Peter Hain: The spin must stop. We must burst the Westminster bubble

Politicians and journalists are both guilty of making politics a turn-off for voters, argues Peter Hain
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The Independent Online

Ten days ago a man took his own life amidst fever pitch intensity in the "Westminster bubble" - that politically incestuous world occupied by politicians, Government and Opposition, together with the media.

Well before this tragedy, I had become increasingly frustrated about the truly appalling quality of what passes for political debate in Britain today. And discussing this with some editors and lobby journalists, I found a common acknowledgement that we do have a genuine crisis. Politicians, news broadcasters and journalists now form a "political class" which is in a frenzied world of its own, completely divorced from the people, and which is turning off viewers, listeners and readers from politics by the million.

The media debate centres on soundbites interpreted by spin, instead of arguments underpinned by facts. The hunt for the new angle on a story leads to a self-indulgent obsession with process, not substance, and with personalities not policies. This is breeding a climate of cynicism which is corrosive of democracy, and which is contributing to voter disengagement and low turnout.

From Tony Blair and Gordon Brown through Alastair Campbell this government has been self-critical about our own tendency for "spin" in our early years. But then again if we hadn't shown an iron grip on our communications, we could so easily have degenerated into the shambles of the John Major years - with the media being the first to attack us for it.

The media cannot have it both ways - we cannot be both "control freaks" and then, when we ease up on that control, be accused of having "lost control". When ministers all sing from the same hymn sheet we are accused of being controlled by our pagers - and women MPs demeaningly labelled "Blair babes". Yet when we go "off script", the Government is "adrift", the PM has "lost control". We are attacked as a government "without a grip", with our famed ability to communicate "ebbing away".

As a Cabinet minister, I'm a believer in plain speaking and answering the questions, not ducking them. It's got me into the odd scrape. But then even the most cautious, on-message minister has been there too: it comes with the job these days. A different adjective on the euro feeds a restless rush for a new "Cabinet split" story and we're off again - preoccupied with ourselves, not the public. The way the debate in the Westminster bubble is conducted is insulting to a public that wants intelligent debate, not journalistic spin or on-message government boredom.

The public don't like the way every attempt at open debate is turned into a "split" or the way that every ministerial word that is microscopically different becomes a "gaffe". They want to see, hear and read the merits of interesting ideas by ministers or shadow ministers instead of all sorts of angles, spin and process minutiae - endlessly fascinating and exciting to the Westminster bubble but boring and self-obsessed to everyone else.

The Westminster bubble is obsessed with who's up and who's down. A grown-up policy debate within the Cabinet on a difficult issue becomes some huge personal rivalry by the time it is reported.

I was first in the media spotlight during anti-apartheid campaigns 33 years ago. But I have never before experienced so much made-up journalism - or, at best, journalism based on single anonymous sources - often from gossip over lunches, no doubt. I am invariably amazed at what I read about myself - and if that goes for me, imagine what the Prime Minister feels. Indeed, I know what he feels: that the Westminster bubble bears no resemblance to reality.

Most politicians of all parties are decent people, motivated by a desire to do good. We didn't get involved in politics because of a fascination with process. We want to change society. Equally, most journalists went into their profession to report or uncover the truth. And the truth is that most voters - who are also readers, viewers and listeners - want to read or hear about how policies are likely to affect their lives, not about the self-obsessed little world of the political class.

The media is absolutely right to give the Government a hard time when we deserve it. But both government and media need to get a better balance between the reporting of politics in terms of the outcomes that affect the public and what goes on inside our own little bubble. Government can do more to cut out the spin and cut down on the packaging. But, equally, the media can do more to report substance and content. We need a new deal.

There is also a problem with the Opposition - or rather the lack of it. Politics abhors a vacuum. Sections of the media have rushed to fill it - not just traditionally partial newspapers, but independent broadcasters. Instead of being spectators, the media have become key players in politics. Instead of following the agenda, the media are increasingly setting it.

We have seen the absolute extreme of this in the recent row between the BBC and the Government. A story, based on one source, and "sexed up" to make it more interesting - with the seniority of that source also spun to give the report more credibility - to ensure the greatest embarrassment, in the best traditions of the tabloids, rather than a public service broadcaster.

There is a fine tradition of investigative journalism that must continue - including by broadcasters, and the BBC in particular considering its public service remit. Many genuine scandals have been exposed, and suffering and abuse ended, because of excellent journalism. There is a fine tradition of critical and campaigning journalism - and that must continue also. But when it becomes journalistic spin, it must not be dressed up as straightforward reporting - with lines blurred between fact and comment.

Instead of reporting, some journalists are increasingly spinning. Intense competition means even broadsheets hugely over-hype. I have consistently experienced sub-editors who often write headlines and introductions which bear little resemblance to quoted words - which broadcasters then transmit without correction.

This is a chicken and egg situation. The media becomes a 24-hour rolling, non-stop machine, with producers and editors crying out for a new angle to "take the story on". Politicians respond with media grids, pagers and pre-briefings of announcements - anything to wrest back control of the frenzied news agenda. The endless merry-go-round sucks in everybody, including public service broadcasters.

I would not claim that politicians are as pure as the driven snow. We make our fair share of mistakes but at least we are kept in check by the forces of democratic accountability. For journalists there is no electorate, there are no voters, there are no democratic checks and balances. In the market place of ideas the only thing that marks out a decent journalist from a scoundrel or a rogue is good old-fashioned integrity. It's time for a little more integrity and a little less hypocrisy.

Although many indicators show that participation in traditional forms of politics is declining, I do not believe that people are uninterested in politics. It is the way that we in the Westminster bubble engage with people that is the problem - and by "we" I mean politicians and the media.

If we don't crack this problem and burst this Westminster bubble, then we will all go down together, politicians and political journalists alike. Because the lower turnout falls, the less editors are going to feel they have to cover politics at all. And that spells redundancy for all of us - democratic politics included.

Peter Hain is Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Wales