Changing the terms of the trade, or telling the difference between policy and presentation…

If I’d had the time to blog for Comment is Free (or indeed Slugger) the Today programme’s interview (ten minutes in, more here) of Alistair Campbell by John Humphrieys would have been it. It was the kind of gladiatorial combat that left neither in great shape by the end. Campbell claimed that his previous journalism never denigrated politics. Humphrieys then quotes (at least twice) his description of John Major as “simply a shallow lying little toad of a man”. Campbell is on safer ground when he notes just how anti Labour the British press was before he took over: “We had to change the terms of the trade”. For his part, Humphrieys turns in the kind of sneering interview he generally reserves for new Labour insiders. The effect is venal, truculent and very inward looking. On Comment is Free, Clive Soley, considering the same event, argues that what is at stake, but which is rarely drawn out in a set piece that takes a half hour of broadcast time, is that there is a busted relationship between press and politicians that does neither any good:

If journalists now see their primary role as commentators and analysts then what becomes of the news? If headline writers tell us the slant (spin) of the newspaper, why bother reading it? Or even buy it?

Increasing numbers of people now see politicians and journalists as two sides of the same coin, and that is one of the reasons why the public holds them in equal distrust. Trust levels for both groups vary between 15% and 20% – far lower then it ought to be.

When I was first elected to parliament in 1979 I quickly realised that, unlike the recent past, my comments in the House were unlikely to be reported anywhere unless I either said or did something outrageous, or did deals with journalists to get coverage. I chose the latter option.

By discussing the question or comment you were going to make with a journalist you could often get the coverage you were seeking. After all, that was the most important way we had of talking to the electorate. Mostly I would take the initiative but quite frequently a journalist would take the initiative and suggest a parliamentary question to me.

This cooperation between journalists and politicians creates a culture of spin. Spin itself is not new and is inevitable with any person or organisation seeking to present a good view of their activities. What is new is the inability to read the news that was provided in the past in the Guardian and other papers.


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