Whenever it occurs to me that there are various things wrong with our political journalism, I try to remind myself that this has always been the case. If you wish to discover what people think is going on, it is essential to read the press. But if you wish to find out what is actually going on, the press is not of much use.
This was brought home to me in the summer of 1983, when I joined the Conservative Research Department (CRD) as the desk officer responsible for knowing about the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The Conservatives had just won their second general election victory under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, gaining 42.4 per cent of the vote and 397 seats. Labour, under Michael Foot, had slumped to 27.6 per cent, but still got 209 seats.
The SDP-Liberal Alliance took 25.4 per cent, the largest share for a third party since 1923, and less than 700,000 votes behind Labour. But it obtained only 23 seats: 17 for the Liberals and six for the SDP. Two members of the SDP’s founding Gang of Four – Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – lost their seats, and so did 19 other SDP MPs who had joined the new party from Labour, as well as the one, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, who had joined from the Tories.
My first task at CRD was to write a pamphlet of about 6,000 words about the SDP and the Liberals. I had been living in France, so did not begin with much knowledge of them. Nor had my predecessor in the department left any records behind, apart from an enormous pile of unsorted press cuttings, supplied by our colleagues who each day extracted every item of political news from the newspapers and passed it to whichever desk officer might be interested.
Here was everything published during the election campaign about the SDP and the Liberals. So I set about putting these cuttings in order, and once I had done so I established that they were of almost no value. The degree of repetition was almost unbelievable. Even when a story contained some new scrap of information, the rest of the piece would place that scrap in context by repeating stuff which had already appeared many times before.
To get to grips with the SDP and the Liberals, one had to read what they themselves were saying: their speeches, pamphlets, manifestos, policy papers, and as many other internal publications as one could get hold of, including party newspapers. I was excited (but was perhaps the only person to be excited) by managing to obtain some ill-printed material produced by the Association of Liberal Councillors, which recommended the use of disreputable tactics.
No sane person reads all the newspapers (unless under a professional obligation to do so), so the sheer degree of repetition is not as apparent as it might be. But one still sees how derivative a lot of the coverage is. If your news editor is going to say, “Why didn’t we have that story which was in the Daily Mail?”, it is prudent to make sure you have already done a version of that story.
When Tony Bevins joined the Independent as its first political editor in 1986, he led a team of political reporters who made a brave and at first highly successful attempt to break with this imitative form of journalism. Bevins had the almost insane cussedness needed to do that. So do some other reporters, some of them now working on the internet.
I do not want to undervalue the professionalism of the reporters who work within rather than against the system. Many of them have a deep knowledge of politics. They do an extremely difficult job under acute pressure of time.
Nor do I wish to encourage, even by implication, the idea that if only a journalist is sufficiently honest and independent-minded, he or she will arrive at the truth. Claud Cockburn dealt with this fallacy in Cockburn Sums Up, one of the most entertaining accounts of journalistic life ever written:
To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up – arduously, it is true, but still definitely and visibly – by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market.
Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might, indeed, just as well not be lying about at all until the prospector – the journalist – puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel. In that sense all stories are written backwards – they are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view, a conception, and it is the point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.
This is the reality which Evelyn Waugh satirised to such brilliant effect in Scoop. Lord Copper tells his newly recruited war correspondent: “What the British public wants first, last, and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively.”
The story has been written in the office, before the reporter has seen anything. And such stories can prove amazingly resistant to reality. For several decades after Conservative women had stopped holding mass rallies at the Royal Albert Hall at which they wore splendid hats, any photographer sent off to cover an event at which large numbers of Conservative women were going to be present was instructed to take pictures of them wearing hats.
The trouble with writing the story in the office is not just that it may be wrong, but that so many offices may decide to pursue exactly the same story. Two or three polls appear which suggest a particular politician – let us call him Bloggins – has become more popular, or less popular. The story everyone then has to write is either of Bloggins in the ascendant, or of Bloggins on the ropes, accompanied by photographs of Bloggins looking triumphant, or of Bloggins looking worried. The esteem in which Bloggins is held depends entirely on whether he is judged to be a winner or a loser. Everything he touches turns either to gold or to dross according to a movement of a few percentage points in a few polls. Political journalists find themselves forced to abandon any attempt to reach an independent view of Bloggins.
It is this lack of independent judgment, and excessive readiness to follow fashion, which can make political journalism so distressingly uniform. But the British press in full cry is still a magnificent sight, and has the merit of inducing a degree of fear in our rulers.