The case for fair-minded journalism

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2007

How does the media come out of Gordon Brown’s 1997 decision to scrap dividend tax credits, the so-called ‘pensions scandal’?

On one level, they will claim vindication. After all, it was The Times’s two-year battle to publish the advice of Treasury officials which sparked this week’s controversy, with Mr Brown’s credibility once again placed in the full glare of publicity. Only after being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner, under the aegis of the Freedom of Information Act, did the Treasury hand over the documents showing the possible ramifications of the move, including an immediate £50bn fall in the value of existing pension funds.

So why am I asking the question at all?

It was prompted by Ken Clarke’s interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, during which he observed:

They had an extraordinary honeymoon period, the first two years of the Blair Government they could do no wrong. … All Conservatives did actually protest strongly about it, but we were being ignored. We were an unpopular Government – even the right-wing press were rejoicing in having brought us down – and all new governments have a honeymoon period, and they had a remarkably long one.

Now we should be wary of cutting the Tories too much slack on this. The Tory Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major presided over the infamous pensions mis-selling scandal in its peak years, 1988-94, at an estimated cost of £13.5bn, severely undermining public trust in private pension plans.

In their early years as HM Opposition they were also regularly predicting that Mr Brown was about to plunge the British economy deep into recession, a claim which, from the party that brought us ‘Black Wednesday’, looked a tad desperate. Nor was it clear, at that stage, quite what a devastating effect Mr Brown’s pensions raid would wreak. It is, then, perhaps understandable the press greeted the Tories’ forebodings with a pinch of salt.

But, still, Mr Clarke has a point: the media was just not interested. Not interested because stories about pensions were regarded then by the media as dull-dull-dull. And not interested because the media regarded Tony and Gordon as shiny-shiny-shiny. No matter that “All that glisters is not gold.”

As it’s holiday season, allow me to neologise my own proverb: If salt is to be pinched, ‘twas well they are equal pinchings. Trustworthy journalism requires sceptical rationalism, the willingness constantly to challenge and inquire into all sides of a story.

It’s a task for which much of the media, with an attention span which makes a goldfish look like a chess grandmaster, is singularly ill-equipped. If there’s one thing the media dislikes it’s nuance, complexity, shades-of-grey; they much prefer a single, simple narrative.

At the moment, that means Mr Brown is getting it in the neck on every possible pretext. The timing of the ‘pensions scandal’ outcry is partly of his own making, of course. Had the Treasury released the documents requested by The Times two years ago the story would have created scarcely a ripple.

The media is eager for Mr Brown to be challenged for the Labour leadership: if he is ‘coronated’ there’s no story. To encourage a plausible pretender to the throne – whether Messrs Miliband, Reid or Hutton – the media must contrive to make Mr Brown less electable. Which is why ordure is being heaped high upon Mr Brown’s head: in the eyes of the media, he can do no right.

I shed no tears for the Chancellor. He has deliberately evaded enough fair criticism during his tenure for some unfair criticism to be mere karmic retribution.

I do not, though, buy Polly Toynbee’s typically over-simplistic rant in The Grauniad that this is a low-down dirty trick conspired across the right-wing press. Their agenda is borne of boredom, not malevolence. But that knowledge should not make us any less sanguine about the power of the media to debase national debate by failing to treat political protagonists even-handedly.

Let’s look at two examples. David Cameron has suffered a couple of bad-news stories in the last month. First, it was revealed he used a private jet to travel 90 miles, from Oxford to Hereford, in spite of his supposedly green credentials. Then, secondly, he was found guilty of breaking Parliamentary rules by using his taxpayer-funded House of Commons office to raise money for the Tory Party. Mr Cameron’s defenders will argue that both these are non-stories: he carbon offsets all his travel, and has apologised unreservedly for his improper fundraising.

Whatever one might think of the rights or wrongs of either of these issues, one aspect is I think indisputable: swap the name of Gordon Brown for David Cameron and both stories would have achieved far greater prominence. Is it too much to ask for the media to treat these two imposters just the same?

Civil political discourse requires civil political journalism. If the choice we will face is the over-excitable hysteria of the right-wing versus the self-righteous defensiveness of the left-wing media commentariat – with the blogosphere playing the role of an amped-up mini-me – we can hardly expect enlightenment.