Politicians and press head off for a seaside jolly. But who really cares?

It's conference season again. The parties think it matters, but many in Britain probably disagree

The rota discussion was both vital and contentious. Who would be "on the table" for that 9am session? Who would be the unlucky one getting four hours' sleep? We knew that the exalted ones, the lobby people, the political editors and correspondents, would be able to take a leisurely breakfast in their hotel rooms, possibly half-watching the debate on television. But we had to be there in the hall, dressed, awake, alert, taking down the often tedious words of the dawn delegates.

The rota discussion was both vital and contentious. Who would be "on the table" for that 9am session? Who would be the unlucky one getting four hours' sleep? We knew that the exalted ones, the lobby people, the political editors and correspondents, would be able to take a leisurely breakfast in their hotel rooms, possibly half-watching the debate on television. But we had to be there in the hall, dressed, awake, alert, taking down the often tedious words of the dawn delegates.

As the political conference season moves into gear - TUC done (did you notice?), Lib Dems this week, and then Labour and then Tory - I always think of those mornings when, as one of the most junior of The Guardian's reporting team, I was sitting at a table just under the platform, wishing the previous evening had been more moderate. In those days, the conferences were not only high-profile events but received massive coverage. Newspapers and broadcasters sent teams of reporters, and thousands of words were published or transmitted.

Today, teams of reporters still attend; the hotels are full; the parties say they receive more applications for accreditation. But the reporters get much less into the papers, and editors wonder about the quantity of resources they commit to party politics when public interest in it continues to decline.

It is not just the party conferences. Everyday politics, poll after poll tells us, impacts less on the general public - on younger voters in particular. Political journalists, living in the Westminster bubble, challenge the judgement of their newsdesks and editors - who are in turn living in their office bubble - that this or that political story is unlikely to grab the nation's attention. Political staff feel they get less into the paper than they used to. Editors feel they know more about balancing the public appetite for Westminster politics (small) with their duty as a serious newspaper to inform the public of the political process (important).

And the politicians continue to complain that the media are irresponsible and concentrate on tittle-tattle not issues, personalities not policies. This is not entirely new. As much as 11 years ago, when in opposition, Jack Straw produced a report, The Decline in Press Reporting of Parliament, that bemoaned the lack of coverage of politics. Not only was the lack of reporting of debates likely to have a serious effect on the public's understanding of our democratic system, he wrote, but just as disturbing was the behaviour of the broadsheet press with its claims to responsibility. "The number of lobby journalists reporting gossip, briefings and background has greatly increased," wrote the future foreign secretary. "This continuing process of downgrading Parliament is in danger of seriously weakening the public's understanding of, and confidence in, the democratic system."

It is true that broadsheet newspapers once ran columns of reports of words spoken in the chamber, just as they ran columns of party conference debate reports. When that stopped, Simon Jenkins, then editor of The Times, said: "I couldn't find anybody who read it, apart from MPs. We are not there to provide a public service for a particular profession, or for that matter for a particular legislative chamber. Newspapers are about providing people with news."

Actually, media coverage of politics probably remains greater than the public appetite for it. One can debate the style, content and quality of that coverage, but it is there. The serious papers gave space to the TUC last week. Newspapers and broadcast media deploy considerable numbers of staff to cover politics. Every night the TV news takes us "over to Downing Street". Political reporting has not gone the way of labour relations reporting.

It won't happen and it should not happen. But politicians and press need to stop focusing on mutual antagonism. Another recent survey, from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, showed that ministers and MPs were trusted less than those journalists who worked on papers that cover politics seriously. The detachment of the public from politics is as much the fault of the politicians as the press.

Politicians blame the press for diminishing politics through too much attention to personalities and feuds, to fuelling lack of respect for politicians, and not enough to policy. The press blame the politicians for diminishing politics through too much attention to personalities, secrecy, spin, presentation and blaming the media, and not enough to honesty, clarity and integrity.

Politicians and press are, in fact, much closer to each other than either group is to the wider public. They share the same bubble, unaware of how cut-off they are. They go to Brighton and to Bournemouth, and they have a good time with each other. And they are unaware that most of the rest of society is unaware of the seaside debates. Both politicians and press need to connect with the public.

The TUC coverage in The Times last Tuesday included Tony Blair's speech, a sketch of the speech, an analysis of the speech, and reaction to the speech. It also ran, on the same page, a TUC diary, which started: "Does anyone pay any attention to what is happening at the TUC any more?"

Perhaps the diarist could write the same at each of the three conferences to come. It is a relevant question, and the answer to it is important. For politicians and the press. And for us all.

Why is it, I wonder, that Labour Party figures tend to sell their books to newspapers they call the "right-wing press"? The serialisation of Cherie Blair's The Goldfish Bowl was sold to The Daily Telegraph, not famed for its commitment to the Blair project. With it went the big interview with Cherie, in which she moaned about the press and the financial sacrifices involved in occupying No 10. The other recent No 10 author, Derek Scott, the PM's former economic policy adviser whose memoirs dwell on the PM's economic illiteracy, sold his book extract rights to The Sunday Times, rather than to a "sympathetic" newspaper. One can only assume that the right-wing press pays better, and when offers are on the table past antipathies melt away.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Distorted Mirror image

Nice to see some of the trends begun under Piers Morgan continue in the era of the new Daily Mirror editor, Richard Wallace - like falling out with influential showbiz PRs. The latest spat is with Madonna's publicist, the revered Barbara Charone, who has a large roster of big-name acts such as Sir Elton John, REM, Charlotte Church and Rod Stewart. The fall-out seems to have arisen because the editor of The Sun's Bizarre column, Victoria Newton, was allowed to have her photo taken with the singer shortly before a London show. The rival 3AM Girls from the Mirror were so riled they were not given such a privilege that the paper now has a downer on Charone's performers. The result is that The Sun gets more access to her acts. Previous disputes included a row with Kylie Minogue's PR man, which led to spiteful stories about him, but a truce has been called.

The fax spoils a story

Media-savvy pundits they may be, but neither Tony Benn nor Melanie Phillips have worked out how to send a fax properly yet. Organisers of "Authors Takes Sides on Iraq and the Gulf War", an event at the Imperial War Museum that they are both speaking at on Thursday, have been receiving a stream of blank faxes from them. It seems that they both need to be told which way round to put paper into the machine.

Bogarde's badinage

The fuss over the Daily Mail's serialisation of John Coldstream's new biography of Sir Dirk Bogarde - Coldstream says it was a "travesty" and is taking the Mail to the PCC - is a reminder of the difficulties the press had with the actor when he was alive. So fed up with hacks' queries did Bogarde become that he developed a novel strategy to deal with their calls. Reporters would hear the familiar Bogardian tones when ringing his flat, but upon identifying themselves they would hear the voice change to a gorblimey Cockney. "It's the plumber 'ere," Bogarde would say. " 'E's not in."

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