100 days of the Coalition: how the news media has turned out to be the biggest, sorest loser of them all

by Stephen Tall on August 18, 2010

One hundred days. How the media loves a yardstick.

We have US President FD Roosevelt to thank for the obsession with the first 15 weeks of a new government’s activity: in a race against time to save the US economy from its Depression slump, he signed into law over a dozen recovery programmes. Some worked, some didn’t… You can draw your own analogy.

It is of course far too early to know if the Coalition will succeed. It is also far too early to know whether the Lib Dems will be boosted by our involvement in government, or if we’ll be dragged down by a tainted association with it.

But I will stick my neck out on one issue: political reporting by the British media of the Coalition has been abysmal, and shows no signs of improving.

The reasons are not hard to divine. Ever since 7th May and the coalition discussions which followed, the media has found itself shut out. As Nicholas Jones points out in his book, Campaign 2010 (reviewed here today by my Co-Editor, Mark Pack):

Rarely had there been five days in British politics when all sections of the news media had been so impotent in influencing events, reduced to mere onlookers of a political tug-of-war which was reshaping the way the country was about to be governed.

The news media has been exacting its revenge ever since.

Right-wing newspapers (which is most of them) hate the involvement of the Lib Dems, and our moderating influence on the Consevatives. The Daily Mirror hates both parties with equal spite. And The Guardian (no surprise) and The Independent (disappointingly) are behaving like petulant, scorned lovers, cutting up the suits of the party which they reckon betrayed them (metaphorically speaking).

No news story about the Coalition is complete without tediously cliched references to ‘splits’ and ‘tensions’. Sorry, guys, but the public is way ahead of you on this. Believe it or not, they get that there are two different parties in the government, and that we will therefore disagree. On lots of issues, lots of the time. Instead of just reporting that fact as if it is news, then sitting back smugly content that your job as reporters is done, you could try and, y’know, examine the issues and communicate them intelligently and authoritatively to your audience.

I know, I know: it was so much easier in the Blair/Brown years – splits and tensions were the only story in town, and that there were two warring camps in the government, and that Labour was desperate to conceal this fact, was genuinely significant. But time’s moved on. The trite-and-tested old rules of reporting just won’t cut it any more.

In the absence of an opposition party fit to ask tough questions of the Coalition, more than ever the British public needs a mature, responsible news media to interrogate, to inform, to challenge. Editors may find it easier, simpler, cheaper to duck this opportunity. They may prefer to keep up the relentless pursuit of (yawn) splits and tensions. But that’s surely not why they went into journalism, is it?