Horrorgate, the aftermath

by Stephen Tall on March 8, 2007

It’s been an odd seven days for the Lib Dems. This time last week, party activists were focused on the Harrogate spring conference, and the crunch Trident debate.

By last Saturday, the leadership could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief: delegates voted – by a whisker – to support their favoured multilateralist stance, in part thanks to a passionate speech by Ming Campbell. Whichever side we were on, we could all be proud that, alone among the mainstream parties, the Lib Dems freely and openly debate and decide party policy at their conferences on a one-member-one-vote basis.

And then came Black Sunday, Horrorgate, when a ‘senior party source’ briefed the media that the Lib Dems favoured a coalition with Labour in the event of a Hung Parliament, and (as if that were not damaging enough) that we would cheerfully jettison proportional representation as a condition of any such deal. The leadership, in the person of Ed Davey, hastily rebutted this unauthorised briefing. But, by then, it was too late, and it’s a moot point which was more harmful: the original story, or the subsequent reports of chaos at the top of the party.

Of course, PR cock-ups happen in all parties, all organisations, all walks of life. But it’s incumbent on Lib Dems to be ultra-careful – so rarely do we attract the media spotlight outside of elections that, on those few occasions when we do find ourselves in its full glare, we simply cannot afford to be caught blinking and blustering.

Labour and the Tories get into scrapes all the time; but as they always dominate the headlines, by tomorrow the media will have moved on. If the only times the public notice Lib Dems is because we are dissolute or in disarray, it’s unlikely we will be perceived as an opposition-in-waiting. With luck, today’s reported resignation of the Lib Dems’ head of media, Mark Littlewood, may perhaps allow the party to draw a line under this unfortunate episode.

But, tempting as it is to scapegoat a feral press officer, the lessons from the last week need also to be learned by those higher up. It was not Mr Littlewood who first started speculating about the possibility of a Hung Parliament: it was Sir Menzies in his pre-conference interview with The Times’s Peter Riddell.

And it was not Mr Littlewood’s speech which clumsily set out five tests for Labour’s Gordon Brown to prove his prime ministerial worthiness, but scornfully dismissed David Cameron’s Tories in just three words. The media can hardly be blamed for inferring that equidistance is no longer the cri de coueur of the Lib Dems. That this seemed to take the party leadership by surprise is not to their credit.

It is also bad politics: as potential king-makers, it’s extra-important the party should keep, and should appear to be keeping, its options open. Let’s remember that in Saturday’s Trident debate Sir Menzies urged the party not to commit Britain to unilateral disarmament: to do so, delegates were warned, would undermine this country’s negotiating position. I agree. Real brinksmanship requires studied neutrality.

I have largely exculpated the media of blame for the hole the Lib Dems dug ourselves last Sunday. But this debacle highlights how good political reporting has been sacrificed at the altar of fast political reporting. Once upon a time, a politician made a speech, and it was reported verbatim. Thankfully those times are long gone. This gave way to the reporting of speeches accompanied by some contextual analysis. Then, with the pressure of the rolling news agenda, copy was distributed to the media in advance of a speech. And now, not only are speeches distributed in advance, but the media allows itself to be briefed on what are the key passages, and what the speaker really means by this or that sentence.

The result is that the media has given up listening to the content of speeches, or analysing them with detached objectivity: instead, all is viewed through the prism of the briefing. Journalists’ deadlines are more frenetic than ever: anything that isn’t encapsulated within the ‘Breaking News’ ticker-tape is old news. Being first matters more than being right.

Sunday’s debacle was wholly avoidable; that it wasn’t avoided is the Lib Dems’ fault, and our problem. But it also says much about today’s political climate – the interaction of journalists, media officers and politicians – that what controversy there was at conference centred not on the policies passed, but rather on a disputed behind-the-scenes briefing about a speech.