It’s not just the Lib Dem leadership trying to ignore the ‘secret courts’ row: the news media is too

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2013

I had an odd experience on Friday. I was doing a round of media interviews – 3 for TV, 3 for radio – previewing the Lib Dem conference. I’d been called by researchers in advance to ‘get my take’ on the key issues. Each time, I said there was a big issue on which the party leadership could expect to be defeated and which would see activists from across the broad spectrum of the Lib Dems united: opposition to secret courts. This received an “Uh-hum” response which I took for baffled boredom. And as expected, each interview in turn dwelt instead on Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne and the allegations against Lord Rennard.

So what was odd about that experience? Two things.

First, the media’s focus on the recent scandals ended up turning me into more of a party loyalist than I feel right now. As I argued here, the Pryce/Huhne saga is an horribly compelling human melodrama, but it’s not a political story. And though I was very critical of the party’s initial, inadequately messy response to the Lord Rennard allegations, it has since then taken exemplary action in putting in place the right processes for getting to the truth and delivering justice for all concerned. So I have no problems in defending the party on both these issues.

If they’d asked me about secret courts, however, I’d have had no hesitation in letting the party leadership have it with both barrels. I think Jonathan Calder here and Alex Marsh here sum up the disappointment many of us feel very well. Here’s an excerpt from Alex’s piece:

To depart so dramatically from party policy is one thing. It isn’t the first time it has happened during this Coalition. I’m sure it won’t be the last. But to do so on civil liberties – a topic many see as close to the core of liberalism and a topic particularly dear to the hearts of many activists – is barely credible. … [Nick Clegg] lacks sensitivity to issues of particular importance to grassroots activists. Secret courts are a paradigmatic case. It is an obscure matter of almost no consequence to the general public. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most people were in favour of the legal change. But it is – or at least has become – totemic for Liberal Democrats.

It isn’t simply that the party leadership clearly disagrees with the party’s membership, it’s the way in which Nick Clegg and other senior Lib Dems have failed so abysmally to engage with the membership. It’s worth contrasting the almost total silence of the party leadership on secret courts – save Ming Campbell’s article on LbDemVoice here – with the alert response a year ago to the threatened ‘internet snoopers’ bill. That was the previous occasion when Nick Clegg was caught off-guard by the strength of opinion in the party against trampling on civil liberties. But, back then, the party was in listening mode — here, for example, is party president Tim Farron issuing a same-day response to a members’ letter expressing concerns.

What was the second odd thing? It was the realisation of quite how little journalists today care about real news. Yeah, yeah, I know, call me naive. But I had reckoned that the ‘excitement’ of a revolt by the party membership against the leadership would outweigh the media’s antipathy for having to understand and explain issues which aren’t about personalities or sex. I was wrong.

So I have a lot of sympathy with the points Shirley Williams made in her speech to the Lib Dem conference rally on Friday evening:

‘Journalism is a great profession, but it’s a profession that can demean itself. In the last couple of months, I think it has truly demeaned itself at least in some parts. Some of the right wing tabloids have gone on and on in a way which is almost maniacal and has absolutely place in the sort of serious issues that should have been considered. … Please, fellow journalists… don’t let this happen here. Don’t let us fall into the viciousness of partisanship, the extremism that is seen on the American right wing… I say that because Nick has been above all the victim of this.’

Let’s be clear: there is a world of difference between the excellent, dogged investigative journalism of Channel 4′s Cathy Newman who originally reported the allegations against Lord Rennard, and the misleading sensationalism of papers like the Mail which front-paged the story day-after-day for political purposes.

‘So what?’, you may say, ’twas ever thus. Now we’re in government the Lib Dems just need to get used to being treated roughly. Both Labour and Tories have suffered their share of unfair journalism over the years, and we probably just sat back and enjoyed it, even when it was OTT. There’s a fair degree of truth in that.

But journalists – especially broadcast journalists – used also to take pride in digging into political issues, taking them seriously, not simply trying to work out an angle that’ll make their headline-writer’s job an easy one. And perversely as newspapers’ importance declines along with their sales, the news channels give them greater exposure, increasingly follow their agenda.

Yet as we’ve seen this weekend, the end result is that the news media ignores the story of genuine internal division staring them in the face, preferring the tabloid story they think their audience will find easier to understand.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.