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by Gemma Fraser
05 December 2019
Political spotlight: smears, lies and TV debates

General Election

Political spotlight: smears, lies and TV debates

The image of a melting ice sculpture taking the place of Boris Johnson during Channel 4’s climate change debate is perhaps the perfect visual metaphor for this general election campaign.

With less than a week to go until voters take to the polls, the Prime Minister has been characteristically absent when it has mattered most, whilst also ensuring he found the time to turn up to every photo stunt on offer, in true Johnson style-over-substance fashion.

His absence in the climate change debate has been a gift to critics, who have accused him of being a coward and not taking part simply because he wouldn’t be able to answer any of the questions.

Michael Gove offered to take Johnson’s place, but was not allowed as the debate was for party leaders only, and so instead, the Tories ended up threatening to review Channel 4’s broadcasting remit if they win the election.

Conservative spokesman Lee Cain said he had written to Ofcom demanding an investigation, claiming Channel 4 had breached the broadcasting code with “a provocative partisan stunt” that constituted “making a political opinion in its own right”. Ofcom rejected the claims.

But it is Johnson’s continued failure to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil that has caused the biggest controversy, especially as his opponents have taken a grilling from the veteran broadcaster as part of a special series in the run-up to the election.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Marr asked Johnson why he still hadn’t agreed to a time to sit down with Neil.

I have written many millions of words in my life as a journalist and I have genuinely never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody

Johnson replied that he was “perfectly happy to be interviewed by any interviewer called Andrew from the BBC”, which is exactly the type of nonsensical answer that we have come to expect of Johnson.

Keeping quiet is perhaps the best technique for the PM, however, particularly if his track record of penning offensive newspaper columns is anything to go by.

He was forced to justify some of his notorious comments – such as referring to gay men as “tank-topped bum boys” and saying Muslim women look like “letterboxes” – as he came under fire on Question Time.

After he was accused of contributing to the problem of “racist rhetoric” being “rife in this country”, Johnson said: “I have written many millions of words in my life as a journalist and I have genuinely never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody”, before going on to say that he defended his “right to speak out”.

He added: “If you go through all my articles with a fine toothcomb and pick out individual phrases, there’s no doubt that you can take out things that can be made to seem offensive.”

And just when you thought there were no marginalised groups left for Johnson to insult, an old Spectator column from 1995 was unearthed by Labour Party researchers in which the Prime Minister directed his hatred towards single mothers and their children.

In it, he said it was “outrageous that married couples should pay for the single mothers’ desire to procreate independently of men” and that their offspring are “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”, which is quite a bold statement coming from a man unable to say with any authority how many children he has.

Despite the criticism Johnson has received for not yet facing Neil, he has most likely dodged a bullet, especially as the other party leaders are still licking their wounds.

Jeremy Corbyn was asked not once, not twice, but four times by Neil whether he would like to apologise to the UK Jewish community after Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis criticised how the party deals with anti-Semitism claims.

But the Labour leader declined to apologise, instead saying: “What I’ll say is this: I am determined that our society is safe for people of all faiths.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also on the backfoot during her interview with Neil as he attacked the SNP’s health record with a series of damning statements, listing everything from failed waiting-time targets to the deaths at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

“You have called for legislation to protect the NHS from Donald Trump. Maybe the NHS needs legislation to protect it from Nicola Sturgeon,” Neil declared, delivering a body blow to the First Minister.

Despite this bruising interview, Sturgeon was declared as the “most accomplished debater” by The Guardian in its post-ITV election debate analysis, saying she was “relaxed and in control”.

It said: “She got one of the rare laughs from the audience as she icily cut into a question from Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, to Richard Burgon, the Labour representative, asking whether he thought a better deal could be negotiated than remaining in the EU. ‘No,’ Sturgeon said. ‘No. There is no deal better than staying in the EU.’”

Meanwhile, the discovery of documents which cast further doubt on Johnson’s claim that the NHS is “not on the table” in UK and US trade talks gave Labour a key attack line in the election campaign.

The official papers – released by the Labour Party – reveal the two countries have repeatedly discussed dismantling protections that keep NHS drug prices down, which could potentially lead to billions of pounds a year in extra costs for the NHS.

Labour claims this is proof the Tories plan to sell-off the NHS, but Johnson, of course, describes the claims as “total nonsense”.

But while the row rumbles on, has the mere prospect of selling off the NHS been damaging to the Tories?

A YouGov survey revealed Johnson was on course for a 68-seat majority by taking seats in Labour’s heartlands.

The constituency-by-constituency multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) model – which correctly predicted a hung parliament ten days before the 2017 general election – showed the Tories picking up 44 seats from Labour, with Corbyn’s party on track to lose 51 seats overall.

However, a series of new surveys indicate Labour has cut the Tory poll lead, steadily narrowing the gap.

This comes after Johnson was accused of twisting the facts of the London Bridge terror attack to turn it into an election issue as he tried to blame Labour for the release of the terrorist who killed Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones.

Merritt’s father, David, called for his son’s murder not to be exploited for political gain, tweeting: “Don’t use my son’s death, and his and his colleagues’ photos – to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.”

On the other end of the scale, the Lib Dems have also come under fire for apparently attempting to mislead voters through the publication of a party newspaper with a striking similarity to the Basingstoke Gazette.

The Mid Hampshire Gazette was produced in support of the Lib Dems’ candidate for Winchester, Paula Ferguson, and led to a formal complaint being made by publisher Newsquest to the Lib Dems and the Electoral Commission.

Basingstoke Gazette editor Katie French told the Press Gazette: “If it was called the Lib Dem Gazette it would be a different story, but the fact they’ve used a fake geographical name is very disappointing and very disingenuous and I think both readers and voters deserve better.”

But Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson backed her party’s tactics, saying the use of such campaign newspapers was “as old as the hills”.

“Doing campaign newspapers is not exactly a new campaign tactic, nor one that is only done by the Liberal Democrats.”

With candidates doing such a good job of thwarting their own success, perhaps parties needn’t concern themselves too much with smear campaigns

While the Lib Dems’ newspaper has caused an industry storm, at least Swinson can take comfort in the fact she hasn’t – so far – had to drop any candidates as the Tories, Labour and the SNP all have.

Last week, the SNP became the latest party to withdraw support for a candidate after anti-Semitism claims were made against Neale Hanvey, who was a candidate for key target seat Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Hanvey shared a post on Facebook in 2016 which included an image of billionaire George Soros as a puppet master controlling world leaders, and in another post, he drew parallels between the treatment of Palestinians and the “unconscionable treatment” of Jews in World War Two.

This came after Labour withdrew its support for Falkirk candidate Safia  Ali, who was also accused of anti-Semitic posts on Facebook.

And the Scottish Conservatives suspended their Glasgow Central candidate, Flora Scarabello, after she was accused of using “anti-Muslim language”, as well as their candidate for Aberdeen North, Ryan Houghton, over allegations he had made anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic comments seven years previously.

With candidates doing such a good job of thwarting their own success, perhaps parties needn’t concern themselves too much with smear campaigns and instead invest their time and efforts into their policies and winning voters’ waning trust.

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