Click to follow
The Independent Online
Parliamentary journalism has been changing its nature, shifting from being a report of the views and sayings of politicians to being an opinionated running commentary on them. The manipulation is two-way, for astute ministers and others have become adept at fashioning and selling 'stories' which get the reporter a plaudit from the newsdesk, while at the same time promoting the views of the minister, undermining a rival, or whatever. The implicit negotiation between the politician wanting a particular thing said, and the journalist wanting to maintain a reputation for impartiality while relying on such sources, is one of the most delicate and subtle transactions outside sex.

But if journalism is still a 'platform' for the political classes, then it has become a swaying, unsteady and perilous one. Coping with a daily torrent of press and broadcast stories and comment has become essential to political survival. Reflecting this, one of the few growth areas in a civil service being cut back has been in 'information officers' or press- handlers. Additionally, and more influentially, every self-respecting senior minister has a political adviser or two whose job includes having confidential and revealing conversations with journalists. These advisers, a rather underestimated and little-known group, act as roving political ambassadors and agents for their ministers, picking up what rival ministers are saying. spreading the 'line' and meeting lobbyists. They also provide a source of deniable but authoritative briefing for journalists. The Secretary of State for Hot-Air Balloons might not wish himself to point out that the Political Secretary to the Treasury is an incompetent liar whose views on the European Union have changed five times in as many years, and who is losing the trust of the prime minister ... but his political adviser, over a plate of rabbit and polenta at some Tuscan eatery round Covent Garden, may well admit, privately on a never-to-be-repeated (until Wednesday) basis that such is the case. The information that 'senior colleagues' so regard the Political Secretary may be enough to make the great man break cover, or persuade his adviser that the time is ripe for a young grouse at Rules in Maiden Lane, and a few home truths about the inefficiencies and cowardice discernible at the Department of Hot Air Balloons. And so it goes, merrily enough, with everyone enjoying themselves, and profits accruing to newspapers and restaurateurs and the people who run Mastercard, and no harm done to anyone at all, except possibly to fastidious ministers and the reputation of Her Majesty's Government.

This mixture of verbal aggression and rising status can be seen in most Western democracies. The American writer Adam Gopnik could have been describing the British scene when he said that 'the media have in the past twenty years claimed what amounts to prosecutorial and judicial powers ... The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them.'

Where does the status come from, though, and what does it mean for the political system? Partly, the press (and the broadcasters, of whom more shortly) are the beneficiaries of the dispersal, or democratization, of information. In the old days, a part of the government's authority came from its special knowledge, its private and important sources of information, which may be hinted at, and used to subdue scepticism. Today, a serious newspaper often knows almost as much about the world from its correspondents and wire services, its academic contributors and its friends in the think- tanks, as the Foreign Office does.

If everyone is working from roughly the same pool of information then, by definition, judgements based upon that information become more susceptible to challenge and refutation. Knowledge is power, and power of that kind is leaving the political system, whatever party label the ministers wear. One of the places it has been going to is the press, aided and assisted by the numerous lobby-groups and appointed experts who try to prove daily that the government knows less about the world than they do.

Is this a good thing? It is undoubtedly good that freer access to information is enabling millions more voters to form their own opinions. Ministers and civil servants can no longer say to the rest of us that such-and-such a thing is so and requires a certain action, without challenge and cross- examination. We are liberated by knowing more. But it is far less obvious that the press, which is a sort of semi-organized movement on behalf of mayhem, provides a sufficient or effective democratic check on political power. It is no fit substitute for a proper Parliament. For one thing, as with the judiciary, the Press generally gets excited about a policy only when it is too late and something has already gone wrong: the coverage of the poll tax fiasco once there were riots and resignations to report contrasted sharply with the virtual silence about it when the relevant legislation was proceeding in Parliament, and during the general election campaign which preceded the bill. This is a phenomenon which is not only general but is inevitable given the nature of daily journalism. We are far better at pursuing a 'hard' story than seeing where things may be going wrong during the abstract and often complex process of policy-formation. Papers have always been better terriers than bloodhounds.

Each day brings its crop of fresh and sharp-smelling stories which are rooted out and dropped into the public consciousness, only to be replaced by another crop the next day. Competition produces a kind of collective mania for particular stories - one week the entire country is full of slavering killer dogs; the next, they have mysteriously disappeared, to be replaced by giant bees or mysterious flesh-eating viruses. Yesterday's stories, no longer so tasty, are discarded to rot away in the collective public mind, an evil-smelling tip of neurosis. Few papers ever go back later and ask, what happened? Were we right to get worried? Are there still those killer dogs about? Policy coverage is less lurid, but suffers from the same problem. The press goes galloping off after a particular kind of story - the rise of the Tory rebels, say, or consultancy payments to MPs - and a huge swathe of other policy stories are left untouched. If one really wants to understand what is happening in Whitehall then, generally, there is too little continuity, too little comparison, too little reference-back: the reader is confronted by headlines about new policy announcements or splits, but is rarely able to gauge their importance compared with last month's announcement, or the similar 'cabinet split' story a few weeks earlier. Newspapers are bad at comparing large sums of money: after a few noughts in large type, any figure - pounds 400,000 or 4 billion - looks equally huge.

Television is very good at telling the voter certain things about a politician or other interviewee. One can read the facial tics and expressions that suggest tension, lying, anger and so forth. One can make a personal judgement about an individual minister or leader in a way that earlier generations never could, unless they were part of the privileged political elite. If before, one could read X's speech given verbatim in The Times, and treat X solely on the basis of his language and arguments, now one can conclude that X's grandson, the new minister, is a sanctimonious creep. And in the real world, the fact that 'X is a creep' is a valid personal assessment and matters to most of us just as much as his speechifying. It is a useful thing to know. There is, in the political world, plenty of nostalgia for the great days of public oratory and packed meetings. But the orators of forty years ago relied on tricks which have changed little since Ancient Greece, tricks like repetition, the use of alliteration, exaggeration, pathos, mocking humour, and so on. These tricks provide great entertainment, but they are as effective in disguising bad arguments as developing good ones - a savage joke or sibilant ripple of poetic words can deflect the listener's attention from a ropey argument underlying them. If we want to have a serious discussion about some important matter of public policy, then a television or radio studio, too small a place for histrionics, too informal for the deceits of oratory, is a better format than any public meeting. It is far closer to what would happen if an ordinarily intelligent and reasonably well-informed voter was able to question the political leaders directly. Evasions glare. Cheap points sound as cheap as they are.

As with the press, though, the power of the broadcast media in the political process is not an unqualified good.

As compared to newspapers or books, television allows no reflection, no re-reading, no comparison of one thought against another. Similarly, television has no sense of hierarchy or history. It flattens and equates those seen on it, so that a rebel backbencher can seem as important as the Foreign Secretary. If one relied on television as a guide to which politicians mattered, one would be badly informed, because the 'rentaquote' MPs who are always willing to 'do a turn' and work up a vivid sentence or two are often those who have failed to make their mark in the formal political hierarchy and who, in an earlier age, would be unknowns.

There is one final and serious flaw in the idea that the mass media, on paper, amplifier or screen, are a sufficient system of political scrutiny. It is that they - we - have been too naive and unquestioning about the rise of the pressure groups and single interest groups which manufacture and manipulate so much news. It is remarkable how often their spokespeople are treated as unpolluted sources of information and light. Their funding is rarely questioned, their 'surveys' are faithfully reported, their leading figures rarely subjected to hostile and critical questioning. Most weeks show a high proportion of press stories and broadcast news which originates from pressure groups, either through the release of reports, or opinion polls commissioned by them, or because they have achieved some high-profile publicity coup.

If the Labour Party launches a survey of poverty and proposes to change the benefits system, the event is analysed in terms of its internal party politics, its campaigning programme and the cost of the proposals. This is considered routine. But if pressure groups launch survey findings or propose new spending they often get an easier ride.

Ministers, who are after all meant to be there to represent the public good, to balance the interests of the pressure group against those of other groups, including taxpayers, are treated as suspicious, faintly sleazy characters by comparison with campaigners who are less hardened. Yet pressure groups raise money too, and are influenced by commercial considerations; their internal politics has an effect on the body politic; their rivalries and different strategies are becoming as important to much policy-making as the internal rivalries of, say, the opposition parties. There are signs that this may be changing - scandals in some campaigning organizations have hardened attitudes, and there is a more general understanding of the power of the lobbies spreading through the system. If so, not before time.

Friday: The rise of communitarianism. Ruling Britannia is published by Michael Joseph tomorrow, price pounds 16.99