Kennedy defection rumours – another reason journalists are losing the public’s trust

by Stephen Tall on August 22, 2010

So today, at last, the news media is finally reporting the pretty unsurprising news that Charles Kennedy, leader of the Lib Dems from 1999 to 2006, is not leaving the Lib Dems in 2010.

Now it is of course the silly season, and we can easily write off this journalistic confection as mere desperation to fill some column inches / dead air-time. But actually I think it’s a symptom of a wider malaise in political journalism, its ‘tabloidisation’.

How an unsourced rumour went viral

Let’s go back to Friday afternoon, when the Kennedy defection rumours started circulating, and work out how they came to be the lead story on TV news by Saturday lunchtime.

They first emanated on the Labour-supporting blog, Left Futures, in a story written by Mark Seddon, a journalist with deep Labour roots but not at all plugged into the Lib Dems. The post, Charles Kennedy Considers Defecting To Labour, caused something of a stir on Twitter.

At this point, responsible journalists would have asked themselves a couple of questions:

1) What’s the source for this story?
Mr Seddon’s article refers lazily to “Westminster sources”, with only one even vague attribution (“including one close to Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership campaign”). No-one close to Mr Kennedy, or even within the Lib Dems, is referenced.

Within a couple of hours of the story being re-tweeted, Olly Grender – someone who is well-placed within the Lib Dems as its former communications director – had dismissed it out of hand: “Charles Kennedy rumour re defection is total fiction – a Labour generated silly season story – nice try @Ed_Miliband”.

2) Who stands to benefit from the story?
Any responsible journalist would have considered the different angles to the story, and who would have an advantage in seeing it further circulated.

Mr Kennedy himself would be an obvious possibility: he is known to be unhappy with the Coalition, and so the story has a certain plausibility. However, if he were actually seeking to defect (i) he would not want the story leaked out, and (ii) he would most certainly not want it done through such an obscure channel as Left Futures. Which leaves the possibility that he was attempting to fire a warning shot across the party’s boughs. But, again, if that were his intention why not place an article or interview in one of the Sunday heavyweight newspapers? In other words, there is no logical reason to believe Charles Kennedy could be the source. And clearly the Lib Dems have no reason to spread the rumour, which leaves only one possibility…

Mischief-making by Labour, whether directly connected to Ed Miliband’s campaign or another leadership contender’s. This seems to be by far the most likely explanation, especially as the official party also was willing to go on the record to laugh off the possibility, and that Charles Kennedy himself contacted Nick Clegg by email to rubbish it. Responsible journalists would at the very least have asked the ‘who benefits?’ question, and reflected it in their reporting of the situation.

Incidentally, if it did come from Ed Miliband’s campaign, it seems a peculiarly ill-judged move. Mr E. Miliband has succeeded in looking like he enjoys spreading rumours and playing games while simultaneously antagonising Lib Dems; he should leave such tactics to Ed Balls, if he doesn’t want to gain the same tainted reputation. And if it came from his campaign team and wasn’t personally authorised by him, that strikes me as a worryingly chaotic state of affairs.

As far as I can make out, no journalist thought about asking these two vital questions: who’s the source and who benefits from the story. If they did, it certainly wasn’t apparent from their highly speculative reports.

Why not? Because it fitted with the news media’s current meme that the Lib Dems are on the point of collapse. Again, the evidence for this is patchy. Party membership is on the up, The Voice’s surveys of party members show high levels of satisfaction, and our poll ratings are at their usual summer levels.

That’s not to deny the difficulties the party is currently experiencing, which the news media is perfectly entitled to report. But the job of responsible journalism should be to present an accurately balanced picture, not simply to see if it can self-justify its own negative spin.

The long-term problem for journalism

This is, in Mr Kennedy’s own words, simply “the silliest of silly season stories”, one which will soon blow over, and be forgotten. But it points again to a news media which has forgotten its purpose – to question, to challenge, to analyse: to help citizens make sense of the world they live in.

This should worry journalists, whether they represent the most downmarket tabloid news outlets (like the Sun, Mail and Sky News), or the more upmarket ones. As my colleague Mark Pack points out, journalism which loses the trust of its audience is not a sustainable business model.

What the Kennedy defection rumours point to is a news media which is mistaking reporting for re-tweeting. Time for journalists to get back to basics.