Opinion: Is political journalism broken?

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2007

The Lib Dem conference felt united this year. I’m not talking about our policies – heaven forfend. No, we were united against the media’s reporting of our conference, which was, almost without exception, drearily inane, pathetically irrelevant and lazily inaccurate.

Sitting on the train back from Brighton, I overheard one Hampstead-chic journalist talk about why she chose her profession. It was, she said, because she wanted to change the world, and the media is so much more able than politicians to make people sit up and take notice. Noble sentiments, indeed.

But how far do she and her journalist colleagues live up to this enlightenment standard?

I’m not going to indulge in a rant, tempting though it is, dissecting each and every injustice inflicted on the Lib Dems by the media in the past week.

And I’m aware that the conference can sometimes become a self-deluding bubble, with party members snuggling up together in comfort-blanket group-think. Think IDS’s last Tory conference as leader in 2003, his speech interrupted by an absurd 20 standing ovations. Or think CK’s last Lib Dem conference in 2005, when members returned from Blackpool bemused by claims his leadership was being questioned by our MPs.

However, I’m confident this time was different. Why?

Because the media based all its leadership speculation stories not on off-the-record-whispered-behind-their-hand briefings, but by deliberately distorting on-the-record-spoken-out-loud-and-in-public statements.

Nick Clegg may have been naïve to say he’d “probably” stand for the leadership when Ming retires – but why shouldn’t he say so? His choices were either to (i) stonewall the question with a bland ‘there is no vacancy’ line, in which case he’s condemned as one of those typical obfuscating politicians; or (ii) to tell the truth. He chose the latter and suffered the consequences. But do we really want our politicians to be cool, calculated doublespeak-your-weight automatons?

It’s the usual Catch-22 – the media decries politicians for being dull, and then exploits their occasional off-message asides, blowing them up to become prominent gaffes, splits and plots. Cue politicians retreating back inside themselves, drawing up their drawbridges. Cue the public feeling ever more disconnected from the political elites.

There is a crisis of confidence in British journalism today. The divergence between what is worth reporting and what is actually reported is growing larger. Such is the pressure on journalists to produce copy their editors think the public wants to read that they follow each other round in ever decreasing circulations.

Talk to a journalist, and they know all this. Most of them went into their profession for precisely the idealistic reason my fellow passenger asserted: to tell people what’s happening in the world in order to change it for the better. But, sadly, that’s not what journalism is now about. Facts are fitted round the pre-ordained story. If something happens ‘outwith’ the media agenda it might as well never have existed.

It’s time for our journalists to regain their confidence, to begin to believe again that what they have to say really can matter, to report stories as they happen, and not simply according to a pre-arranged editorial line. Who knows? They may even find they enjoy reclaiming the nobility of their profession.

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As ever i love your analysis stephen. i totally agree. I’d add a few things:

1) we have to accept that hacks on national papers are paid well by their editors to give them what they want (the pre-ordained story). fine. difficult for the little ole lib dems to steer them that far off from their intended path.

2) patience: if we are going to engineer any change in the way we are covered it is clearly a long slow proces as we gain credibility in greater numbers of elected mps over sucessive parliaments.

3) to some extent we have to play by their rules. in the same way that just about every lib dem wants some form of proportional representation but stand for election in a first past the post system: until we can change that system of reportage or until it evolves into a less imperfect beast (though quite how i am not sure) we have to accept it and work within that system. last year ming took on the confernece and won over tax. a great story in its own right and a great way to highlight our top line policy committment. lib dems have to make sure they know what the message of conference is, what the story is and how they can both act as vehicles for communicating policies. ‘lib dems pass new tax policy’ = boring to most hacks. “ming fights party, puts his credibility on the line and wins for new tax policy” = much more intersting. we are incredibly creative at devopling new radical policiies. we have to be redical and creative in selling them too. a tough job, i admit.

4) this blog, the blogosphere, the internet. that’s where people are increasingly getting their information from. national newspapers and broadcasters are waning in influence every day.

5) also lets get better at messaging: the ‘cosy consensus’ is a great message. ‘the environment; act now’ hmmm. why couldn’t we have hammered home for five days about the ‘cosy consensus’ and the whole NewToryLabour thing? voters will remember a handful of our policies if we are lucky. we need to feed them perceptions that will make us interesting. “ok, so maybe there is a cosy consensus, so what are the libbers saying?”.

6) agree on the clegg stuff. in fact i think it made him look endearingly human.

right, it’s a saturday afternoon. i need to get a life (and apgs for the horrific number of typos).

by Olly Kendall on September 22, 2007 at 4:11 pm. Reply #

Spot on, Stephen.

And if anyone wants evidence, one need look no further than the headline on the BBC News website’s report on Ming’s brilliant speech. What was their headline? “I’m not too old, says Sir Menzies”. Well done, BBC.

by Stuart on September 22, 2007 at 5:58 pm. Reply #

As usual, spot on Stephen. It’s not as simple as the Lib Dem membership just being typically self-pitying when they criticise the media. The public are starting to realise how much the media hoodwinks & misinforms them too.

It says a lot that in opinion polls of which professions are trusted the most, journalists are second only to politicians themselves in terms of the public’s lack of faith.

by leowatkins on September 22, 2007 at 11:58 pm. Reply #

“I overheard one Hampstead-chic journalist talk about why she chose her profession. It was, she said, because she wanted to change the world”

Surely the job of a journalist not to change the world but to *report it* honestly.

The problem with political journalism is two fold. It is either a subset of the entertainment industry, constantly trying to find the “dramatic” story to keep its readers, viewers, and listeners interested. That’s why it’s always coniving at stories of “splits” and “leadership crises”

Or else it is agenda based and reports that agenda whether it coincides with what is actually going on or not.

Most horrendously it is a mixture of the two. Hence the reporting of this years conference.

by Moggy on September 23, 2007 at 1:17 am. Reply #

I should declare an interest – whenever I have to listen to Hampstead-chic journalists on public transport I want to kill them no matter what they’re saying, so I can only admire your ability to look on the bright side.

But I’m with Moggy on this. The journalist ought to be the very antithesis of ego, they ought to be as wary of changing the world around them as a time traveller. After x years of reporting in this way, they may then acquire a natural authority which allows them to become opinion formers in their own right, cf Jon Snow, and even attempt to influence events on the ground when the times are sufficiently dire, cf Christine whatshername off CNN during the siege of Sarajevo, you-know-who-I-mean.

For the last two centuries at least, any journalist who really had the guts and conviction – and the luck – to have a serious stab at changing the world chucked in their hack job, found a backer and started their own paper. Bloody revolution aside, maybe we need a little more of that…

by Alix on September 23, 2007 at 1:06 pm. Reply #

Journalists have changed the world in the past. They have even managed to do so on the odd ocassion by reporting the truth.
The 2 are not incompatable.
As far as the Lib Dem conference is concerned, and probably other conferences too, the conference that actually happens and the one that is reported are simply far apart.
Andrew Neil, who hates the Lib Dems, covered the event for the “impartial” BBC! I saw his conference reports and they were a travesty.

by Geoffrey Payne on September 25, 2007 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

And another thing…
There is nothing at all wrong in being ambitious. Why should Nick Clegg have to adhere to the stupid etiquette of denying any interest in standing for the leadership of the party, whenever in the future that will be?
It is obvious that despite their ambitions, neither Nick Clegg nor Chris Huhne are plotting against the leadership. In fact noone at all is, yet that is all the media decided to report on.

by Geoffrey Payne on September 25, 2007 at 1:00 pm. Reply #

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