Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009
Short Cuts

The Leaky State of Political Journalism

Daniel Soar

1033 words

Political journalism is a tricky business. First, there’s the hanging around in the bars and tea-rooms of the House of Commons in the hope of picking up scraps of gossip from malcontents. Then, back at the drawing board, there’s the stitching together of hints and whispers, with a bit of freehand connecting of dots, in order to construct a plausible narrative line. And then there’s publishing the stuff, in language that is vague enough to preclude immediate contradiction and yet authoritative enough to set the tone for the other papers. ‘Mr Brown,’ a Telegraph story on 4 June began, ‘is considering removing Mr Darling from the Treasury and replacing him with Ed Balls, the schools secretary and his closest political adviser.’ You can’t argue with ‘considering’ – he might also be considering having muffins for tea – and the echo of the antique intra-office memo is very compelling. If there’s a message here, we’re meant plainly to understand, it’s that Alistair Darling is on his way out. The ‘news’ that the prime minister wanted to ditch his chancellor in the next reshuffle was repeated in TV and press reports throughout the week running up to the European and local elections; but, when polling day came, the news changed. Darling kept his job. So what was all that about then?

With most kinds of journalism, even when sources aren’t divulged, as they often can’t be, it’s clear what the purpose of a revelation is: a company is accused of illegal activity, the source a nameless whistleblower who wants the dodgy goings-on to end. Political journalism is hazier. We know that there are briefings, counter-briefings, rumours, smears – political editors have such a blast discussing the machinations of Number 10 that we might think nothing else goes on inside – but, when it comes to the actual buzz of the present moment, the papers are coy about which side their sources are on. They present their news as a puzzle, which helps readers get a taste of the Machiavellian nature of the game: someone is saying something about someone, but who, and why? ‘Friends of the chancellor,’ the Telegraph continued, ‘said he is unlikely to accept any other job.’ Aha! So the story must have been leaked by the chancellor’s camp, and the story behind the story goes like this: Gordon wants to get rid of Alistair; Alistair doesn’t want to go; he or ‘sources close to him’ talk to a friendly editor, revealing Gordon’s fiendish plan. Now Cameron can confront the PM in the Commons with his treachery, asking him twice whether he means to sack his chancellor, and being twice denied. If we only look at who benefits, the chancellor wins: by letting the cat out of the bag, he made it impossible for Brown to get his way.

Except this, the only logical explanation, isn’t the right one. On TV news reports after the elections, a lobby journalist was shown demanding to know from Brown why ‘all his closest aides’ had been ‘going round Westminster’ saying he wanted Darling to go. Number 10 had scuppered its own plan. You can see why the journalist was upset: not only did the misguided leak mean that the story everyone had been running with turned out to be wrong, it also revealed a migraine-inducing paradox at the heart of the briefing process. By telling reporters that X event would happen, Downing Street was ensuring that there was no way it could. The self-cancelling circularity of the thing would cause even the toughest political correspondent to wonder whether he was in the right line of work.

It would be nice to think that the government was busy conducting a Schrödinger-like quantum experiment with cats and bags. But the truth is sadder. Downing Street can only have been acting in the naive belief that by saying something is the case you make it real. All the cloak-and-dagger apparatus that attends the presentation of news from the Palace of Westminster leads us to think that more is being thought than is being said, that something is going on that we’re not quite being told. But what if being told is all there is? That this is standard operating procedure in the back rooms of Parliament was made plain, in the same week as Darling’s non-departure, by the activities of the Hotmail plotters, that gang of Blairite would-be rebels who wanted the PM out at nearly any price.

The Guardian’s man in the Commons, Allegra Stratton, had a hotline to one of the schemers. ‘The Guardian met this MP,’ she recorded on the Wednesday night, ‘in the corner of a Pugin-decorated dining-room as glasses were arranged and crockery assembled’ (there could be no doubting that a big event was about to unfold). The ‘“rebellion of all the talents” has never met’, the story’s subhead boldly declared, ‘but plotted by email, borrowing tactics from Trotsky’. In subsequent days, it became apparent that those tactics had involved, largely, the announcing to Allegra Stratton that the plotters had enlisted, or might potentially enlist, 50 or 70 or 80 or 120 Labour MPs to promise to call for the prime minister’s resignation at some point in the near but as yet undecided future. Recruitment was supposed to be by means of an anonymous circular email, except it turned out that most MPs hadn’t got the message. The reason they hadn’t got the message is that they were looking in the wrong place: the putative plot was gathering momentum not by spreading its slippery tentacles through parliamentary email inboxes but by bigging itself up in the national press. To rebel, click here. It’s as easy as that. Politics are meant to be deceptive. But when we’re being deceived about the very deception, where does that leave us? The rebels, you see, had nothing to say. Two of them appeared on Newsnight to state their case: did they disagree with Brown’s policies? No, ‘we have the right policies.’ If Brown were to stay, what would he have to promise? ‘A change of culture at Number 10.’ I’ve never been so depressed.

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