If I had a mirror on my writing desk, this is what I’d see. A guy in his thirties who, having been educated in a private school, graduated almost a decade ago with a first-class degree in PPE from Oxford. He then moved to London, where his first job was as a researcher in a think-tank, which taught him how to support his arguments with graphs. He then used this skill to dig himself into Westminster.
And then I’d think: “Damn. I’m one of them, aren’t I?” One of the worst. One of the unsalvageable idiots who hovers around the seat of power. I could spend time listing the mitigating factors: mine was a very normal upbringing in Wales; I got through school and university on various bursaries and scholarships; I didn’t know of PPE’s reputation when I signed up for it; and so on. But the fact remains, it doesn’t look very good.
Thankfully, I’ll never actually sit on the seat of power. I’m a journalist, not a politician. Yet I have been thinking recently: the two may be more similar than they’re advertised to be. Sure, there’s a big difference between running the country and writing about those who run the country, but if it’s preposterous that people like me are doing the former, isn’t it also preposterous that people like me are opining about what George Osborne should do with the economy? And I’ve been doing that since I was 23 years old.
I’ll leave readers to answer the question. What galls me is the hypocrisy of it all. Political commentators bemoan the takeover of politics by streamlined individuals with similar backgrounds to each other. They’re inexperienced! They don’t get it! But political commentators, as a group, don’t often measure themselves against the same yardsticks, to see how they come out. It’s much like the Guardian’s campaign against tax avoidance, except it’s more pervasive than that. This is an everyday sort of oversight.
And it’s not just about people’s backgrounds either. Another example that I’ve used before, although it bears repeating, is last year’s by-election in Oldham West. Only months before, the general election had exposed the flaws in the polling companies’ methodologies, and the op-ed pages were merciless in response. The broad consensus was that journalists would now place less stock in voting intention figures and satisfaction ratings, and more in what they heard on the streets.
Here, now, was a test of this ideal. The polling companies didn’t really emerge for the Oldham West by-election, as they had for other by-elections, as they were still rewiring their previous assumptions. So it was left to the journalists and what they heard on the streets. They talked to their sources, they talked some more, and then they filed reports about how UKIP were threatening Labour. Others repeated and reinforced these reports until the story of the campaign became: UKIP are so close to Labour that they could actually win. And in the end? Labour won with a 10,722 majority.
There was no malice in the journalists’ collective mistake. They were simply doing their jobs, just as the pollsters had been doing theirs before the general election. The difference is that, when the polling companies got something wrong, they were lambasted and conducted an inquiry into it. When commentators get something wrong, there isn’t nearly as much judgement or self-searching.
Or, as another example, how about the journalist whom I chatted to after an oak-panelled briefing a few years ago? I asked them whether they’d read a particular report on the subject, to which they replied they hadn’t. But then, only about half-an-hour later, came their blog-post on the same subject, recommending the same report as “well worth reading,” or words to that effect.
This was only a small thing – implying they were familiar with a report that they couldn’t really have read in the intervening time – but that’s my point. We hear about the big instances of hypocrisy, such as the Guardian’s tax affairs. We eventually hear about the gross transgressions, such as the phone hacking. It’s the casual stuff that tends to pass by unnoticed. A politician would be castigated if they were discovered, during some Newsnight interview, to have told a half-truth about whether they had read a report. For this commentator, it was just a throwaway sub-clause.
Not all political commentators are like this. In fact, not even that particular commentator is either. They, like most of their breed, most of the time, are smart, diligent and on the side of good. I think the problems are more to do with the industry than with individuals. There is a heavier emphasis on quick-fire opinion nowadays, and less on reportage. And that opinion has to stand out against the kaleidoscopic backdrop of the social media. There’s barely enough time to question sources, let alone question yourself.
I have benefitted from this arrangement. The industry might not. According to the latest Eurobarometer, only 22 per cent of Brits tend to trust the written press. That’s the lowest proportion in all Europe. And lower, indeed, than the trust we place in Parliament, the Government and even the European Union. Newspapers and news websites face not just a crisis of pounds and pence, but one of sheer credibility.
Which is an immense shame. Britain’s free press and its practitioners are among the finest, most important parts of our democracy. They don’t need regulating out of existence. They don’t deserve scorn. But they should sometimes ask of themselves: who are we? What do we do?