Tim Luckhurst: Consensus? Where's the news line in that?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Spitfire summer of 1940, when Britain had a coalition government including a Labour minister at the Admiralty, a Liberal at the Air Ministry and a Conservative at the War Office, journalists were united. As France collapsed, mainstream newspapers and the BBC concluded that national survival was paramount. The Communist Daily Worker would deride the conflict as a futile struggle between imperialist powers, but Fleet Street spoke with one voice. Maintaining morale was the top priority.

The first weeks of our new partnership government have generated comparable similarity of purpose for less obviously noble purposes. From The Sun to the Today programme there is intense interest in one question: when are they going to split? It makes reporting dull and reduces its impact.

On his blog this week, Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, asked whether journalism has lost sight of its civic purpose. The point of journalistic scrutiny, he wrote, is "to improve the way we govern ourselves. Without that, it is just self-regarding noise".

Later, on Radio 4's Media Show, Marsh broadened his argument, suggesting that political journalism should focus on policy instead of searching incessantly for evidence of disputes between the coalition partners. Marsh is right that the appetite for fissures is ravenous and ubiquitous. The Times refers to an "agreement that splices together two manifestos like two parts of a pantomime horse". The Telegraph fears progressivism and prudence are incompatible. The Guardian's search for splits focuses on Conservative animosity to proportional representation. "Tory hostility to reform could disrupt coalition," announced a front page.

On left and right and from red-top to broadsheet, a consensus has emerged that, because coalitions almost always end in separation, journalism must perform its duty to challenge power by provoking a divorce as soon as possible.

Perhaps scepticism about compromise is inevitable. Journalists relish simple stories about confrontation. For Britain's ideologically partisan press it is comforting and familiar. But broadcasters play by different rules and the impression that partnership has caught British journalism intellectually ill prepared is reinforced by radio and television coverage. On last Wednesday's Today programme, Jim Naughtie interviewed Nick Clegg. The extended interrogation in Today 's prime 8.10am slot might have produced insights about how the ruling partnership intends to govern. Instead, Naughtie probed for splits. David Laws's departure was "the first destabilising shock for the new government". "Tribalism will reassert itself," he declared, "it's bound to."

Today is not the only culprit. Newsnight and Channel 4 News were both ferreting frantically for fissures until a deliberately provocative aid convoy to Gaza and a Cumbrian homicidal maniac offered their viewers respite. I have been here before. In 1999 I was deputy editor of The Scotsman when the first Lib/Lab coalition was formed in Edinburgh. At first our political team sough to drive wedges between the Labour First Minister, Donald Dewar, and his Liberal Democrat deputy, Jim Wallace. It was futile. Dewar and Wallace had as much in common as Cameron and Clegg and, even if they had loathed each other, they understood coalition politics in a way we journalists initially failed to.

Disloyalty within a party is manageable. Familiar excuses about broad churches and lively internal democracy can be trotted out and the whips are on hand. Arguments between coalition partners threaten an administration's grip on power. Politicians understand this. The cardinal rule of partnership politics is to maintain unity in public. Editors should not be astonished if ministers are good at it. Among the reasons that coalition negotiations take time is that words must be found to express agreement.

Journalism desperately needs a new paradigm. If a real crack opens between Liberals and Conservatives it will spill molten lava all over the front pages without waiting for an invitation. When it does – probably over an issue nobody has predicted – journalists will know exactly what to do.

Until then the watchdog job of informing the public sphere so that citizens can make informed choices – which is what makes journalism crucial to the health of democracy – requires newspapers and broadcasters to interrogate the coalition relentlessly about precisely what it intends to achieve and how. Such investigation is inevitably more nuanced than crude narratives about ideological incompatibility, but it can produce questions ministers will struggle to answer.

'Le Monde' limps on

As France gears up for the anniversary of General de Gaulle's "Appel du 18 Juin", the broadcast on the BBC from London that kept French resistance to Nazism alive, the newspaper he willed its founder, Hubert Beuve-Méry, to create is in crisis. Since 1951 Le Monde, journal of the French establishment, has been run along collective lines by a staff association that picks the editor and guides policy.

This extreme autonomy, which gives journalists more power than the Scott Trust, is cherished as a guarantor of editorial independence. Now it may die to save the paper. Heavy investment in a multimedia strategy has not reversed losses. Le Monde is €100m in debt and urgently needs between €80m and €100m to remain viable. Several potential investors are circling and a front-page editorial last week described "a historical turning point". Gilles Kote, head of Le Monde's journalists' association, speaks of "a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads".

Caledonian comedy

Where can you read about a hung-over Goth in heavy make up serving gefilte fish and chips with Californian merlot to sun-drenched diners? Why, the Caledonian Mercury, the unique online newspaper for Scotland created by web entrepreneur Stewart Kirkpatrick.

But this is not the only tempting fare. "Strangelets" is a CM column that blends the eccentricity of The Fortean Times with sharp humour. Recent gems include: "Fruit flies, electronic noses and meth-addled sheep", "Kosher haggis burgers as Gorbals cuisine hits Los Angeles" and "Tomb gloom, dotty ditties and a borders massacre". In the battle for online revenue distinctive original content is king. Few produce it more consistently than Rab McNeil, CM's parliamentary sketch writer and author of floccinaucinihilipilification follies.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent.