LETTER from THE EDITOR

Most politicians believe that real argument must be worked out behind the scenes. Journalism then falls back on unattributable quotes
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"You have to speak in inanities or the media will try to suggest you are criticising. This is terrifying for politics ... Running the country is a bit more complicated than that. We need discussion about some of the challenges facing us ... I am an old-fashioned politician who believes in reading books, who believes that intelligent discussion creates new ideas and that politics is not just something a few leaders do to run the country." Thus Clare Short on the BBC's Conference Live programme from Blackpool.

Stumbling sore-footedly among Labour delegates, and dazed with gossip and lager at the Imperial Hotel, I found this year's conference obsessed with journalism and reportage. It seemed unsettlingly post-modern - the medium arguing about the media and the message sliced into soundbite nuggets. But because the argument directly concerns how The Independent acts, as well as other papers, I thought it right to mention it this morning.

There were two strands to it - the discussion about whether politics has become dominated by spin doctors, and the argument about what papers report - "splits" based on unnamed sources, rather than the raw meat of policy. The two are clearly related but the spin doctor stuff can be disposed of more quickly. Political journalists who let themselves be bullied by spin doctors are rare and ought to find another trade. Hacks who moan about them are, to adopt the language of the Chancellor, pathetic.

The second problem is more serious. We don't reproduce Labour policy documents, or anyone else's, because they are extremely boring. We do report significant changes of policy. But yes, all papers bang on about splits and use unattributable sources. Where do we get them from? Most politicians I know will leak; and most are furious when they, in turn, are leaked against. But it isn't merely laziness or an irrational distaste for on-the-record quotes, as (say) Tony Benn thinks. Politics now happens inside parties as much as between them; few serious politicians would dispute that.

But there is a strong belief among the same people that parties which seem divided can't win elections. There's no way out.

This leads inexorably to the conclusion that real political argument - such as Labour's attitude to the single European currency - must be worked out behind the scenes.

The Tories used to do this all the time, but are getting worse at it. This week, by contrast, there was almost no public argument at Blackpool - not simply because people had been bullied but because they are so desperate to win that they too regard Clare's open discussion as dangerous.

If that's what the politicians do, then journalism has little recourse but to use unattributed quotes. Is this healthy? No. Does it lead to vigorous, engaging politics? No, it produces cynicism. Who loses from cynicism? All of us, but the politicians most directly. I don't have any easy answers. Come to think of it, I'm a bit short on difficult answers too. Perhaps we should just ban the word split and stop pretending to be shocked when politicians from the same party disagree. What do readers think?

Other than that, drifting idly round the Blackpool conference for a day without needing to file a story has been one of the nicest perks of editorship thus far. But I am not swollen with hubris, having heard yesterday how Rupert Murdoch lets his editors know that their number is coming up. "Waaall," says the Prince of Darkness after some disagreement, "You're the editor." Apparently the phrase should be translated as ... "but not for much longer."

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