100 days of the Coalition: how the news media has turned out to be the biggest, sorest loser of them all

One hundred days. How the media loves a yardstick.

We have US President FD Roosevelt to thank for the obsession with the first 15 weeks of a new government’s activity: in a race against time to save the US economy from its Depression slump, he signed into law over a dozen recovery programmes. Some worked, some didn’t… You can draw your own analogy.

It is of course far too early to know if the Coalition will succeed. It is also far too early to know whether the Lib Dems will be boosted by our involvement in government, or if we’ll be dragged down by a tainted association with it.

But I will stick my neck out on one issue: political reporting by the British media of the Coalition has been abysmal, and shows no signs of improving.

The reasons are not hard to divine. Ever since 7th May and the coalition discussions which followed, the media has found itself shut out. As Nicholas Jones points out in his book, Campaign 2010 (reviewed here today by my Co-Editor, Mark Pack):

Rarely had there been five days in British politics when all sections of the news media had been so impotent in influencing events, reduced to mere onlookers of a political tug-of-war which was reshaping the way the country was about to be governed.

The news media has been exacting its revenge ever since.

Right-wing newspapers (which is most of them) hate the involvement of the Lib Dems, and our moderating influence on the Consevatives. The Daily Mirror hates both parties with equal spite. And The Guardian (no surprise) and The Independent (disappointingly) are behaving like petulant, scorned lovers, cutting up the suits of the party which they reckon betrayed them (metaphorically speaking).

No news story about the Coalition is complete without tediously cliched references to ‘splits’ and ‘tensions’. Sorry, guys, but the public is way ahead of you on this. Believe it or not, they get that there are two different parties in the government, and that we will therefore disagree. On lots of issues, lots of the time. Instead of just reporting that fact as if it is news, then sitting back smugly content that your job as reporters is done, you could try and, y’know, examine the issues and communicate them intelligently and authoritatively to your audience.

I know, I know: it was so much easier in the Blair/Brown years – splits and tensions were the only story in town, and that there were two warring camps in the government, and that Labour was desperate to conceal this fact, was genuinely significant. But time’s moved on. The trite-and-tested old rules of reporting just won’t cut it any more.

In the absence of an opposition party fit to ask tough questions of the Coalition, more than ever the British public needs a mature, responsible news media to interrogate, to inform, to challenge. Editors may find it easier, simpler, cheaper to duck this opportunity. They may prefer to keep up the relentless pursuit of (yawn) splits and tensions. But that’s surely not why they went into journalism, is it?

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19 Comments

  • I’d forgotten about the Blair/Brown split as reported back then; it just makes the whole coverage seem even more ridiculous. There are naturally splits in a single party due to left/right/etc differences; if there were no disagreements between the Tories and the Lib Dems I’d be seriously worried!

    The plus side of this insane reporting, at least, is that people are still reading that there is a difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories, even if the newspapers are being pretty lax at actually saying what the policy differences are.

    It’s a shame the Guardian is being so bitter about it all. I’ve been tempted to switch to the Independent recently, but it doesn’t sound like they’re behaving themselves much better (plus their website is terrible).

  • Sunder Katwala 18th Aug '10 - 10:29am

    This is a bit daft as analysis – it just isn’t clear what “more than ever the British public needs a mature, responsible news media”

    There is a fair point in saying – the politicians should say, yes, there is a coalition, there will be differences, compromises, we will have to change our mind.

    It is a very silly point (at best) and otherwise a rather worrying attempt to control what ought to be reported to appear to argue that it is juvenile or inappropriate to report tensions and splits because they are inevitably part of a coalition.

    They are still extremely newsworthy – and important information about the future policy and political direction of the government.

    For example, the Tory backbench rebellion on capital gains tax turned out to be quite important: the Tory backbenches showed they could (primarily through private pressure, with some public advocacy) significantly change a Coalition Agreement policy

    Simon Hughes’ reaction to the housing benefit changes and to housing tenure could be significant on those issues, and his broader attempts to prevent ministers bouncing the coalition into new policy beyond the agreement are surely important.

    The open argument between Liam Fox and the Treasury is also an important one.

    The Coalition has actually at times had some rather gushing coverage as well as critical coverage, but serious political journalism is surely about uncovering these potential flashpoints at an early stage.

  • Dominic Curran 18th Aug '10 - 10:34am

    I’d much rather the papers reported a few more ‘splits’ to be honest. Clegg’s rosy defence of the Coalition this morning on the Today programme has reinforced my view that he is making us look supine in the face of thoroughly objectionable Tory policies, some of which weren’t in the Coalition Agreement (i don’t remember the abolition of PCTs or the curtailment of council tenancy security being mentioned at all) and which we could, and should, oppose rather more vocally. If we’re just seen as going along with everything these arch rightwingers say and do, we might as well give up and go home.

  • ‘a rather worrying attempt to control what ought to be reported’

    Seriously, Sunder, it is a valid point to make when a deeper analysis might be possible, and it is hilarious to try to suggest Stephen is making a ‘worrying attempt to control what ought to be reported’. Stephen should of course be flattered. And it is clear what ‘more than ever the British public needs a mature, responsible news media’ means; Stephen makes clear what he means in the rest of the article.

    But you don’t address Stephen’s specific points about reporting – I doubt Stephen would deny much of what you say further down (eg, about Simon, the MOD et al), but that is precisely the point Stephen is making, the Mirror, Telegraph, Times, Sky, Guardian occassionally, all seem a little confused and unable to report it as anything other than a bad thing that we have a cabinet/parliamentary government rather than the presidential style so deftly abused by Thatcher and Blair.

    It is as if every time they report a disagreement (and not something I would call a split, as that implies one party) this is somehow a terrible thing. The responsible reporting Stephen, and most Lib Dems, long for is the acceptance that a disgreement/debate/argument does not equal splits, tense, fragile, or bad government. Disagreement is a good thing.

  • Dominic Curran blimy a post with which I fully agree as fot that horrid Daily Mirror pointing out the heinous effects of your new masters policies on the lives of working people shame on them, oh and you too.

  • The sorest losers will the most vulnerable in our society, who are having what little safety nets existed for them, removed in order to pacify international financial & credit markets. Please do write a little piece about them, as nobody else seems to be saying much about it.

  • “But I will stick my neck out on one issue: political reporting by the British media of the Coalition has been abysmal, and shows no signs of improving.”

    I will stick my neck out on another issue : political reporting has, for a long time been superficial and trivial. The only difference now, is that you don’t like the content.

    If the reporting was shallow, trivial *but* fully supported the coalition – this piece wouldn’t exist.

  • Jane, I agree with your point about reporting being trivial – I always thought that the personal attacks on Gordon Brown for being Scottish or blind or temperamental were completely pointless, when in fact his policy was sufficiently incompetent that it alone should have been the focus of attack.

    The Torygraph and the Mail have been after the coalition since the day it was announced, primarily because they rightly realised that the right-wing policies they preferred were unlikely to be enacted. The Guardian has been confused by the coalition, and the Indy – I think – simply doesn’t understand it. The fact is, it’s easier for a newspaper to write attacking copy than to praise (look at the Mirror’s sycophantic political coverage of the last Labour government) as it provides better headlines to sell papers. For example, which of these two sounds more exciting:

    “Tensions in coalition as Hughes calls for Lib Dem veto”

    or

    “Let’s agree to disagree, says Hughes”

  • toryboysnevergrowup 18th Aug '10 - 12:38pm

    “We will keep the winter fuel allowance. Let me take this opportunity to say very clearly to any pensioner … You know you are getting letters from the Labour Party that say the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance, would cut the free bus travel, would cut the free television licence.

    “These statements by Labour are quite simply lies. I don’t use the word ‘lie’ very often, but I am using it today because they are lies.

    David Cameron, March 23rd 2010.

    So who is lying now – or does “any pensioner” have a different meaning in Toryspeak from that in normal parlance. Are there any LibDems in Government with any backbone whatsoever.

  • When Nick Clegg says thing like this morning that labour was wrong on social mobilty and then appoints a labour man to sort it out its hardly surprising the media has a dig at him is it?

  • Actually, I thought at first that this article in the Guardian was pretty good:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/aug/18/public-mood-spending-cuts

    Clearly, though, they couldn’t resist getting the kick in at Nick at the end.

    “He’s not liked at the moment,” said Chris Weldon, a 50-year-old former steelworker and Labour councillor.

    Such a shock! A Labour councillor admits to not liking Nick Clegg! Someone pass the smelling salts…..

  • David Allen 18th Aug '10 - 1:29pm

    Brilliant! Yet another reason not to worry when nobody likes us. It’s not because we are doing anything wrong. Oh no! It’s because the media have got it in for us.

    And why is that? Because we held our coalition negotiations behind closed doors, and for some sort of tenuous reasons, the media are supposed to feel an overwhelming need to get revenge on us for doing so.

    I feel an award ceremony coming on. “Annual Most Far-Fetched Excuse for Losing Public Support”!

  • paul barker 18th Aug '10 - 2:19pm

    A great example of the MSMs failure is the reporting of last years Party Finances, revealed last week by the Electoral Commission. Labour had debts of £17Million, about £100 per member. Pretty startling figures & almost completely ignored, presumably because it doesnt fir the consensus narrative.

  • I think it’s not just those five days of negotiation, as Stephen suggests. I think the media are still not entirely over the shock that they simply ignored the LibDems for so long that they didn’t see any of this coming.

    For example, there was that Paxman interview with Nick Clegg in April, where Nick Clegg pretty much wiped the floor with Paxman. He was also the first to submit to such an interview, forcing the other two leaders to do the same although they had tried to avoid it. Was this covered anywhere? Hardly anywhere at all – Clegg was just mentioned in relation to the other leaders’ interviews, his performance was not discussed (certainly not anywhere I have since checked). This was a week before the first debate. Anybody who saw the interview shouldn’t have been surprised about Nick’s great performance in the debate. What were those hacks doing?

    Equally, just a bit of scrutiny would have made it very clear that an important section of the LibDem leadership was not as left wing as was commonly assumed. It smacks of a serious failure of journalistic investigation if the Guardian really backed the LibDems in the belief that they would not make a deal with the Conservatives (some of the Guardian’s current sulking would suggest that this was indeed what they were thinking). The Independent (sadly) is even more guilty of this, since its recommendation on election day, as far as it went, was pretty close to ‘vote LibDem to keep the Tories out’. If anything, the press should have analysed LibDem policy and perhaps even shown up some campaign tactics which made them look a lot more left wing in constituencies where this seemed politically prudent. But of course, no-one in the media could be bothered to check with the LibDems to see what their policies were, preferring instead to go with lazy and outdated stereotypes.

    Finally, there was Nick Clegg’s clear statement that he would first negotiate with the party which had the bigger mandate. What did the left-wing media think that meant? Didn’t sound like ‘there is no way we’d support the Conservatives’ to me. Moreover, how could anybody miss how hawkish Vince Cable was getting on the deficit? And the Orange Book wasn’t exactly a secret, even though it might as well have been, seeing how the media saw the LibDems before 12th May.

    I simply think the political commentariat are still not over having been caught out in this way, but honestly, they have only themselves to blame for ignoring for so long a party which, after all, managed to fetch almost a quarter of the vote in May.

  • Well yes, it’s true the media find themselves in unfamiliar territory, which taxes their journailsts and editors and annoys their owners…….

    Autres temps, autres moeurs : if we are going to survive as a party, we have to adapt to these new conditions, by constructing a pro-active, encouraging and constructive attitude towards the press. Blaming or fighting it won’t work.

    Also, as a Party we could strengthen and develop our local-party structure by holding monthly meetings, at which briefings on Parliamentary progress from Cowley Street are discussed, and perhaps even formally commented on.
    This would give an automatic reason to hold regular party meetings . It could also help to unite the party behind the Coalition process which is perforce having to evolve more or less on a daily basis. It would also help party members to feel actively involved in that process, -something which they probably don’t feel at the moment.

  • Excellent analysis Stephen.

    The broadcast media has been very, very biased in the way it’s tending to report information and to omit Lib Dem involvement at certain times and to over play Lib Dem influence in other areas. It seems a deliberate narrative but i may be being too cynical.

    But above all (party politics to one side), the reporting is really banal. I want more detail, more proper analysis of the issues.

    Splits and rifts are all part of coalition politics – please get over it!!

    The media’s other top spin is that those ‘rifts’ are a bad thing because they’ve always reported them over many years as a bad thing.

    Where Cameron and Clegg are failing is in re-writing this narrative. They need to start portraying dissent and debate in modern politics (coalition politics) as a good thing for Gvmt and democracy. They need to lead the media not follow it. I’m not sure they’ve got that right as yet.

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