Kennedy defection rumours – another reason journalists are losing the public’s trust

So today, at last, the news media is finally reporting the pretty unsurprising news that Charles Kennedy, leader of the Lib Dems from 1999 to 2006, is not leaving the Lib Dems in 2010.

Now it is of course the silly season, and we can easily write off this journalistic confection as mere desperation to fill some column inches / dead air-time. But actually I think it’s a symptom of a wider malaise in political journalism, its ‘tabloidisation’.

How an unsourced rumour went viral

Let’s go back to Friday afternoon, when the Kennedy defection rumours started circulating, and work out how they came to be the lead story on TV news by Saturday lunchtime.

They first emanated on the Labour-supporting blog, Left Futures, in a story written by Mark Seddon, a journalist with deep Labour roots but not at all plugged into the Lib Dems. The post, Charles Kennedy Considers Defecting To Labour, caused something of a stir on Twitter.

At this point, responsible journalists would have asked themselves a couple of questions:

1) What’s the source for this story?
Mr Seddon’s article refers lazily to “Westminster sources”, with only one even vague attribution (“including one close to Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership campaign”). No-one close to Mr Kennedy, or even within the Lib Dems, is referenced.

Within a couple of hours of the story being re-tweeted, Olly Grender – someone who is well-placed within the Lib Dems as its former communications director – had dismissed it out of hand: “Charles Kennedy rumour re defection is total fiction – a Labour generated silly season story – nice try @Ed_Miliband”.

2) Who stands to benefit from the story?
Any responsible journalist would have considered the different angles to the story, and who would have an advantage in seeing it further circulated.

Mr Kennedy himself would be an obvious possibility: he is known to be unhappy with the Coalition, and so the story has a certain plausibility. However, if he were actually seeking to defect (i) he would not want the story leaked out, and (ii) he would most certainly not want it done through such an obscure channel as Left Futures. Which leaves the possibility that he was attempting to fire a warning shot across the party’s boughs. But, again, if that were his intention why not place an article or interview in one of the Sunday heavyweight newspapers? In other words, there is no logical reason to believe Charles Kennedy could be the source. And clearly the Lib Dems have no reason to spread the rumour, which leaves only one possibility…

Mischief-making by Labour, whether directly connected to Ed Miliband’s campaign or another leadership contender’s. This seems to be by far the most likely explanation, especially as the official party also was willing to go on the record to laugh off the possibility, and that Charles Kennedy himself contacted Nick Clegg by email to rubbish it. Responsible journalists would at the very least have asked the ‘who benefits?’ question, and reflected it in their reporting of the situation.

Incidentally, if it did come from Ed Miliband’s campaign, it seems a peculiarly ill-judged move. Mr E. Miliband has succeeded in looking like he enjoys spreading rumours and playing games while simultaneously antagonising Lib Dems; he should leave such tactics to Ed Balls, if he doesn’t want to gain the same tainted reputation. And if it came from his campaign team and wasn’t personally authorised by him, that strikes me as a worryingly chaotic state of affairs.

As far as I can make out, no journalist thought about asking these two vital questions: who’s the source and who benefits from the story. If they did, it certainly wasn’t apparent from their highly speculative reports.

Why not? Because it fitted with the news media’s current meme that the Lib Dems are on the point of collapse. Again, the evidence for this is patchy. Party membership is on the up, The Voice’s surveys of party members show high levels of satisfaction, and our poll ratings are at their usual summer levels.

That’s not to deny the difficulties the party is currently experiencing, which the news media is perfectly entitled to report. But the job of responsible journalism should be to present an accurately balanced picture, not simply to see if it can self-justify its own negative spin.

The long-term problem for journalism

This is, in Mr Kennedy’s own words, simply “the silliest of silly season stories”, one which will soon blow over, and be forgotten. But it points again to a news media which has forgotten its purpose – to question, to challenge, to analyse: to help citizens make sense of the world they live in.

This should worry journalists, whether they represent the most downmarket tabloid news outlets (like the Sun, Mail and Sky News), or the more upmarket ones. As my colleague Mark Pack points out, journalism which loses the trust of its audience is not a sustainable business model.

What the Kennedy defection rumours point to is a news media which is mistaking reporting for re-tweeting. Time for journalists to get back to basics.

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54 Comments

  • It didn’t originate at Left Futures, it originated at “Big Think”, though with the same text and the same author. BBC ran the story as “Charles Kennedy ‘not defecting’ to Labour” yesterday, so it’s a bit dishonest to try and claim that they’re belatedly saying it.

    I can’t find a BBC article saying that he was defecting, as far as I can see the story first popped up on the BBC as a denial of the rumours- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11046733

    Sad news anyway, would have loved Charles Kennedy in the party.

  • paul barker 22nd Aug '10 - 2:54pm

    The Media cant keep up the “Libdems imploding” meme for ever. Sooner or later they will get bored & look for a new angle. My guess is that Labour will be the next victim, probably in The Spring when the new Leaders newness has worn off.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 22nd Aug '10 - 2:59pm

    Of course the LibDems are always scrupiously honest about the stories they place with the media? Anyway glad to to see you are working yourself to a lather about this, while ignoring the abolition of the FCO report on human rights. Apart from making up the numbers for the Tories what is the point of the LibDems in the coalition if you cannot at least make some show of resisting such retrograde measures.

  • Funny that it is only now that LibDems complain loudly about ‘tabloidisation’ of political news. The LibDems have been among the beneficiaries of it. I have to laugh at your ‘back to basics’ remark.

    You ask who benefits from circulating the rumour. You forgot to include your coalition partners. haven’t you wondered how every time Clegg is at the helm, the press turns negative. coincidence? The LibDems may be past masters at dirty tricks campaigns, on a local basis. You have absolutely no idea just how expert your Tory partners are at it, on the major national scale.

    You have much more to fear from them, than you could ever have from Labour.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 22nd Aug '10 - 3:33pm

    “Party membership is on the up”

    How ironic that you should be referring to that LDV story while pontificating about poor journalistic standards. That was the one whose headline – “Official: 4,500 new Lib Dem members have joined party since election and coalition agreement” – turned out to be quite wrong, when a clarification of a highly misleading statement on membership was finally dragged out of the chair of the English party. In fact the new members had joined since the beginning of May – not since the election, and certainly not since the coalition agreement.

    Unsurprisingly, neither the article nor the headline was corrected. Perhaps you should put LDV’s own house in order before you try to set the rest of the journalistic world to rights.

  • Bernard Salmon 22nd Aug '10 - 3:45pm

    @Kehaar
    and Twitter picked-up on it because the LibDem leadership didn’t think they needed to explain thinks to hoi polloi

    Eh? What exactly is the Lib Dem leadership meant to do to control the somewhat excitable types who picked up on this on Twitter? They came right out and dismissed it as the nonsense it is, so what else were they meant to do?

  • I think we can be pretty sure of one thing:

    Reports about the imminent split or demise of the Liberal Democrats will get a lot louder and more frenzied during the Autumn Conference. Seeing that most poltical journalists never properly covered the event before, they won’t know what hit them when they get to see a conference where opinions aren’t stage managed as they are in other party conferences, and they’ll blow it out of all proportion! I’d predict that there won’t be much reporting on content and ideas, but a lot of noise about apparent disagreements.

    One can just hope that they’ll get used to coalition politics and LibDemmery eventually…..

    I am still thinking that this kind of coverage, pretty much any coverage, really , is better than the almost complete media black-out for all things LibDem in recent years.

  • allentaylorhoad 22nd Aug '10 - 4:06pm

    The story of Charles’ defection to Labour spread because it was quite believable, and some might argue, a logical move for a disillusioned social democrat (which is why I defected in May). Had someone suggested that David Laws was defecting to Labour, it would have had no credibility. What made the story suspicious was the timing of its release – in mid-August, rather than at the start of the Lib Dem conference.

  • “And clearly the Lib Dems have no reason to spread the rumour, which leaves only one possibility…”
    Except that the Lib Dem leadership have gained. If they thought Kennedy was wobbly they may have tAken the view that it was better to either smoke him out now or, as has happened, get him to make a statement supporting the Party.

  • Rob Sheffield 22nd Aug '10 - 4:30pm

    A great fun read !!

    Of course CK was not going to defect this weekend.

    But seriously folks: anyone who does not think this was a shot-across-the-Clegg-Bows needs a reality check. All is not well in the Lib Dems- even if that is not reflected in the sort of mind control that seems to have overcome all the posting originators on LDV (if not the repliers).

    Charlie was a social democrat originally: I was a ‘social democrat who stayed’.

    Doubtless I have much more in common with him politically than do the posters on here- a majority of whom seem to be Orangies.

    Or- if not- at least suffering from that same bunker mentality/ collective nervous breakdown that a load of Labourites got after the Iraq war did not find any WMD.

  • Bernard Salmon 22nd Aug '10 - 4:33pm

    @Kehaar

    You’re contradicting yourself. You say Twitter is not journalism. Blogging is not journalism. and also It was the being-picked-up-by-major-outlets which added to it., thereby rather negating your criticisms of Stephen’s posting. This was just a Twitter storm and the major outlets should have done rather more checking of it than they did. And before you start, yes I am a journalist and a paid-up member of the NUJ. My initial reaction when I heard this was that it was nonsense – it’s a shame more members of my profession didn’t adopt a similar attitude.

  • Rob Sheffield 22nd Aug '10 - 4:38pm

    @kehaar

    Out of interest, Stephen, are you a journalist? Formal qualifications, membership of the NUJ sort of thing.

    What a liberal way of looking at things.

  • Croslandist 22nd Aug '10 - 5:01pm

    I am interested by the idea of someone seeking to fire a warning shot across the Party’s boughs. But I suspects that “bows”, as found on ships, are more likely. :-)

  • Not a LibDem 22nd Aug '10 - 5:02pm

    What would be equally worthy of examination and discussion was the willingness of Lib Dem members to believe the rumour, and to turn immediately to viciously attacking Kennedy.

    I lost count of how many times I read that awful Straight line “joke” or the equally witty leave a party early line by Lib Dems.

  • Not a LibDem 22nd Aug '10 - 5:17pm

    @Kehaar

    Yes, while it was still assumed he was onside. As soon as it was being beleived he was not, the reaction from members in public forums was vicious.

  • Sorry, Kehaar, what do you mean Mark Seddon “would consider running as a Tory PPC”? He has certainly been pretty well dug in in Labour circles being a leading member of Tribune Group etc. You may have more knowledge of his earlier origins than me.

  • And I have just read your further comment “minor figure”. That seems like a form of dissing that is unjustified. As I remember he was also an NEC member in the recent past – you can hardly speak of people as well dug in as that as “minor figures”. Be fair.

  • Paul, there are plenty in the party and who supported it who have considerable qualms. I am sure you, like me, have read the reams of stuff here (OK, we know some is Labour or independent radical based) and heard other stuff off the blogosphere, you’ve seen the polls. Many ain’t happy. And there are good policy, ideological and dare I say, constitutional reasons for that.

  • Clegg to be sidelined from AV campaign

    Perhaps I’m being premature, but there is a sense that the Lib Dem leadership is not too bothered about the AV referendum. What was presented as an absolute requirement of any deal with the Liberal Democrats is, according to Clegg, ‘not the be all and end all’.

    So reports the Coffee House’ David Blackburn.

    See what I mean by the negative, and I forgot to mention; personal, press when Clegg is ‘at the helm’?

  • Bernard Salmon 22nd Aug '10 - 6:58pm

    @Kehaar

    it strikes as reasonable to have expected a response from LibDem bigwigs.

    And it got one – it was dismissed as nonsense, which it is. What more do you think the party could have done? Advance on the Beeb with flaming torches? Stage a sit-in at The Guardian? I think you’re letting your obvious dislike of the Lib Dem leadership cloud your judgement on this one.

  • DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS! Don’t forget, if labour carry on thinking they can return to power like this, they will be in opposition for a generation!

  • Completely disagree with the conclusion of ‘tabloidisation’ as a malaise that has compromised political journalism. In fact, it is the consequence of the public preferring editorial over unbiased, factually accurate reporting. I simply see no evidence of the public becoming disillusioned with political journalism, they simply prefer getting it from Richard Littlejohn, Iain Dale and The Stillettoed Socialist. ‘Re-tweeting’ is what the public seems to want… unless it disagrees with the political views of said ‘re-tweet’.

  • Kehaar – I had not stated M Seddon was “an insider”, a sycophant, or any kind of a leadership mouthpiece within Labour. He is the absolute opposite of that. That does not mean he is not well dug in – much more so than the likes of Luciana Berger, for example. Just because someone is a perennial rebel, or on one wing of a party, doesn’t mean they are not well established, you know.

  • As a comparison for those of us within the Lib Dems, Seddon’s position in Labour is rather similar as an anti-establishment outsider to say, Simon Titley, or John Smithson or even Viv Bingham or Tony Greaves. OK, Tony is in the Lords, these days, but that hasn’t gagged him from making forthright comments! None of them are MPs, and all of them are considerably better known in the party than many of our MPs!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 23rd Aug '10 - 12:47am

    “Unsurprisingly, neither the article nor the headline was corrected.”

    And unsurprisingly no response from Stephen Tall – the great champion of journalistic standards…

  • “no journalist thought about asking these two vital questions: who’s the source and who benefits from the story”

    And this comes as news to you?
    When are the journalists from the mainstream media going to ask the same questions about “anthropogenic global warming” aka “climate change”, amongst other things?

  • charliechops1 23rd Aug '10 - 11:32am

    What happened? I don’t doubt that Charles Kennedy has had talks with the Labour Whips. The issue is how best to vote against some of the Coalition budget proposals which the Lib Dem Ministers agree with the Tories. Kennedy and others may vote with the Opposition. If so they might be pushed out of the Lib Dem parliamentary party. They could stay Lib Dem but sit in opposition This is what I believe Charles has been discussing. As we know Simon Hughes would like it to be accepted that Lib Dem MPs can vote according to their conscience: two sides of the same coin. This is not a situation of fine distinctions. The change sought by the Coalition will damage British soiciety for years to come. Some of the damage to individual lives will be irredeemable. It is time to stop thisa..

  • Malcolm Adams 23rd Aug '10 - 12:48pm

    Viewing this string on my first visit to this site raised, first of all an eye-brow or two and then as I read further, an ever-widening smile…
    Having worked in news-rooms most of my 40-year plus media career, I long ago learned to trust very few ‘journalists’. In general, they are an excitable lot, obsessed with gossip, and the early days of my BBC years when no-one published ‘facts’ until they’d been checked from at least three independent sources are long gone.
    Erosion of standards, 24-hour news (that is SO boring to be part of, trust me…), blogging, tweeting etc have all added to this demise.
    The ‘story’ of CK defecting was handled perfectly appropriately by the party.
    Yes, it could have been plausible, but no, to anyone applying a brain cell or two, it was not probable (as others have said, think timing, unreliable source etc etc).
    Many journalists today are like excitable children – and should almost always be treated as such – get over it.
    Oh, and to all those who are worried about conference reporting about party splits etc. – the disagreements & disaffection amongst LibDems is nothing compared to what’s going on (and being buried as much as possible) in the other two parties.
    I now live “out in the sticks” and the ill-ease among the county Tory ranks continues to give me endless amusement – they (the solid rump of the Tories) are having to live with and accomodate a situation they are totally and viscerally unsuited, uneducated, and unprepared for.
    The Tory-dominated press (and the lazy, Westminster-addicted political editors and their puppet-reporters) haven’t yet made the adjustment to the whole coalition scenario – and will take a very long time to get there.
    Perhaps they should all be sent to Germany or another of the many countries where a more civilsed system has been operating for years?

  • “But the job of responsible journalism should be to present an accurately balanced picture, not simply to see if it can self-justify its own negative spin.”

    Oh come on, this hasn’t been the case for a very very long time, if ever. The claimed role of journalists may be this, but the actual job itself is rather a different animal

  • @Kehaar

    My referencing Iain Dale, et al, wasn’t to say that they are by definition ‘bad’, merely that they are biased. And their bias, at least it seems to me, is clearly evident in their reporting. And cheers for the Rod Lidell reminder, I think that guy is quite dishonourable in his journalism.

  • Charliechops1

    In what universe could a libdem MP vote against budget measures , sit on opposition benches and remain a libdem MP? We are either in a coalition Govt or not – there is no halfway house. I know many on here (those who are libdems of course – I know how much our labour “friends” dislike it!) are unhappy with the coalition, but it is what we’ve got and no use pretending there is something better around. We have for years played up the benefits of coalition, now we have to prove them. We can’t be in a position where we will accept coalition, but only with one other party.

  • “Shot across the boughs”? Bows, I presume was meant. That’s the problem with relying on spell-checkers.

  • Charlie Hamilton 24th Aug '10 - 6:11pm

    It’s baffling that anyone even took this seriously to begin with. What madness would induce a liberal join this Labour party, given their record of the past 13 years? Labour supporters just don’t seem to understand how repellent their party is to us.

  • Labour will try anything to destabilise both us and the coalition.

    Having confronted the Labour Party over the Iraq war when he was the leader it would be nye impossible to contemplate the same Charles Kennedy to defect and join with that lot of unprincipled glory hunters now seeking to lead the same discredited Labour Party.

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