Quality political journalism? Bollocks more like.

by Stephen Tall on January 25, 2006

‘Scandal-hit Lib Dems in freefall’ (Daily Telegraph, 23rd Jan), ‘Lib Dem crisis deepens as candidate defects to Tories’ (Independent, 25th Jan) and ‘Rumours grow of Lib Dem defections’ (thegrauniad, 25th Jan). It’s fair to say the last couple of days haven’t provided the greatest set of headlines for my party.

So how bad is it?

Well, if you want the honest answer: it’s terrible. Really, really dreadful. Frankly, I’m bewildered, appalled and depressed at the meretricious state of British political journalism, and its melodramatic, contrived and distorted take on current political events.

I am acutely aware as I write this that to take issue with journalists’ reporting is easily perceived, often rightly, as sour-grapes-bad-loser-you-can-give-it-out-but-can’t-take-it territory. So be it. The criticisms which follow may have been prompted by the Lib Dems’ current problems, but they apply far more generally, across the political spectrum, and to the broadcast media every bit as much as newspapers.

Let’s start with that ‘freefall’ Telegraph story. I have to confess when I first saw the headline, I thought, “Bloody hell, so we’re down to 14% in their latest opinion poll.” It wouldn’t be entirely unexpected given the slew of bad press, some of it deserved, which has come our way in the last two months. But it turned out there was no new poll; in fact, there was no new story. The paper, and its political correspondent, Brendan Carlin, were simply spinning the new media line – the party’s in crisis – based on the week-end’s revelations about Mark Oaten’s private life.

During the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC, and Andrew Gilligan, came under a lot of fire among Beeb-bashing newspapers like the Telegraph for their use of single-sourced stories – that is, where only one person was prepared to substantiate the facts of a story. It’s a legitimate journalistic grey-area deserving of scrutiny, and one with which responsible reporters (and there are many) wrestle every day. But the Telegraph is quite happy, seemingly, to splash on their front page this zero-sourced item:


“Sir Menzies Campbell appeared last night to be the Liberal Democrats’ only hope of restoring their battered credibility after Mark Oaten’s resignation plunged the party into its worst crisis for a generation. … Last night, there were signs that grassroots activists – shocked by the revelations – would rally to Sir Menzies, at 64 the oldest of the leadership contenders, as a steady hand to see them through the crisis. … He is now the 5-4 odds on favourite.”

Four quick questions for the Telegraph:
(1) Ming “appeared” to whom to be the party’s only hope?;
(2) what “signs” among grassroots activists?;
(3) who is “shocked”?; and
(4) since when did betting odds count as credible evidence?

This is not nit-picking: quality journalism should not seek to shape events, but to report them. Nothing in the section of Mr Carlin’s report I’ve quoted is backed-up by any on- or off-the-record sources. It is worthless, pointless, trivial hackery.

Perhaps I should expect no better from the Torygraph? It’s a true blue paper through-and-through, happy to give its prejudices house-room on the front page, and not simply to confine them to the opinion pages where they belong. But the Indy and Grauniad should know better, surely? After all, both are papers of the liberal-left. And though neither have supported the Lib Dems at election time, they have always given the party a fair hearing, and decent coverage.

Now, of course, the Lib Dems have ‘today’ experienced a defection. In fact, Adrian Graves, who was a parliamentary candidate in 1997 and 2005 in Suffolk West, decided to leave the party before Christmas. In other words, before Kennedy’s self-immolation, let alone Mr Oaten’s spontaneous combustion. The Tories, sensibly from their point of view, delayed announcing Mr Graves’ decision until the moment when it could cause the Lib Dems most embarrassment: today, the close of nominations for the leadership. Such is politics. The Tories simply did what my party would have done (indeed did do) in a similar situation. No complaints about that.

But journalists are paid to understand such machinations, to aid the public’s understanding of the political process. So quite why the Indy’s political editor, Andrew Grice, began his article today with the words,

“The sense of crisis engulfing the Liberal Democrats has deepened after one of their parliamentary candidates defected to the Conservative Party,”

is quite beyond me. Once again, this is a journalist side-stepping any empirical basis for his subjective observation – how is Mr Grice defining this “sense of crisis”? How is it “engulfing” the party? This is egotistical, self-fulfillment journalism (because of course there will be a crisis if all the press reports is that there is a crisis).

And what’s all this guff about “rumours” of defections?

(Here let me parenthetically add a caveat. I have no insider information, no special insight which allows me to state categorically that there are no circumstances in which any Lib Dem MP will consider defecting to the Tories. Perhaps there are a whole gang of them who are banging on the door of Conservative Central Office demanding admission to Cameron’s party. We shall see; or, more likely I suspect, we won’t.)

This is the first sentence of Hélène Mulholland’s Guardian report today:

“Speculation grew today that a number of Liberal Democrats MPs are considering crossing the floor to the Conservatives following hints originally dropped by a former parliamentary candidate who left the party this morning.”

Let’s try a little deconstruction exercise here.
(1) “speculation grew” – well, I guess it did. After all, the Guardian just reported some speculation;
(2) “a number” – I like your precision, Hélène. After all, who wants to be pinned down to anything so tediously irrelevant as scale: one is a number, so is 62. Which is it?;
(3) “crossing the floor” – a figure of speech, I realise, but surely a Lib Dem defecting to the Tories would simply slide along the bench some? Only someone switching to Labour would cross the floor;
(4) “following hints” – strong stuff! – from someone who is now a Conservative… okay, you’ve sold me, Hélène. If a Tory says Lib Dems are considering becoming Tory it must be true.

But let me reserve my maximum ire for the BBC’s lightweight political correspondent, Nick Asinine (sorry, Assinder). His BBC.co.uk article today exemplifies precisely the kind of journalistic vacuity which drives me to distraction. Previous excrescences I have thoroughly parsed; this bland recycling of unsubstantiated gossip stands in a class of its own for its failure to say anything about anything.


“As nominations for the job to replace Charles Kennedy closed, the party was suffering what was being branded [by whom?] its greatest crisis for 25 years [25 years? Really? In 1989 the Greens polled more votes than us.]. The resignation of frontbencher Mark Oaten over a relationship with a male prostitute has shocked and angered party chiefs [who?] and provided a major source of speculation and gossip in Westminster and beyond [well quite]. Now there are claims [from whom?] that as many as three of the party’s MPs are set to follow former parliamentary candidate Adrian Graves, and defect to the Tories who, under David Cameron, appear to have spooked the party. Meanwhile – and there is no other way of saying this [oh, go on: try!] – the whispering and rumour-mongering in Westminster have reached new levels.”

Quality political journalism is vital to a fully-functioning democracy. It’s crucial that our news gatherers use their positions of access to explain and inform to the British people complex, difficult issues in an interesting, comprehensible way. Whispers, rumours, gossip: all have their place in human interaction. But journalism should be founded on fact, rooted in empiricism. Otherwise it is worthless detritus.