Of Boris and the Beeb

A view from this side of the pond.

One of today's viral clips that went around the twitternets involved an angry and distraught father confronting British Prime Minister Boris Andnatasha Johnson over the state of the NHS and his gall for showing up for a photo op.

When the father calls it a "press opportunity", Boris insists that there's no press present... a moment that is captured for us to see by the cameras of the BBC, which the man points to.

Here in the US, this moment feels eerily similar. We've watched Trump on the campaign trail point to a network's camera and insist he watched them turn it off, because "they don't want you to see this" or "they don't like" what he's saying. We've watched it happen as broadcast on the very network he singles out, because their camera was on the whole time.

It's one of those things where it's pretty easy to watch it and go, "How can this possibly work? How can he get away with it? Why do the networks put up with it? How can anyone be fooled?"

Well, the last question is the easiest. It's very easy to fool anyone if they actively participate in the foolery. Trump's audience isn't there to evaluate what he has to say or to give his ideas a fair hearing. They don't judge him to be a truthteller because he tells the truth -- they judge what he says, whatever he says, to be true because they've decided he's a truthteller.

As for why networks put up with it? There's the argument that Trump is ratings gold and the idea that as a presidential candidate he was newsworthy, but I think an important factor in the decision making was the fear that if a network didn't show up at all it would prove him right, so instead of pointing at their cameras and lying about them not covering his statements, he could point to the empty spot in the press pen and say, "They didn't show up because they didn't like when I pointed out their tricks."

In short, it was about not handing him ammunition... which misses the fact that even when they didn't hand him any, it didn't stop him from taking the same shots. You can't withhold ammo from a munitions factory. It just doesn't work.

The Boris Johnson episode put me in mind of all this, but the dynamics are a little different. A few people have pointed out that he probably was neither lying in his mind nor being oblivious because this event was not actually open-open to the press. The BBC was there with Boris -- representatives from the local press have noted they were excluded. Anyone who was there, was there because the conservative government thought they would make them look good. 

So, it wasn't press, it was... stenography.

The BBC is, in theory, not exactly a government agency (it's a statutory corporation funded and overseen by the government, sometimes with more or less indirection) and BBC News is, in theory, politically independent, but -- and again, this is something that we in the states are increasingly familiar with -- there's some reason to be dubious about the leash the Tories keep on it.

Here's BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, dropping a shocking revelation that completely changes everything:

So, the father fed up with the NHS isn't a huge fan of conservatives, it turns out.

The remark is being much-reviled about progressive Twitter circles, but I'm seeing conservative Twitter rank-and-file running wild with it. They know when they're being handed a line.

Even though the dynamics are so different in the US and UK, there is a common thread here and that is the notion of "working the refs". In the US, we have a saying "Only Nixon could go to China," which is these days being more accurately summed up as "It's Okay If You're A Republican", or "Rules as for Democrats."

The original saying referred to how Nixon was able to broker a bit of detente with China, something that would have been impossible for any of his opponents. Some conservatives and moderates say this as if it's high praise for Nixon as a master statesman, and not a side effect of the fact that he himself along with his cronies and enablers would have destroyed any liberal who attempted the exact things he did. Liberals didn't call him a commie pinko traitor for pursuing diplomacy and wouldn't have been accorded the rhetorical credibility to sell it if they had tried it, so he was able to do it. 

Nixon going to China is a very specific example of an ongoing general phenomenon, whereby conservatives do whatever needs doing from their point of view, whatever they can get away with, whatever seems advantageous in the moment... and excoriate their opponents for doing the same things. 

Those who lionize Nixon will say that he built up his credibility and that's why he could go to China -- but the Republican legacy of being "tough on commies" is a legacy of lies, witch hunts, Christofascism, union busting, and censorship. A Republican stood on the floor of Congress and waved his grocery list, swearing it was a list of Communist infiltrators in the state department. This gives the Republicans credibility in international dealings?

Conservatives are able to set the terms of their own narrative because they lie so ostentatiously and hyperbolically that "neutral observers" tend to figure the truth is maybe somewhere in the middle, and if it's not, then it's probably not worth the headache of calling them all the way out. So even people who are fully aware that Joseph McCarthy was lying for political gain are quick to assume that his motivations weren't entirely corrupt, which makes him and his spiritual descendants tough on Communism.

You might recognize this as the same technique Donald Trump used to lie his way onto the first Forbes 400 list: if he said he owned a building or project outright, the list compilers knew he was lying but assumed he must have a substantial stake in it to try to pass it off as his own asset, so they split the difference. In reality, he was listing things that belonged 100% to his father.

He still does this to this day, by the way. The point of licensing his name to buildings around the world isn't just the money, or he wouldn't care when people removed it after already having paid him. Instead, he sues them for breach of contract when they try to take his name down. In a straightforward sense, he sold the rights to his name and it's no skin off his back if the don't use it. But his business model depends on him being able to point to these buildings all over the world with his name on them, as signs of how successful a developer he is.

So to bring this back around to Boris and the Beeb, and Ms. Kuenssberg's tweet: one of the refrains that greeted it was "So are only other conservatives allowed to criticize him?"

In point of fact, yes. That's exactly what she means. Just as Only Nixon Could Go To China, only conservatives have the credibility to confront other conservatives. Anybody else doing it is a partisan hack who is politicizing the situation, whatever situation, for crass reasons. They'll complain to the media (who will report their complaints in a "fair and balanced" way), even about the media. They've had decades to convince everyone that the media is biased against them, even as they control huge swathes of it directly and have most of the rest agreeing to meet them halfway even when they're all the way dishonest. 

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