Are the Telegraph's political scoops good journalism – or just a case of friends in high places?
Thursday 15 July 2010
When Andy Coulson, the Tory communications chief, entered Downing Street in the full knowledge that the coalition Government would have to embark on a programme of savage public-sector job cuts he was no doubt equally aware that some civil servants might do all they could to make his job a nightmare.
So it should not be a surprise that during its first two months in power this administration has leaked like a rusty colander. Right from the outset, when the Queen's Speech was handed to the press in its entirety – thus revealing David Cameron's 21-bill plan for reforming Britain – political and policy stories have seeped into the media.
"In any period where public service is going to take a certain amount of a hit, like you had in the Thatcher years, there will be a steady drip of stories calling attention to it, perhaps even hoping to frustrate it," says Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University in London.
What is remarkable is that so many of the leaked stories, both those which appear to be damaging to the coalition and those that show it in a favourable light, have appeared in the Telegraph titles.
These papers have enjoyed a succession of scoops that have defied critics who crudely decried last year's revelation of MPs' expenses claims as being merely an exercise in chequebook journalism. The Daily Telegraph, which was named Newspaper of the Year for its coverage of the expenses story, has had a series of post-election exclusives ranging from last week's leak of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's plans to reform the National Health Service to the shock resignation of Alan Budd as chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
To some observers, The Daily Telegraph has managed to advance itself up the queue, ahead of the Sun and the Daily Mail, as the paper of choice for giving a policy announcement an early airing. Lobby reporters say that whereas the Tories were anxious to reach the floating voters within the Mail and Sun readerships prior to the election, they are now attempting to reassure the party faithful of the integrity of the coalition by speaking to the Telegraph.
And at the same time, forces seemingly attempting to embarrass the new government are using The Sunday Telegraph as their conduit. This has largely been the work of the paper's political editor, Patrick Hennessy, who followed his unveiling of the contents of the Queen's Speech with further stories on George Osborne's Budget, on plans to investigate British security officials over allegations of torture, and last weekend's tale of disagreements between senior officials at the Department for Education and the Secretary of State, Michael Gove.
"It's certainly a hot topic," says Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservative Home website. "I know that there are Conservative ministers who are very worried about whether their departments are loyal to them. I think certainly that in the Department for Education there is concern that lots of people are still in touch with [shadow Education Secretary] Ed Balls. That could be a problem across Whitehall."
Hennessy is close to the Brownite spin doctors Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan – who as the political director of Unite would be well placed to communicate the views of disgruntled members of the civil service unions. Despite their Tory readerships, the Telegraph titles enjoy a good relationship with those close to Gordon Brown. "When Brown was in power the Telegraph got lots of good stories because it had been a repository for Gordon Brown's anti-Blair stories in the past," says Lance Price, a former Downing Street spin doctor for Tony Blair. Such contacts have been maintained.
The Daily Telegraph's editor, Tony Gallagher, recently had lunch with Balls, and key reporters such as the newspaper's political editor, Andrew Porter, enjoy close relationships with the Brownites. Porter's recent scoop on the planned Tory revolution in the NHS, though, was reported in a way that will not have displeased the Health Secretary. Senior sources at the Telegraph say the paper has a reputation for being initially supportive of a policy that is leaked to it. "If they want to announce something, we will give it a pretty fair treatment. We are not going to demolish it and make it look useless – that's rank bad manners." The Mail is less predictable in this regard. The Telegraph also benefits from its broadsheet format, which gives it the opportunity to offer a planted story one of the half dozen slots on its front page.
The Telegraph is no doubt benefiting from the "halo effect" – as one observer described it – of its political expenses coverage, which has continued since the election with the revelations that led to the resignation from the coalition Cabinet of David Laws.
But sources on the paper point out that its recent scoops have not been confined to the political arena – stories such as the confession by GP Howard Martin that he had hastened the deaths of patients have been the result of determined reporting, in that case by Manchester-based correspondent Nigel Bunyan. "We break more stories than other people because we have got a comprehensive news service," said a high-ranking executive. The run of stories at the Telegraph titles is due to a mix of effective contact-based journalism and strategic plants by friends and enemies of the coalition who see the papers as the most effective platform.
Fleet Street rivals will not want this to continue, especially at a time when imperilled public officials have such an incentive to spill the beans. "The general flow [of leaked stories] is accelerating," says Brock. "It will accelerate in any period when public servants feel themselves to be under assault... We probably haven't seen anything yet."
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