Editorial/Blog


Given we are already knee-deep in stories about elections, how shall we cope when the prime minister gets round to calling one? Journalists pride themselves on knowing what their readers, listeners and viewers want: in believing they share their excitement about Westminster, they get it wrong. Reporters love politics, audiences don’t. We see that every time a market researcher asks members of the public to match faces to cabinet posts.

We understand why we have got here, for Westminster has offered an absorbing cast list. Boris Johnson has celebrity status, Liz Truss managed to become interesting, and the wealth of Rishi Sunak and his yearning for the common touch are irresistibly comedic copy. After five Conservative prime ministers in less than nine years, of course the media want to report a sixth.

It was with that in mind that political reporters encouraged us over several weeks and across many pages to believe that disaffected Conservative MPs would use the debacle of the local elections as the trigger to install a new leader. The elections came and went. They were a debacle. Nothing happened. The plotters, we were told, had called off the coup and gone to the pub. Were there plotters? Was a coup coming? Who knows.

But then, politics is reported under different rules, by journalists who share the same club as the politicians on whom they report. Those who join the lobby system at Westminster give up the journalistic principle that what is said is on the record. Stories are managed, sources unnamed. It’s a helpful system for politicians who wish to start a fire without being identified as the arsonist, less useful for establishing corroborative evidence.

It’s easy, in the excitement of enjoying the confidence of a politician or his special adviser, to forget to question in whose interests things are being said. In the words the former BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman was fond of quoting: why is this lying bastard lying to me? They come from a longer sentence, attributed to Louis Heren, the copy boy who rose to become deputy editor of The Times: “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’.” Let us remember too Lord Northcliffe, sometime owner of The Times and founder of the Daily Mail: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Advertising would be a good description of reports filed by some overexcited reporters to X – formerly Twitter – on the day votes were being counted for the London mayoral election. The gist was that the contest was close, even that the Conservative candidate Susan Hall had won. It wasn’t, she hadn’t. Who was the source of such rumours? We don’t know, but for an hour they raised Conservative morale… and lowered journalistic credibility.

We should say that the lobby code that allows politicians to be quoted as “friends”, “backers” and “supporters” is not impossible to crack. Many readers of the Mail on Sunday, learning from one of his “allies” that the multimillionaire speaker, columnist, MP and former prime minister Boris Johnson was being urged to rescue his party, might have suspected some involvement from the man himself. He was, the piece explained “a coiled black mamba, ready to strike”. More, he was author of the one good result of the day: “Johnson supporters say the local election results showed a ‘Boris bounce’ in the form of victory for Tory Mayor Ben Houchen after Johnson made a ‘targeted’ intervention on social media for him.” But it couldn’t have been Mr Johnson talking, for the article concluded with an anodyne quote from “a spokesman” for him.

The best that can be said is that there are enough journalists to go round to extend such generosity to all politicians, particularly when they sense that power is shifting. Only that can explain the recent decision of the BBC to make an upcoming speech by the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves a main item in its morning news, using the precautionary formula “is expected to say”. What was the important bit of the speech? That the government was “gaslighting” the British public on the state of the economy. If the routine exchange of political insults is to be given such prominence by our national broadcaster, heaven help us over the next six months.

KF

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