Monday, 28 January 2008

Alastair's denial

I was struck by a couple of passages in Alastair Campbell's Hugh Cudlipp Lecture and subsequent comments blogged by Charlie Beckett of POLIS.
First this: that, apparently, one of the reasons Alastair left No10 was:
"relations between media and politics had become so bad, I had become something of a symbol within that, and part of me thought maybe things would improve."
An act of selfless self-sacrifice, then, on behalf of the greater good ... though, he asserts, a sacrifice made in vain.
"I am not sure things have improved at all.”
May as well have stayed on, then ... though the diaries (and cheques) etc would have had to wait.

Alastair's list of what didn't improve at his going is long and familiar: quantity of journalism up, standards down ... and there's much with which most would agree. The media - the press in particular - should
"understand (that) its responsibilities in a modern democracy go beyond making money and filling space"
for example. Amen to that.

But while Alastair seems on one level to recognise that his controlling urges changed both politics and political journalism, he seems on another to be in denial about the scale and corrosive effect of that urge for control ... and what needs to be done to make good that corrosion.

The truth is that some very important things did change the moment Alastair left No10. It became possible, for example, to have rational, calm conversations both with Downing Street and other Government departments. My dealings - I was then Editor of Today - with Government and Ministers was no longer a perpetual combat, a zero-sum game in which reason was a sign of weakness and the resolution of every negotiation or complaint had to have a winner and a loser.

Second, this: I sometimes wonder whether Alastair's obsession with the quantity of news (“In an era of more pages, more space, more access, more talk, there is less said and done that is truly memorable”) is any more than the realisation that he could never really control the supply of news ... that no-one could. That news and journalism is cantankerous and messy. And I wonder whether what he calls "the media's obsession with itself" isn't just a cry of frustration at those pesky journalists he felt he should have controlled but who insisted in going off-grid - like Nick Clarke's The World at One, which always took as its starting point stories and angles that weren't on the Downing Street spreadsheet.

But Charlie Beckett is right - the question to both journalists and politicians is ... what are you going to do about it? Things may have improved since Alastair left Downing Street ... but not by enough to make repair all the damage done while he was there.

There are plenty of shortcoming in the British press; the obsession with failure or with doing down public figures ... rather in the way Alastair describes the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition as:
"a PR man by trade whose single most important achievement prior to becoming leader was making a speech without notes"
and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as:
"a good looking 40 year old about whom next to nothing is known"
But then, old habits die hard. Which is the point Alastair has never seemed able to grasp - that if you want a higher level of serious political debate then some old habits need to go ... on both the political and the journalistic side. And that those habits will never go while the default nature of politics and political journalism is blood sport and neither politician nor journalist really, really wants that to change.

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