Thursday, 31 May 2007

Out of the Lobby?

SKY Political Editor Adam Boulton has kept a diary of his week for the UKPG online
In it, an intriguing defence of the Lobby. He would, obviously, defend it since he’s been a member for 25 years and is this year’s chairman.

He writes:
“In spite of its sinister reputation, the Lobby is not an old boys’ network in
which politicians and hacks conspire to “keep it under their hats”. We rarely
hear secrets and, if we do, the public is informed pretty soon afterwards.”
But that misses the point. The real concern non-journalists have about the Lobby isn’t that it’s an ‘old boys’ network’ – though that’s exactly what it is (with the 21st century substitution of ‘boys and girls’ for just ‘boys’).

Nor that its members conspire with politicians to keep things “under their hats” – journalistic competition, the proliferation of news sources, the pressures of a 24 hour news cycle and politicians’ annoying tendency to speak to journalists outside the Lobby mean that that particular cosiness is no longer sustainable. Though cosy the relationship certainly remains.

There are two main reasons ordinary voters – or at least those who take any interest at all in national politics – find the Lobby system wanting.

First, that even with developments such as the PM’s monthly on-camera newsconferences and attributions to PMOS, the Lobby remains an interpretive animal. We were not there, we cannot tell how well the Lobby journalist has done his/her job.

To use Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lecture formula, Lobby reporting is a form of non-assessable communication … and the drift is very definitely in the direction of preferring the assessable. Joe and Jane Voter want to see/hear for themselves.

Second, the Lobby is the embodiment of Westminster’s inaccessiblity to the ordinary voter. Six hundred years ago, when they used to burn heretics and witches, the clergy opposed the translation of the Bible from Latin (which priests had to gloss and interpret) into English (which the laity could read and understand for itself). The Lobby is as reluctant now to let go of its role as the – metaphorical – denouncer of heretics and burner of witches.

The formula: “the minster said this … but what he really meant was this …” is such a familiar formula in political coverage, we journalists don’t even question it. Nor have we questioned sufficiently often and self-critically what it’s done to the concept of political truth-telling.

The sense that national politics is another world conducting its business in an alien tongue with a mendacious vocabulary is one of the (many) reasons why potential voters remain just that. Potential and not actual.

Adam’s defence continues:
“In practice, it is the main interface between political journalists, the
Government and parliamentary institutions.”
Really? I have no numbers on this but I suspect the average voter’s knowledge of what politicians are doing in his/her name derives more from interviews (press as well as broadcasting), speeches, appearances, articles written by politicians themselves and non-Lobby journalists than it does from the Lobby.

Direct, unmediated and assessable communication ought to be a good thing … except that it’s routinely glossed by Lobby journalists with the confident nose-tap of one-who-really-knows.

The reality is, the clarity of an interview on Andrew Marr’s show or The World at One is subsequently fuzzed by the Lobby journalist’s translation – a translation as often as not ‘tweaked’ after a quiet word with a special advisor.

Adam notes that political bloggers Iain Dale (**update - Iain Dale denies he wants admission to the Lobby; see his comment **) and Guido Fawkes, among others, now want admission to the Lobby. But, he asks:
“Do they want to operate as journalists or gossip columnists?”
Good question – I wonder whether Lobby journalists ever ask it of themselves.

Saturday, 19 May 2007


At the Charity Communications conference - the second such devised by AskCharity, Media Trust, and the Institute of Fundraising. Once again, I am sweeping up after Alistair Campbell.
The conference is an important venture. The place where charities and the media meet is rarely straightforward and full of misunderstandings. Journalists see many charities and their (unpaid) media volunteers as little more than providers of case studies to illustrate the stories they've already decided to tell. The charities see the media as an occasional ally but more frequent obstacle in getting the purity of their messages across to the public ... from whom, of course, they need cash.
I'm sad not to have heard Alistair ... but he needs no intermediary.

Three things: case studies, expectations of the media, the impact of social networking.

I'm a heretic on case studies. The conventional wisdom is that case studies are essential. The unquestioned assumption has it that most people only engage with a big idea through a personal narrative. Compelling character and narrative = engagement = impact.
And that's the problem. Compelling characters and narratives tend to be atypical. News is the atypical - 'plane crashes' is news, 'plane lands' isn't. But it's the landing not the crashing plane that tells the story of planes.
The best case studies tell only their own story. Just like good pictures .... which is fine if the case or the picture is the story. It usually isn't.
Journalist Victoria Wright told how it usually is. She contributed to a BBC documentary 'What are you staring at'. The programme needed someone with facial disfigurement to criticse plastic surgery; Victoria didn't do that ... at least, not in the bits of the interview that never made the cut. In the edit, she said enough that seemed critical for that to 'become' her view. She was a case study cut to fit the frame.
Katie Weitz of First Features - 'Earn BIG BUCKS by telling YOUR story' - thought the answer was copy approval ... and claimed editors were usually amenable to the idea. Um ... no editor I've ever met, but then I've led a sheltered life.

Expectations are difficult. By definition, everyone working for a charity believes in what they're doing ... and not all can always see that their beliefs and priorities aren't universal. The only realistic advice - have no expectation of the media. Journalism is about explaining the world as it is - or at least, as journalists see it.
Peter Gilheany of Geronimo Communications put it uncomfortably - charities are businesses. They're in the business of selling and marketing. One questioner believed the answer was to appeal to journalists as human beings. Another that journalism should 'help'.

Then the obvious question; 'will blogging and social networking be the end of journalism'. I guess something of Alistair in the question - the dream of unmediated communication. Aka, control.
Of course not, is the right answer. It's the one everyone gives.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Mirror cracked

The scientologists have done us a service. Their rebuttal campaign aimed at John Sweeney’s Panorama investigation is a foretaste – a particularly well-funded and well-produced foretaste – of the feedback firestorm beginning to engulf all of Big Journalism.
Journalists and audiences should get used to the new world.
The story so far. The latest Panorama (which you can click here to watch) began life as a John Sweeney investigation into Scientology. It’s not the first time Panorama have been here; they looked at the religion in 1987. Many of John Sweeney’s allegations were familiar, though his evidence was more up to date and more compelling.
But the film turned into a report on a report on a report. Panorama put a reporter, producer and crew into the field; the scientologists did the same… Panorama looking at Scientology’s methods and mores, Scientology looking at John Sweeney’s methods and mores.The result; a Panorama film that told the story of a Panorama reporter’s reaction to the scientologists’ mirror. And a little bit about the scientologists too.
In the end, (depending on your point of view) either John Sweeney cracked or, as he explained it in the programme, he asserted his authority, leaning heavily on a prior thespian persona in “Oh What a Lovely War” (Joan Littlewood, you have much to answer for). Either way, he shouted a lot and links to the clip of 'the moment', posted to YouTube by a scientologist blogger, spread through e-mail networks faster than Staph A on a lukewarm Petri dish.
And the scientologist onslaught was multimedia; they handed out copies of their counter-film to BBC staff on Monday morning and posted it on an elegant and well-designed website which broadened the attack onto the BBC in general.Good.This is how it is now and will be more so in days to come. And it's not a bad thing for Big Journalism. OK, so not everyone in journalism's many audiences has the resources, time, commitment and Tom Cruise/John Travolta on the books. But almost everyone has a mobile phone, a digital camera, the ability to record audio, blog, join networks... do much more to just tell the editor what they think of the journalism they use or experience.
And if you doubt the power of the audience... look what happened to Eason Jordan, Dan Rather and Judith Miller. It's uncomfortable... IF you're used to the old one-to-many lecture that journalism used to be. But the reason it's to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us.After all, if the argument for investigative journalism is that things done in the light are done with more integrity and accountability than things done in the dark... then the argument for investigating journalism - for audiences and those journalism puts in the news to investigate journalism - is unanswerable. Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear.
Postscript: as we know, 'nothing is ever finished, it's just the latest version'. Within hours of the 'Sweeney moment' being posted to YouTube this 'tweaked' version joined it.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

After spin

So far, Gordon Brown and his new website have been remarkably successful in shaping the way his campaign has been reported. Today, his top line is:
NHS an immediate priority
Gordon Brown today announces that the NHS will be an immediate priority, saying “we will do better”.
And sure enough, that's the line most journalists seem to be focusing on - a result, especially since that was the focus of 'interesting' Gordon on Today this morning. The focus of 'dour' Gordon was much more significant, though, and promises interesting, if not immediately amusing, times.

"I think we're going to have to have a better constitution. In other words, we're going to have to look at how the executive and all those who hold power should be held properly accountable to the people of this country. And I do want to conduct a debate in the country about how we can go forward with a better constitution for the future ..."
He cited - not for the first time - things like a new ministerial code and the right of Parliament to vote on peace or war ... both of which he's edged towards in previous briefings ... here, or here last September. It's linked to the notion that his time in office could be distinguished by a new approach both to government accountability and to the media. Perhaps even restoring the latter to a player in the former.

OK ... so Arctic Monkeys this isn't. One difference - it matters.

Charlie Beckett at POLIS has this extended post, his line that:
"It is one of the most majestic ironies of the New Labour years that the administration credited with the invention of spin is now threatened by a tidal wave of media hostility. Can Gordon Brown get his head back above water?"
Part of Gordon's problem, he diagnoses, is that he can't rely on everyone having a short memory:
"Brownites such as media consultant Scarlett McGwire claim he is man of integrity who will sweep the corridors of Whitehall clean of spin. Er… hang on a minute.
Brown’s original press man Charlie Whelan was one of the most ebullient exponents of the craft. He was often cavalier with veracity in the face of political danger ...
Our foremost chronicler of spin, Nick Jones, has described Brown as the greatest leaker of them all. Why should Brown change the habits of the last decade when he gets the top job?"
He concludes:
"The potential is there for a revived political culture. Can Gordon contribute?"
One former practitioner, John Williams who for half a dozen years was press secretary at the Foreign Office and before that a political correspondent on the Evening Standard, thinks at the very least he has a chance.

In a blog for the BBC College of Journalism - sadly, I can't link; it's still on an intranet site - John Williams writes;
"One of the first changes Gordon Brown should make is to end the culture of spin.
This is easily said. It is less easily defined. And it’s harder still to draft a programme for improvement."
In spite of the difficulty of a definition that separates presentation from spin, John Williams proposes these two criteria;
"over-statement that gives a false impression; uncheckable sources using anonymity in an underhand way. "
But that might not be all. he goes on;
"It would be good to have a debate on what else spin consists of, or if this definition is far too gentle."
His remedies?

"One: restore parliament as the place where government policy is first announced.
No more trailing in the Sundays or – sorry, BBC – in broadcast interviews. It would make an enormous difference to our political-media culture if we started tuning in to Commons statements and debates expecting to hear something important for the first time.

Two: reform political sourcing. Make clear to the media who are the two or three people genuinely close to each minister, authorised to speak on their behalf: say the press secretary, special advisor and perhaps parliamentary private secretary. Ministerial sources should be named. This could work only with media co-operation, but the media has an interest in more soundly-based news that the public can trust because it knows where it’s coming from. ‘A source authorised to speak on behalf of…’ is a formula I once used to tighten up Robin Cook’s media relations and it worked. It would be wonderful to see a newspaper report based on ‘a source not authorised, nor very close to, but freelancing for his/her own purposes.’

Three: Establish a respected, independent statistical service whose figures would have to be referred to, with footnotes, whenever a politician wants to give figures to back up an argument."

But there are problems. As Martin Moore posted a few days ago;
"it's not obvious there are many journalists out there still interested in the 'serious business of politics'. And those that are need to be convinced not just that Brown is telling the truth, but that he is willing to put up with people not liking his policies - i.e. engaging in a genuine debate, rather than trying to squash or square dissent."
I.e. there's no evidence that the the political press will drop the habits of spin ... because it's not in their interest to do it, culturally or competitively. Plus, it's difficult to envisage a day that the written press would adopt the 'on the record' default of the broadcasters - the stories are better with unnamed sources ... they're also less trusted, but hey ... memories are short and tomorrow's another day. The weird calculus that places the unnamed, interested source way ahead of the named, interested source is hard to shift.

But at the risk of seeming like a one string fiddle player, we either have to learn to live without a press that explains people to power and power to people - and the democratic deficit that inevitably accompanies it - or we have to change it. The demoticisation of publishing helps (if only by embarrassing the political press by contrasting with its villagey chumminess) ... but only so far.

What would take it much further would be a serious politician of any party who applied himself or herself to the task of remaking the links between the conversations people have and the politics they determine. And sure, that means kicking spin - as John Williams defines it - into touch; but it also means finding a way of weighing those conversations and producing politics and ideologies steered by that weight.

Parties and their annoying, troublesome constitutions used to do that. What's the new thing?

Friday, 4 May 2007

Frontline postscript

Thursday's World Press Freedom Day discussion at the frontline club was humbling for anyone - like me - who's spent their professional lives in the relative comfort of the UK media. You could say that fretting about how the anglo-saxon world's politicians and political journalists are trying to grab the blogosphere for themselves is kinda missing the point. Ethan Zuckermann and Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah brought to the discussion accounts of bloggers (and journalists) intimidated, imprisoned, closed down, unplugged.
The simple truth that the web enables more people to speak more freely to a bigger audience than ever before has got to be A Good Thing and I can't think of a single argument against it - not even when blogging is at its most uncivil or social networking at its most irreverent.
But the web's value as a medium through which the (potentially amplified) civic conversation takes place doesn't automatically make it the answer to our broken politics' prayers. Worse, the danger is that both politicians and political journalists - in the anglo-saxon world at any rate - are tending to make the parts of the web they occupy resemble all that was wrong about politics and political journalism in the first place.
Suw Charman argued - and I don't disagree with her at all - that many bloggers here in the UK post about real-world political experiences and issues, the ambulance service, the NHS and so on; that blogging constitutes an alert, engaged, bothered conversation. Kevin Anderson adds the thought that this is a reflection of the way in which most people "relate to governance and policy differently than politician and journalists."
Exactly - that's the precise point of the disconnect; the exact place the wires have been cut. Martin Moore takes this one step further and asks whether these conversations - including those involving councillors and candidates and activists - shouldn't "feed directly into politics at a local level"?
But that's the point - they don't. Neither locally nor nationally. And one of the reasons they don't is the way in which our politics and political press have co-evolved over the past quarter century; that co-evolution has neutered ideology, stunted political debate and replaced it with a hand-book of standard scenes that have litle to do with the connection of conversation with action and everything to do with tomorrow's headline.
Soooo ... blogging, good; social networking, good; civic conversation, good. But is the web the the tool that will mend what's broken? No.