General Election 2005 Post Mortem, Pt III: The strange death of political journalism

by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2005

This should have been a fascinating election campaign. The last four years has scarcely witnessed a dearth of Big Issues to get the public fired up. In February 2003, up to two million British citizens marched to demonstrate their opposition to the Blair-Bush invasion of Iraq. Tuition fees, foundation hospitals, faith schools – even the ridiculously overblown debate on fox-hunting – have all provoked a visceral reaction. Yet turn-out in the last general election crept up to just 61%. Why?

The simple, accurate answer is: there is no single reason. Various arguments are posited in the ‘Whither Politics’ laments which periodically bubble up: the decline in class-based and sectarian voting patterns; the blurring of the old left/right political divide; the ‘politics of contentment’ ushered in by a more prosperous society; complacency in our robust democracy coupled with fading memories of the Second World War; and the vagaries of our voting system, which effectively disenfranchises the millions of voters who live in non-marginal constituencies.

I will list a further one, not pretending for a moment that it is the most influential, or decisive, merely that it is a contributing factor: the risible quality of modern political journalism. (I preface what follows with the obvious caveat that there are honourable and notable exceptions.)

There was a pathetic failure of newspapers and television journalists to subject policy issues to any degree of scrutiny during the election campaign. The Guardian published a highly revealing breakdown of media coverage (‘Negative campaign a turn-off for voters’, 2 May), prepared by Loughborough University. An unremitting 40% of all media coverage focused on the electoral process – analysis of campaign strategies, opinion polls, and so on. The NHS, in contrast, merited just 3.5% of the media’s attention. Issues of transport, Europe, housing and employment were among those that recorded less than 1% of all coverage.

I find these statistics shocking, and the complacency of the news editors responsible for perpetuating this democratic deficit utterly reprehensible. I expect little better of squalid rags like The Sun, Mirror or The Times. As you might imagine, the tabloids relegated the election from three-quarters of their front pages. And The Sun and Mirror, for instance, each devoted more than 10 times as many column inches to the Beckhams’ marriage than to the leaking of Lord Goldsmith’s legal advice on the legality of war in Iraq.

But we should demand better from people such as David Mannion, ITV News’s editor-in-chief, whose keen political acumen registered the following problem: “It’s hard to judge the mood of the nation. Is it the economy, stupid? Or will that be banked and people will move on to other issues such as immigration?”

What a crushingly banal utterance. First off, there is no such thing as ‘the mood of the nation’, and any journalist who resorts to such vacuous cliché should instantly be removed from the front-line. Secondly, what level of arrogance must an editor have to believe he is able deftly to filter the competing and nuanced views of the nation’s 46 million voters, and distil these into a soundbite summary of what ‘we’ think? It is not for television news to tell us what we are thinking; but for journalists to report – interestingly, entertainingly, but straight – those issues which will be important to voters in deciding who should govern them for the next Parliament. It is then for us to make up our minds, cast our individual ballots, and for the government to be formed on the basis of this aggregated popular will.

Now, of course, politicians are not guilt-less. Each of the three main parties built their campaigns around their leaders, and engineered carefully designed photo opportunities which maximised their media exposure while limiting their contact with real voters. This ‘presidentialisation’ of campaigns reflects a symbiotic downward spiral, with the media and politicians clutching fast to each other, as they slide down the razor-blade of life.

But it is not just that the media dwell on the electoral process to the exclusion of those thing that matter; they also fail to report that process with sufficient intelligence. Opinion polls have long been an obsession for those of us who inhabit the freakish world of political hackery. Our days can be brightened by the revelation that our party has moved up one percentage point according to ICM; or we can be plunged into a state of depression by rumours of an imminent Mori survey which shows us trending down. Excellent websites, such as Mike Smithson’s www.politicalbetting.com and Anthony Wells’s http://pollingreport.co.uk, give full-rein to our unhealthy addiction. These have the added virtue of keeping us indoors, glued to our glowing computer screens, and away from normal people like you.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of opinion polls appreciates they are imperfect measures of the public’s views; that, though scientific, they cannot be, and do not pretend to be, precise calibrations capable of giving fail-safe predictions. An average opinion poll has a sample of around 1,000 people, which gives a 95% statistical certainty of a margin of error of 3%. This means that a poll showing Labour on 36%, the Tories on 33% and the Lib Dems with 23% would more accurately be represented as: Labour 33-39%; Tories 30-36%; and Lib Dems 20-26%. Even with these ranges, one poll in every 20 will be wrong.

Of course, explaining this to a television or newspaper audience would leave most of them bored and/or baffled. So what do political journalists do? They ignore the huge health warnings rightly slapped on all opinion polls, and present them instead as talismanic diviners of ‘the mood of the nation’. This deference to ‘polling science’ prompts a meta-implosion of ever decreasing circles with each new story becoming more self-referential than the last.

For instance, in the last few days of the campaign (if anyone can still remember it) journalists asserted that Michael Howard’s tainting of the Prime Minister as a liar had backfired on the basis of a couple of polls suggesting the Tories’ ratings were dipping. The story then was spun by journalists as evidence of the Tory campaign’s failure, and the spectre of their electoral meltdown was raised. It seems likely that those headlines forecasting a large Labour victory cost the Government votes, and, in a handful of marginal seats, that this difference proved crucial.

For opinion polls, and, more to the point, their fuzzy reporting by journalists, to influence the outcome of an election is a disturbing reality. My engrained liberal response to proposed bans – whether of ‘hoodies’ in shopping centres or smoking in public places – is to say a loud and vigorous no. But, just occasionally, I do wonder how much different the reporting of our elections would be if we were to follow the French and Australian route, and ban the reporting of polls in the last days of the campaign.

This article is not an exercise in scapegoating. The torpor that epitomised this election is not the lone fault of journalists, politicians or the public. It was a collective failing. Politicians are so scared of gaffes that their campaigns are hermetically-sealed against any spontaneous interest that genuine public debate might arouse. Journalists are so nervous that ‘boring’ issues will lose them their audience they reduce all to the “who’s up, who’s down” personality politics which increasingly passes for serious journalism. And the public – which holds the fate of politicians, and the media’s purse-strings, in its collective hands – lets them both get away with it.

The general election of 2005: it was no-one what won it.