Former Theresa May comms director takes aim at ‘narcissistic’ political journalists as he rows with Gina Miller over Brexit

Written by Caroline Frost on 6 November 2019 in Diary

Healing The Nation? Not So Easy: Robbie Gibb and Gina Miller clash over press agendas, narcissistic journalists and coming clean over Brexit.

Fur didn’t completely fly, but feathers were distinctly ruffled during what was meant to be a ‘Healing the Nation’ session at a TV industry event on Tuesday. 

It seems wounds are not yet healed for some. Sir Robbie Gibb, formerly head of BBC News and more recently Theresa May’s comms director in Downing Street, went into battle not once but twice in less than an hour as he argued with both Sky News chief Cristina Nicolotti Squires and legal campaigner Gina Miller during a TV industry conference hosted by Freeview, as their panel debated how best to heal the nation’s political and social wounds caused by Brexit.

It was Squires who first set him off, with her explanation of why her department has this week ditched the tag ‘Sky sources’ to attribute any kind of anonymous political story. She said, “Transparency is needed even more than ever before, I think we have unprecedented levels of distrust I media and politicians and shining a light as much as we can on how we tell our stories is incredibly important. Sky Sources is such a big umbrella, it can mean my mum or someone down the supermarket, so we felt we wanted to be more transparent about who is giving us stories.”

The move comes after the influence of anonymous sources was highlighted by a text sent from Downing Street to a Spectator journalist, outlining what appeared to be government policy, only for Cabinet minister Grant Shapps to go on the radio the following day and refuse to engage with the subject.  

But Gibb, while welcoming the move, replied there were far bigger problems with political coverage than sources, and complained instead about the effect of Twitter on the behaviour of political interviewers and reporters. 

“Back in the day, the role of reporter and presenter was to act as an agent for viewers at home, wanting to know what’s going on,” he reflected. “What’s happening now is that the incentives are ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’, which totally distorts the type of interview which is done. 

“It’s the car-crash interview, it’s the ‘I really show it to them’ line. Everybody in journalism is searching for a top line, a hook, too much about what is going wrong, not what is going on. The rewards for journalists and reporters are retweets, likes and hat tips from other reporters.”

Squires defended Sky’s social media guidelines as requiring her journalists to follow the same principles of accuracy and rigour as in their broadcasting, saying, “Having those principles are very helpful, I don’t find them constricting.”

"Self-indulgent and narcissistic"

However, Gibb also questioned broadcasters and newspaper editors’ needs to drive a news agenda, suggesting instead they “get back in their box”. 

He went further, “Things are happening in the country and it’s up to broadcasters and newspaper journalists to go and find out what is happening and avoid appearing like they have agendas.” 

And one particular bee in his bonnet – reporters seeking scoops, it transpired. “One journalist getting a news line 30 minutes before another one? It’s completely self-indulgent and narcissistic on behalf of the individual journalist. 

“At Number 10 with a timed press release, you’d get journalists phoning up five minutes before asking what’s in it. To what purpose? The only purpose is so that journalist can tweet it out five minutes, nothing to do with audiences, all to do with the vanity of that individual journalist. 

“Most so-called regional journalism is glorified embargo-breaking. The public wants to know what is going on, and they are fed up with journalists’ views on Twitter. They want to know what is going on, and they are not being served.”

And that was BEFORE Gina Miller really set him off. 

The businesswoman, famous for taking the government to court, challenging its authority to implement Brexit without parliamentary approval, complained that she was constantly labelled as a ‘Remainer’ in all the news coverage of her court cases and other campaigns.

She said, “You don’t need to put a label on people. I’ve been a campaigner for 30 years. People don’t say I’m a transparency campaigner, they say I’m an anti-Brexit campaigner, but actually I’m not, but that’s a label that’s always there. It’s constant. 

“What did taking the government to court have to do with how I voted in the referendum?

She asked anyone to justify why taking the government to court could be considered anti-Brexit, but it was clear Gibb didn’t believe a word of it. 

“You put the label (‘Remainer’) where it’s relevant to the debate,” he told her. “Your motivation to do it is because you want to stop Brexit. You will deny it, but everyone knows. When have you done anything in relation to this that is not about stopping Brexit? Why don’t you just come clean?”

Dominic Cummings

It was left to fellow panellist James Graham, screenwriter of TV drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ - which detailed the pre-referendum campaign on both sides - to pour some calming oil on the session and call for greater understanding of opposing points of view. 

“What we fundamentally lack the most of in our current political discourse is empathy, a desire to walk in the footsteps of people we might disagree with. When you’re watching a TV drama, you’re asking an audience to walk through the motivations, objectives, weaknesses and strengths of these people as human beings, try and understand what they’re trying to achieve.”

He didn’t fail to defend his own flank, though. Asked to defend the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Dominic Cummings and therefore helping to build the myth of the latter as some sort of maverick outsider genius, Graham argued that he was just presenting his points of view:

“For whatever reason, despite blocking journalistic attempts to interview him, he was willing to invite a playwright into his house, and I heard his points of view. Presenting them in a humane and sympathetic way through a famous actor is not necessarily endorsing those points of view, but it is asking a majority liberal metropolitan audience to take a breath and ask what did he think he was doing. 

“Most audience members are incredibly intelligent. They watch The Crown and know that Claire Foy is not the Queen, they know that Benedict Cumberbatch is not Dominic Cummings.”

But by then, James Graham was probably already penning his next political drama in his head, and wondering who would play Miller, Squires and Gibb when it arrives on screen, hopefully with the title of ‘Healing the Nation’ - ironic emphasis as required.

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