Don't shoot the messenger

ITN is happy to receive calls from spin doctors - even from you, Alastair, writes Nigel Dacre, editor of ITV news. But don't think for a second that you're going to influence our coverage
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The Independent Online

With the countdown clock ticking towards a spring election, I'd like to call on the political parties to observe the following New Year's resolution: don't blame the media! Shooting the messenger has never been a good idea, but in the world of TV news programmes it's particularly inappropriate.

With the countdown clock ticking towards a spring election, I'd like to call on the political parties to observe the following New Year's resolution: don't blame the media! Shooting the messenger has never been a good idea, but in the world of TV news programmes it's particularly inappropriate.

In truth, ITN gets few serious complaints from the politicians. Partly, this is because we work hard to maintain political objectivity in our reporting, and so generally give little cause for complaint. But it's also because the political parties know that trying to put pressure on senior editorial executives at ITN has little impact. We're immune to it. It's water off our backs.

Our dealings with the political press departments are based on two basic tenets. Firstly, we have no problem with political media staff giving us their views on coverage. It would be an arrogant organisation which refused to listen to the comments of the outside world. But, secondly, unless it turns out that we've made a factual mistake, such views and comments will not alter our running orders or the direction of our journalism.

So the message to the political parties is clear. Write to us, by all means. We'll do our best to explain why we did what we did, and why we said what we said. But don't expect to influence our coverage. It is for us, and us alone, to decide on editorial priorities.

For ITN, independence from political pressure and ensuring that we remain politically neutral is not something we treat lightly. Indeed, we have an unambiguous statutory obligation to be impartial in our political reporting, an obligation which is closely monitored by a highly effective regulator.

Being editorially objective is something which I believe we do instinctively. It's one of the basic principles underpinning our editorial operations, embedded in the company's journalistic culture. Many national newspaper journalists have strong and openly expressed views on political developments. Most television news journalists, though, have spent their career being trained to see both sides of the argument. It was once said that when you joined ITN you had to undergo "an opinionectomy".

About a month ago, as The Independent disclosed at the time, ITN received a fax from the Prime Minister's Chief Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell. It was forthright and, as you would expect from a former political journalist, well written and articulate. He claimed that the coverage on the ITV News programmes of the Europe debate was "driven not by objective assessment of the situation, but through the distorting prism of an agenda-driven Eurosceptic press".

Although he conceded that television news programmes had a "deservedly stronger reputation for telling the truth", he argued that the press continues to exert a "considerable hold" over TV news schedules.

Within hours of the article appearing, the Conservative Party made it clear that their "Media Monitoring Unit" would be keeping a check on whether our coverage would be affected by what they described as an attempt to "intimidate" us.

So, with brickbats from all sides, it's business as usual in the run-up to an election!

But what of Alastair Campbell's claims that the agenda of programmes had been influenced by a Eurosceptic press? In particular, he referred to our coverage of an interview Lady Thatcher gave to The Sun newspaper criticising the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force. You won't be surprised to hear that I reject the claim.

News stories emerge from a myriad of sources. Yes, some come from the newspapers. But many others come from TV news and current affairs programmes. In the same week as the Lady Thatcher story, the front pages of many newspapers gave prominent coverage to the parents of the Siamese twins - with quotes gleaned from a television interview.

Anyway, it's not the source that is paramount. What really matters is whether it's a good news story. Our coverage priorities are dictated by what we think is important and interesting for our viewers. The row over the European defence initiative was a clear-cut decision for us. It was a great story. The war of words between Lady Thatcher and the Prime Minister was well worth the high-profile coverage we gave it. The whole European military row became a big talking point; it was debated at the Nice summit, and debate over Europe will undoubtedly be a key issue of the election.

I have no problem with getting letters from Alastair Campbell. He's doing his job. And in his many dealings with ITN over the years, he has always shown integrity and has been thoroughly professional.

Prior to the last election, ITN's Editor-in-Chief Richard Tait issued guidelines to staff. They stated that: "It is ITN policy to listen carefully to all complaints and to respond to them promptly; but ITN will resist any attempts at unfair pressure or intimidation."

Four years on, we'll be issuing similar guidelines again. I'm confident that they'll be as effective now, as they were then.

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