind of evidence they present. It is certainly not reasonable to suggest, as the skew of Guido’s cumulative coverage does, that being critical of the government is inherently at odds with objectivity. None of this is particularly controversial – it’s probably the wettest liberal opinion I’ll ever commit to text.
You’d be forgiven for dismissing this article as just another part of the hot-take ouroboros: news media talking about news media talking about news media. But what’s going on with Guido’s activist crusade has little to do with who can be considered a credible expert voice in the national broadcast media, as its continuing employment of Tom Harwood could suggest. It’s a Gramscian campaign: the goal is to totally discredit the left’s ability to speak in the register of a common moral-social language. This is what you do when you’re trying to establish a hegemonic project – cut off your opponent’s claims to a shared common sense.
The right isn’t content to dominate the legislature and own most of the print media – it wants to redefine the boundaries of reasonable opinion in its favour as well. That’s why there’s such a concerted effort to make out that there’s something unusual about teachers and NHS workers being openly angry at the government which has presided over the decimation of the public sector, when in fact opinion polls and voting data would suggest that this is a majority view in those sectors. In order to be considered an authority, either by virtue of your expertise or your ordinariness, you must politically be an inert gas. The ideal subject seeks to change nothing, do nothing, and exists just to parp neutral opinion into the ether.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.