Has something gone wrong with political reporting in the UK?

That’s the question asked today by Lib Dem blogger Andy Hinton in an article titled, If you want to keep something secret…

Andy highlights the mangled reporting of the BBC in claiming that Nick Clegg is back-tracking on the coalition government’s commitment to fixed-term parliaments by fleshing out further details on the proposed 55% dissolution rule – as he points out, Nick was simply repeating what the Lib Dems’ deputy leader of the house David Heath had said a fortnight ago in the House of Commons. This chimes with the general media reporting standard that unless something is said live on air it hasn’t actually been publicly stated.

This example of the media’s failure to report leads Andy to argue:

Sadly, this is the modus operandi of all coverage of political debate these days. “Scrutiny” seems to amount to the general principle that parties should be subjected to a general sort of “stress test” of having a set of stock criticisms flung at them. If they come out the other side still standing, they have been successfully “scrutinised”. If not, they have been found wanting.

And he concludes:

Ultimately, we end up with an impoverished national conversation, because the media no longer bother to actually pay attention to what is going on and ask questions of their own. They are so used to being spoon-fed it all by the media operatives of the political parties or by leaks from MPs manoeuvring within their parties, it seems to completely pass them by when something is just said, openly, on the floor of the house. We in the Lib Dems have seen this before, incidentally, in coverage of party conference which seems to owe more to the briefings being given to journalists than to actual reporting of the proceedings of the conference.

I am increasingly struggling to shake off the sense that something has gone seriously wrong with coverage of politics in the UK.

What do LDV’s readers think of Andy’s lament for the current state of political journalism?

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28 Comments

  • James Bartlett 8th Jun '10 - 10:34am

    Elle – completely agree. It wasn’t until I added numerous political blogs and the like to my RSS feed reader a couple of years ago that I actually feel I’m reading about what is actually happening in the world of politics. The blogs have well written opinion and some top investigative talent. On the occasion that they do link to newspaper articles, the additional comment provided often provides clarity or correction. The BBC have the biggest problem really, as they should be the ones doing the most reporting directly from Westminster – i.e. what was said in the house and do less of the opinion.

  • I quite agree, especially with the point from James that the BBC have the biggest problem. They seem to have replaced their journalists with spin doctors. They contrive to place a malicious interpretation on everything done, not done, said or not said by the coalition. Then they get a member of the opposition, yesterday it was Liam Byrne , to second their malign views with an opinion that goes entirely unchallenged.

  • Funny how this is noticed only now that the LibDems are in a position of power. Get used to it boys and girls.

  • I totally agree with everything that has been said. What do we do about it? how do we get our views over to the BBC in particular?

    Stop paying your licence fee. It’s time the publically-funded portion of the BBC was massively scaled back, anyway… and the way to fund it it not through a regressive tax.

  • @jayu

    It’s been pretty damn obvious for years, mate.

    @Jez

    No! Jesus Christ – for the short comings of the BBC at least they try to be impartial. The same thing can’t be said about the private press (especially but definitely not exclusively the right wing press) at all – save maybe the FT. Having just a private press would be a disaster for this country.

  • Andrew Suffield 8th Jun '10 - 2:12pm

    Shonky political journalism is only one aspect of a far greater problem; something’s gone wrong with reporting full stop.

    It appears that careful reporting was a luxury of a time when newspapers were highly profitable. As interest in them declined, all news outlets shifted into becoming entertainment (including the BBC, presumably to “remain competitive” or something).

    Accurate and insightful reporting is not very entertaining, so those were the first things to be discarded. Worse, this was a race which the tabloids had a head start in – so everybody followed their lead.

    I don’t see a good solution here.

  • “…Accurate and insightful reporting is not very entertaining…”
    I disagree. There is accurate and insightful reporting on France 24, Russian TV, EuroNews, Al Jazeera and its very interesting. In fact it is all the more interesting for being straight reporting motivated by an intelligent wish to inform without the encumbrance of heavy handed politically motivated spin and cackhanded editing.
    Today the Health Secretary has said it would be a good idea to ensure that hospitals should bear some responsibility for the operations their surgeons perform rather than being able to wash their hands of patients the minute they’ve been discharged (usually too early). BBC researchers and producers have devoted their entire day to finding people who will disagree with this idea. Why? What’s the point of that?

  • @Andy Hinton

    So why bleat about it now?

    @DunKhan

    My point exactly.

  • BBC researchers and producers have devoted their entire day to finding people who will disagree with this idea. Why? What’s the point of that?

    I know it’s a cliché, but I think the BBC has a strong Labour bias. As has been mentioned, inviting Liam ‘no money left’ Byrne onto their news channel to critique the coalition’s spending cuts is so hypocritical as to be laughable. If Labour don’t have anybody with any credibility around financially, they shouldn’t get an interview at all.

  • David Morton 8th Jun '10 - 4:26pm

    I have been in Whitehaven ( In Cumbria ) the last few days arriving the day after the recent shootings. It’s been facinating to see the media epicentre of a story of this magnitute from a grass roots level. All my family are here, a know some of the crime scenes very well, I’m as upset as any uneffected bystander. While it hasn’t told me anything that I didn’t technically ” Know” it has painted in bright primary colours

    1. That the media has a stock of archetypal stories to which it will bend if neccessery the facts. In this case its the “murder in paradise” motif despite Whitehaven not being in the lakes and being far from a sleepy fishing village.

    2. The fact that some one always has to be to blame in officialdom. Cumbria police have to be criticised even in he face of the most compelling case possible that some people are just nutters and eveil can be random.

    3. That the national broadcast media are a colonial force arriving from the centre and then feeding coverage back to the centre with little if any grass roots up stuff.

    4. The now complete supremacy of image over substance

    5. While accepting that “post Diana” is now cliche I suspect that cliche has protected us from how true it is. emotional narratives and lanaguage are now far more important than outcomes or facts.

    I could on and on but what really interests me is the chicken and egg question here. Did Big Brother and Dianaific public grief dumb down public discourse? or did they merely fill a vacuum that was already there. I get no sense that trvial public coverage of politics is being imposed on the public against its will. My sense ios that many people are quite happy with the equivalent of a defrosted microwave meal.

    I’m not sure that the blogosphere will automatically be our saviour either. While of course it has enormously empowered anyone with access to an internet cafe to publish and is the ultimate devolved medium how much of it is actually an echo chamber repeating mainstream sources or commenting on it. To use the most quoted example it was the dead tree press with its money and actual reporters that broke expenses not a blog.

    Where does this leave the Lib Dems? To put my head a bove the parapet I think the party will just have to get used to it. While of course an honourable minority, the philadelphia lawyer strand, has banged on about this issue for years how much of the party’s air war and blogosphere is happy to partake in the slagging when its other parties in the cross hairs. For every Jennifers Ear there is a Mrs Duffy where we are happy to join in over the most human of mistakes made possible by 24 hour news.

    Of course the ultimate salvation for the party in government might not be as sailors cursing the sea but in the fact in the end the people do make up there own mind. From a media coverage point of view surely the most salutory result of the whole election was Rochdale, scne of and home to Mrs Duffy.

    Labour “Gain”.

  • >I know it’s a cliché, but I think the BBC has a strong Labour bias.

    If it’s any ‘consolation’ – during the David Laws/Danny Alexander fuss, at one point a BBC news presenter was interviewing ‘an expert’ whose expertise was that he was a Daily Mail journalist who’d written lots of similar stories.

    Problems with blogs a) I doubt any blog in this country has the same readership as the average local freesheet newspaper, b) if you read a newspaper, you know who has produced it and what they stand for, and that they have to conform to laws that bloggers are sometimes cavalier about, c) blogs react to news, they rarely break it.

    But the real biggie, surely, is that people only turn to them to see what bloggers who agree with them make of the day’s news.
    IE The only people who are going to look on here to see if the BBC’s report of what Nick Clegg said is accurate are likely to be Lib Dem supporters who suspect the BBC has it wrong.
    Anyone else will either accept it’s right, or look to a Conservative or Labour-supporting site, which will have its own slant.

    Part of the problems referred to in posts above is that voracious appetite of 24-hour rolling news, of course. It’s not enough just to report the facts: you have to keep coming up with something new on a story when nothing new has happened. Which means interviewing everyone down to the office cat for their reaction to what’s just been said.

    At local level, newsrooms with fewer staff cos of cuts mean journalists rely more on hand-outs, as they don’t have time to go out and get stories for themselves. Sit in a council chamber for two hours, or spend 10 minutes rehashing a press release?

  • It is a case of “new politics, same old media”.

  • @Andy Hinton

    When was the start point?

  • Paul McKeown 9th Jun '10 - 2:52am

    A vital and aggressive media is a fundamental necessity for a democracy to function. Unfortunately there is much wrong with ours. Our print media is heavily biased towards rightwing thought, as are some of our broadcast media. There is very little the citizen can do if the media make damaging false reports. There is no sense of the balance of professional opinion when scientific (e.g. “risks” associated with the LHC), environmental (e.g. anthropogenic climate change) or medical (e.g. MMR) matters are discussed; anyone with an opinion contrary to established thought is treated automatically as having equal, if not greater, weight. Some topics are not dealt with at all, except when a negative gloss can be put on the subject (e.g. the European Union).

    Part of the solution must be to give genuine rights to challenge and to seek redress when damage has been done by negative but false reporting. The PPC is toothless and interested primarily in defending the interests of its members. It should be scrapped and replaced with a statutory body with real powers, including summoning proprietors and editors to account for stories that they have published and for they way that they pursue stories. It must have the power to force editors to publish and repeat retractions and apologies much more prominently than the original false stories. It must be able to award monetary damages too.

    The changes to the libels laws must be welcomed too, allowing researchers, journalists, authors and editors to publish scientific fact without fear of lawsuit.

    Part of the problem is also deliberately unfair and misleading political reporting. It must surely be corrosive of our democracy if the proprietors of our media are not affected by the actions of governments that they seek to influence or replace. Surely it must be sensible that proprietors and editors of our media are nationals and tax resident, for the citizens that read the media are, their opinions may affected by the media and their lives may be affected by changes in government policy as a result of the stories carried in the media. Why should the proprietors and editors not similarly be affected by what they would seek to effect?

    Finally there is the topic of the BBC. It is funded by the tax payer. In general it produces a high level of quality output. One question must surely be, though, whether its executives and so called talent deserve the salaries and conditions that they award themselves, particularly in these times of public austerity. My answer would be a clear no, and all protestations to the contrary are simply squeals of vested interest. Another question must surely be whether all the output that it produces is necessary. Again my answer would be no. Radio 1, for instance, produces output similar to any number of commercial radio stations, as indeed does Radio 2. Surely that is just a distortion of markets that ought to be free? BBC 3 is another, addressing a “yoof” market that any number of commercial broadcasters do to.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jun '10 - 10:20am

    It’s all this Westminster Bubble thing. It seems to me that public life now is just so dominated by this tiny elite of people who just talk to and about themselves all the time. So “politics” is just what their mates who happen to have gone into politics are saying or doing. They are so out of touch with real life that everything else has to fit into some simple stereotype pattern.

    Media coverage of our party had been like that for as long as I can remember. To the Bubble, our party is its leader and one or two other Westminster people. Everything else is so vague and fuzzy to them, and doesn’t matter anyway because it isn’t about their mates, that they essentially make it up, looking for just enough they can quote to fit into the pattern they had in their heads anyway. So, our party is STILL covered according to the stereotype of what non-Tory parties are like established by the Labour Party in the early 1980s – there are a few people they talk to in Westminster who are supposed to be “sensible” particularly if they went to the same posh schools etc as the journalists, everything else is loony “activists” who are clueless advocates of silly policies forever plotting in corners and who aren’t really needed anyway because politics these days is all about the Bubble establishing a national image and people voting because of what they see of that.

  • Lightbulblee 9th Jun '10 - 10:23am

    I’m glad it’s not just me that gets annoyed when reality is ignored by the media and, by extension, the all too ready absorbers of that media. This is why I’ve started watching the actual parliamentary coverage from both the BBC and the Parliament websites (I’ll watch the committees too when they start) rather than solely relying on journalists. It takes up more time and it can be damned boring at times but at least I feel I know what I’m talking about and don’t feel like I’m being as misled.

    On the BBC itself, I think their on-line news reporting is improving. For instance, a few years ago I found their Science & Technology reporting half-hearted and clearly under-educated but since introducing dedicated tech correspondents things have improved massively. I had assumed that the political commentators were serving the same purpose but now I am not so sure.

  • Paul McKeown 9th Jun '10 - 1:02pm

    One point to born in mind about Radio 1, Radio 2 and BBC 3 is that they would be commercially viable outside of the BBC. Privatisation of these would raise significant amounts, whilst retaining BBC’s core public service broadcasting business.

  • But people don’t (and won’t) pay the license fee just for the public service broadcasting they pay for all of the BBC’s services including the popular parts like Radio 1

  • Paul McKeown 9th Jun '10 - 1:40pm

    Adjust the license fee then.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Jun '10 - 6:40pm

    To use the most quoted example it was the dead tree press with its money and actual reporters that broke expenses not a blog.

    Most quoted, and yet itself an example of the sort of distorted, self-serving reporting that we’re talking about. Let’s take a much closer look at what happened:

    In 2005, Heather Brooke (once with BBC news, now independent) filed an FoIA request for all MPs expenses, which was refused on the grounds of being too costly. After reducing it to 10 MPs and still being refused, she appealed to the Information Commissioner. This appeal was combined with two others, by Ben Leapman (Telegraph) and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas (Sunday Times), each for the expenses of a single MP.

    In 2007, the Information Commissioner ordered the release of some limited information, in a manner that nobody liked. Both Brooke and the House of Commons appealed to an Information Tribunal to reconsider. The Tribunal ordered full disclosure.

    In 2008, the House of Commons appealed again, to the High Court. Again the ruling was for full disclosure. The House declared they would release the information, then did not do so.

    In January 2009, the Labour government tried to pass an amendment to the FoIA act that would block the release of this information. They were going to whip the vote over objections from everybody, but for some reason (which is not entirely clear, and I can’t find the transcript now) dropped the matter instead.

    The House of Commons finally scheduled the release of the information for July 2009, and did so.

    The Telegraph managed to obtain a leaked copy of the information that was going to be released, two months ahead of schedule, in May. So yes, they “broke” the story – but is that really something deserving of merit? They are not responsible for its release, it would have happened anyway, and all they did was rush it to press ahead of everybody else and then take credit for the whole thing. They didn’t do the research or the campaigning, they just bribed somebody to hand over the results early.

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