So whose fault is it, Mr Campbell, if the press is obsessed with trivia?

Labour has done little to encourage the type of journalism it says it wants to see more of
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS during the last general election, and we on the Tony Blair campaign battle bus had reached Stevenage. Or was it Basildon? Whatever; we were inside one of those modern community theatres that usually host bingo, t'ai chi and Eddie Izzard, but whose car park was at this moment home to The Five (colourful) Pledges of New Labour, each blown up to gigantic size and mounted on the back of a lorry.

The smiling leader of the opposition was walking through a crowd of strategically placed nurses, schoolchildren and victims of youth crime. As he progressed, a very left-wing woman journalist pointed at the tall figure of Alastair Campbell (following his leader, eyes darting hither and yon like a Secret Service bodyguard), and confided to me, sotto voce, that she would like to rip the press secretary's clothes off and subject him to a strenuous off-the-record briefing.

This was one incident from that morning that sticks in my memory. I don't mention it purely to irritate Alastair with my taste for triviality, but also because it came minutes before he shepherded us into an administrator's office and gave us a well-deserved telling-off. There had been a teeny Labour wobble following questioning about the privatisation of air traffic control, and this was threatening to become a "Story", instead of just a story (the latter lasts a day or so and then fades; the former goes on interminably while everyone examines every word, nuance and dustbin). Campbell reminded us (in sorrow, not anger) of our democratic duty.

I rather agreed with him then, and I rather agree with him now. On Tuesday night he made a speech, about the relationship between the printed press and broadcasting media, that urged broadcasters not to follow a news agenda created by the newspapers. He loved newspapers, he said, but there were things that they did not do that broadcasters should - and things that newspapers did that no one should do. The end result was gossip, trivia, a lack of proper explanation, a skewing of stories and a "delusion" about what the country was interested in.

The Government, and particularly No 10, is a bit frustrated at the moment. It feels that its good news - such as what appears to be the extraordinary success of the New Deal in cutting youth unemployment - is completely ignored. At the same time, it has lost three ministers recently, amid classical journalistic feeding frenzies, and has endured a month of baiting over perks and flights. The Prime Minister has cause to be particularly miffed that he went to South Africa and made a very statesperson-like speech about when to intervene militarily, and all the British press could ask him about was Charlie Whelan (Charlie? Used to work for Gordon Brown; now a newspaper columnist. OK?).

Messrs Campbell and Blair are also very worried about Europe. In the Major years, the issue of the EU was hijacked by the Eurosceptic press, whose agenda (though not necessarily their views) was then followed by radio and TV. On Tuesday, Campbell gave the example of the recent Vienna summit, which was said by the BBC to be "overshadowed" by the issue of tax harmonisation. In reality, he pointed out, it wasn't. But harmonisation had been the great scare run by the Daily Mail et al in the previous fortnight.

One day - soon, probably - Blair knows that he and the bonkers Europhobes of The Sun, The Times and the Mail are going to fall out in nuclear fashion. In those circumstances, as they press Portillo redux on a resisting nation, the PM will need the BBC to be telling its own tale of Europe, not that provided by two-thirds of Fleet Street. And it is essential that he speak directly to the country.

Campbell is not a silly man. When he accuses the press of being driven by trivia and of an "evasion of the real state of Britain", he knows also that readers are a problem. I began this article with the lusting woman journalist because I calculated that some of you, who have got this far, may have done so because of her. Nor is this to be deprecated. We all want a tale. As the late Raphael Samuel pointed out in his book, Theatres of Memory, the people's history tends to be a series of stories, narratives of gory and disastrous happenings, rather than a statistical analysis.

Nevertheless, the alternatives to pure story creation have been atrophying in recent years. When I first worked on the cerebral (and not over-watched) Weekend World programme in the early Eighties, there was a corps of specialist newspaper journalists that one could call upon. There were experts on welfare, health, the law, and transport. There were even local government specialists who understood how councils were financed; now no one does. Campbell is right to stress the importance of encouraging explanation through such specialisms.

But he may care to reflect that Labour itself has, for far too long, been riding the back of the tiger. Much Westminster trivia originates with the politicians, and their minions, themselves. They habitually trot up and down the press corridors, indulging in inane gossip about each other and about the Tories. And it was Tony Banks and Margaret Hodge who really helped to give the despicable anti-Hoddle bandwagon a shove, before the PM's own remarks on This Morning. Likewise, the "tough" spin on the asylum and welfare stories in the last couple of days seems to owe something to a desire to grab Mail and Sun headlines.

And Alastair may also want to ask himself just how much he has done to encourage the journalism he says he wants to see. How has, say, The Independent been treated when compared to The Sun? Have the serious TV current affairs shows received the co-operation they need? When I was editor of On the Record, I waited in vain for nearly two years for the shadow employment secretary to come and explain himself (live and unedited) on my show. His name was Tony Blair.

So are we now going to see more of Gordon on Newsnight, more Prezza on On the Record, more Prime Minister on Jonathan Dimbleby? Will priority be given to specialist journalists asking hard policy questions, rather than to briefing the hacks in the lobby? Can we expect to have constant encouragement for those who seek to facilitate a robust debate, and a little bit less time for those who can't even spell the word "debate"?

Above all, will the Government take us all a bit more into its confidence, and accept the intellectual challenge of discussing rather than spinning its policies? Campbell is right about cynicism in the press, and I can assure him it is nearly as bad among broadcasters. If he is sincere in wanting an intelligent discussion, and not just an easy ride (and I believe that he is), then both he and his boss will have to start taking a few more risks, putting it about more. And if he does that, then - just perhaps - even I would be willing to sleep with him.

Comments