Don't just slate politicians. The hacks are to blame too

In the age of the party machine, covering an election presents a special challenge. Pity it hasn't been met, says Peter Kellner
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Polls have revealed that more than 60 per cent regard the current election campaign as boring. Are the politicians wholly responsible for this or should the media also attract some of the blame?

Polls have revealed that more than 60 per cent regard the current election campaign as boring. Are the politicians wholly responsible for this or should the media also attract some of the blame?

It is certainly true that the parties seek to squeeze spontaneity out of the campaign. Control is all, and control begets blandness. Last Wednesday the BBC's Today programme sought to speak to John Redwood. His office said he was available. But Tory HQ had other ideas. They suggested other interviewees, but blocked Mr Redwood. Things have reached a strange pass when a party hides even one of its own front-benchers from the media.

This episode illustrated the perverse effects of the professionalisation of politics. The more expertly the parties set out their stalls, the more voters they put off. The reason for this paradox is simple. Voters are desperate for authenticity, or at least the appearance of authenticity, from their politicians. They tend to warm to the oddballs and mavericks, such as Mo Mowlam, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. John Prescott's televised punch at the start of the 2001 campaign did him no harm: better a real human being than one who imitates an automated voicemail message.

However, party strategists hate authenticity. Real flesh-and-blood politicians are apt to go off-message. The minute any front-bencher departs from the party line, the media pounces. Within hours, even minutes, we are told of "gaffes", "divisions" and "secret agendas". Such incidents - as when Howard Flight's unguarded remarks about taxation were leaked to The Times - give party managers coronaries.

One reason the media is so frenzied and parties so suffocatingly disciplined, is that we have three domestic 24-hour TV news channels. Immediacy and novelty are bound to trump the considered and the important. That is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a strong case for transmitting raw news, rather than filtering everything before letting us know what is going on.

For example, I am glad that anyone with cable, satellite or Freeview television can watch the parties' morning press conferences live. Viewers can make up their own minds about the competence of politicians - and, for that matter, political journalists - without being told by a pundit what to think.

The central charge against the media is not that they hype the immediate but that they don't balance this by going beyond it. They should provide both the raw news and the considered analysis. Yet the time cycle of a news story is deemed to be so short that all we generally get (from newspapers as well as television) is one instant story after another. No wonder so many voters are confused and bored.

I can hear the response from news editors and television producers - and not only those who work for the "popular" end of their markets: "It's all very well producing worthy think-pieces and long studio discussions. Hardly anyone reads or watches them. We fight for attention in a crowded market-place. Most voters don't want detailed analysis. They want to be provoked and entertained. If we can't hold our audience, we go out of business."

There are two specific answers to this. The first is that the media's current approach isn't working. Newspaper circulations and TV news audiences used to rise during election campaigns. Now they don't. Indeed, the latest figures show that fewer people than normal have been watching news bulletins since the campaign started.

Secondly, it's a cop-out to say that the readers and viewers aren't interested. The most basic task of journalism is to decide what is true and worth saying, and make it interesting. Yes, this is sometimes difficult. It requires time and effort, a clear head and an inquiring mind. But so does almost any worthwhile human venture. Many news editors and programme producers give up too easily.

To avoid lapsing into the invocation of a mythic golden age, I should add that my own memories are decidedly mixed. In the 1970s, as now, the gulf between the best and worst political journalism was huge. The worst then was even more dire - lazier and more often drunk - than the worst today.

The real difference is not to do with the level of industry or sobriety, but with the nature of politics. When I covered my first general election in 1970, there was no doubt about the character of the contest: between a socially progressive, collectivist Labour Party and a small state, free-market Conservative Party. It was the British version of a wider international battle between socialism and capitalism. We were critics and occasional bit-players in a drama whose storyline, if not denouement, we all knew. With variations, to do with the ups and downs of the Labour and Tory parties, the thrust of each election drama was equally clear for the next two decades.

The end of ideology, and the coming of New Labour, has changed all that. It is no longer as clear as it used to be what general elections are about, beyond the race for votes. The central failure of the media is the failure to explore this phenomenon and develop a new narrative for the 21st century.

There are some papers to which the charge of storyline confusion does not apply. The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror are perfectly clear what this election is "about": for one it is proving the venality and tax-raising incompetence of the Government; for the other, asserting Labour's achievements and the threat the Tories pose to their readers' lives. It is no accident that these two papers have provided some of the campaign's punchiest journalism. Of the upmarket papers, The Independent has given us a succession of front pages full of moral fervour.

Such journalism unquestionably has its place. But there is another kind that is more important and largely lacking: the journalism that seeks to make dispassionate sense of the election drama and, within a clear overall narrative, impartially probes the records and promises of each party.

Such journalism can be dry and indigestible. But it need not be. However, to attract readers and viewers in large numbers, it must not only be clear and vivid. It must also be set in the context of a dramatic storyline that engages us. And that is the problem. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of Old Labour, the old drama has gone, and a new one yet to be written.

The responsibility for discarding the old left-right narrative lies, of course, with politicians, not the media. But the consequential confusion over what elections nowadays are about is no excuse for intellectually lazy journalism.

One of the media's never-ending tasks is to make sense of a confusing world. Today, that includes understanding the nature of Britain's new political drama. This is what journalists have collectively failed to do. And that is a large part of the reason why so many voters find the current election boring.

Peter Kellner is chairman of the polling organisation YouGov


'Attempts to control us have not worked'

George Jones, Political Editor, 'The Daily Telegraph'

Part of the problem is that it feels like the campaign has been running since January. In previous years you might have had a lot of speculation, and then suddenly you're off. This time it started with a whimper, and what was happening in April was no different from what was happening in February and March. The ludicrous security has not helped. Any kind of normal life is disappearing, because one has to go through so many body searches. It takes away the spontaneity. Having said that, I don't think Labour's attempts to control the media have worked out as well as they'd hoped. Originally they didn't want to have press conferences every day. The fabled Labour machine has made a number of mistakes, and the media itself has been prepared to be far more critical of Blair than it was at the last two elections.

'Scope for getting stories is reduced'

Adam Boulton, Political Editor, Sky News

In terms of access to certain people at press conferences, I don't think we can really complain. Blair has been up there for an hour or more every day - part of his masochism strategy. The control with both the leading parties is in who we have had access to. If you wanted to interview John Prescott, for example, well, you just can't. The party officials say people are out campaigning, but that's just an excuse. You're kept well away and that's reduced the scope for getting stories. The mad dashes around the country are completely meaningless. The parties don't want you to know where the leaders are off to. There should be TV debates but it doesn't happen because it's incumbent on a prime minister never to treat the other party leaders as equals.

Interviews by Simon O'Hagan


Patience is a virtue

Could the Daily Telegraph appoint its first woman editor? Step forward Patience Wheatcroft, Business and City Editor of The Times, who is being spoken of as a possible successor to Martin Newland. Seismic change is certainly in the air at Telegraph Towers, with a move to compact format rumoured following night editor David Lucas's redeployment to work on "Project X". The Barclay brothers' cuts, meanwhile, are taking their toll. Lack of numbers in the advertising department means, according to one insider, that business is down. And editorial belt-tightening goes on: no one's being sent to the imminent Cannes Film Festival.

Don't ring us, Hunter

Never mind the two grillings that Jack Straw received on Today last week from Messrs Humphrys and Naughtie, the programme's moment of the week was surely Beatles biographer Hunter Davies regaling listeners with Fab Four songs appropriate to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. "You Never Give Me Your Money", and "Getting Better" were two of the numbersthat dear old 'Oonter murdered. Asked if Davies would be banned from singing on-air again, Today's editor Kevin Marsh was obviously still in a state of shock. "We rule nothing in and we rule nothing out," was his gnomic response. "We never do. Not usually."

Hooray Henry

Anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of Manchester United's ground the other night would have been treated to the bizarre sight of two of Fleet Street's leading football writers racing each round the stadium. The Mirror's John Cross - keen to get in shape before his nuptials - had challenged all-comers. The Telegraph's Henry Winter stepped forward - and won at a canter.