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.