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John Cole

Feral? Why Blair wasn't all wrong

British Journalism Review
Vol. 18, No. 3, 2007, pages 38-44

John Cole was deputy editor of The Guardian before becoming political editor of the BBC, 1981-92.

Contents - Vol 18, No 3, 2007

Editorial - Trust or bust 3

Bill Hagerty - Anna Ford: Try a little tenderness 7

Denis Forman - Where are the new Carlton Greenes? 17

Charles Spencer - Foodie? Or not foodie? 25

Maurice Neill - The media as peacemakers 33

John Cole - Feral? Why Blair wasn't all wrong 38

Heidi Kingstone - Life and death in party city 45

Heidi Kingstone - Action Replay 51

Andy Bull - Training: a matter of degrees 54

Thembi Mutch - Sex, lies and audio tape 61

Hugh O'Shaughnessy - Media wars in Latin America 66

Victor Davis - Nightmare on Oxford Street 73

Joe Haines on Alastair Campbell 81

Geoffrey Goodman on Brenda Dean 83

Martin Rowson on Mark Bryant 86

Don Murray on Thomas Rid 89

Donald Trelford on Meryl Aldridge and Jackie Harrison 91

Brian Winston on Jean Aitchison 93

Cal McCrystal on Kemsley 95

Quotes of the Quarter 6

Ten years ago - The way we were 24

Richard Stott dedication - Outside back cover

  The job of a political leader is to chip away at the prejudices of his or her own supporters. Admittedly, a recent, obsessive, example of this has produced unhappy results. Nevertheless, one task of a journal like this is to chip away at the prejudices of its own readers — media practitioners, academics and students — rather than to massage their egos. So here goes, with the acknowledgement that I am now a media veteran, even a grumpy old man, to whom yesterday often appears better than today.

As the new political year begins, who do we think is more responsible for the sad state into which public life has fallen, the media or the politicians? We media people, as we contemplate the low public esteem in which our elected representatives are held, may rub our hands, and murmur: "There but for the grace of God go I"; except that God has not shown such grace, since we ourselves are in the danger zone of the popularity league table, together with politicians and estate agents. Are we even succeeding in having the "impact", which Tony Blair criticised in his much-reviled "feral" media speech? Circulation figures and television audiences suggest we are not getting everything right.

We cannot avoid beginning with the hoary question of who sets the agenda. This has become more contentious in the past couple of decades. In the post-war period, at least up till the 1970s, the political agenda was set by politicians. This did not mean that the media gave them an easy ride. Those agendas of those governments, and the way in which they were carried out, were fiercely criticised, not just by the Opposition parties, but in editorials and feature articles. Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan suffered savage attacks, especially towards the end of their reigns, when they were generally felt — justly or not — to have lost the plot. This media criticism was often bitterly resented. Audrey Callaghan once informed me, as the nearest available Guardian man, that she had told Jim, then Home Secretary, she wouldn't have the paper in her house, because it had called for his resignation over the Immigration Act. She added that if he had to read it, he could keep the banned journal in the Home Office.

What is new is the recent impatience of the media with the politicians' agenda. Take the reporting of Parliament, because it is central and affects both newspapers and broadcasting. When I was a candidate for the editorship of The Guardian in 1975, one of the appointing panel, Jo Grimond, asked me to give an undertaking to expand the parliamentary report. The Guardian at that time gave five columns each day to Parliament, about 6,000 words, compiled by sub-editors from then copious reports by the Press Association's gallery staff. The Times and Telegraph had their own gallery staffs, and their reports were somewhat longer. Guardian page-traffic surveys showed that Parliament got low scores, although not as low as real tennis, whose results had survived in the sports pages only because the last sports editor but three had played this somewhat esoteric game at university. When I discovered that 0 per cent of our male readers and 0 per cent of the females read about real tennis, I caused the feature to be axed. But, as I explained to Grimond, the parliamentary reports ought to be maintained at their current length (although not expanded), because it was right to serve those who valued them.

Content to entertain

Some years later, The Times and Telegraph sacked their gallery staffs, and they and The Guardian would lead what had previously been their parliamentary pages with reports by political correspondents, mixing some points from Parliament with lobby reporting and analysis or comment. Today's parliamentary sketch writers no longer seek to report anything much, but are content to entertain, and it is difficult to distinguish what the so-called quality papers do from the tabloids. Nowadays your best chance of discovering what your MP, or any other, said in the House of Commons is to listen to Today in Parliament on the radio. So if you seek the reason Parliament now stands so low in public esteem, do not look only at the quality of the speeches, which is doubtless as uneven as ever it was, but at the paucity of the coverage.

Nor has the admission of television cameras into first the Lords and then the Commons been much help in keeping politics in the public gaze. Like other broadcasters, I argued with MPs that they could not justify keeping the citizens' most popular medium out of their representative assembly. I still believe that, but when I think how television has mishandled Parliament, I squirm before the spirit of the late Robin Day, who led that fight. Again, it is a question of agendas. Early in the televising of Parliament, an Opposition backbencher rose, at the hour set for the Budget, to raise a point of order. The Speaker tried to dissuade him, but he stood his ground, and kept bawling: "On a point of order, Mr Speaker", clearly convinced that this was what his constituents paid him for. The Speaker decided it would save time if he let the MP proceed, briefly. My secretary appeared at the gallery entrance, and called me to the phone. The editor of the day demanded to know how long this nonsense would go on. God and the schedulers of children's programmes wait for no man. I asked whether he expected me to go down and strangle the recalcitrant MP with my bare hands.

Soon, editors decided, rationally from their point of view, that neither television schedules nor the agenda of the House of Commons was going to give way. So they broadcast the minimum of parliamentary occasions, often cutting off the Opposition or Liberal Democrat spokesmen, and arranged yet another dreary studio discussion with selected MPs or journalists, where producers could control not only the timing, but the subjects discussed. This culminated recently in the curtailing of Tony Blair's last Prime Minister's Question Time, with its unprecedented standing ovation, in favour of a promo for a future programme — an error for which the BBC subsequently apologised. I am told it was a result of switching politics and Wimbledon between BBC channels — the same mistake that caused us, many years ago, to miss the election of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, on my (technically inexperienced) watch. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The subject of who sets the agenda leads us into interviewing techniques on radio and television. Here, admittedly, the strength of feeling about Iraq is an aggravating factor, principally at the BBC since the Hutton report. But should some editor not have told John Humphrys that his first question to Jack Straw, brought in to discuss the Government's constitutional plans, was self-defeating? Humphrys railed at the frivolity of a Cabinet discussion on the constitution on the day three soldiers, two of them from Gordon Brown's constituency area, had been killed in Iraq. This merely allowed Straw to avoid the really awkward — unasked, but obvious — constitutional question, about the effect on England of Scottish devolution. In other words, striving to set the agenda often misses the news point. The newspapers and the House of Commons have been full of the West Lothian question ever since.

I partly blame the politicians for the malign development of interviewing techniques. They are so keen to curry favour with the broadcasters' audiences that they fail to stand up for themselves. From what I can judge of public reactions to aggressive interviewing, a politician who protested to the point of confrontation might be pleasantly surprised by the reaction. What is Gordon Brown's "great clunking fist" for? I look forward to him challenging the underlying attitude of some interviewers. After all, there is no Speaker to remind him he's supposed to be answering questions.

This is not to argue for "patsy" interviewing, as in: "Have you any message for the British people, Mr Attlee?" (Reply: "No, I don't think so, thank you very much.") When I was political editor of the BBC my interviews were usually pre-recorded, which is much the easier form, allowing the reporter to dig away at a subject until he gets an answer. On Black Wednesday in 1992 I annoyed John Major by asking him whether he wasn't just clinging on to his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, because he feared that the public would conclude he shared the blame. It was confrontational, but subsequent history suggested I was right to ask the question. Incidentally, I know that broadcast journalism needs interviews on camera or on microphone, but I can only say that I have rarely obtained any very fresh knowledge in such an interview. Scoops are garnered in dark corridors, even in the Westminster Underground station subway, over discreet lunch tables, or on the telephone. Privacy is the key; publication comes later.

Lunch in the wrong restaurant

In my previous job as labour correspondent of The Guardian, I once discovered the danger of too-careless a selection of restaurants. It was when the communists were fighting the ex-communists in the electricians' union. The communist leadership was not talking to the capitalist press, so I was excited to be approached by a Daily Worker chum and told if I extended an invitation to Frank Haxell, the general secretary, it might well be accepted. I imagine that, after a discreet word from a courtier, this is the way you take the Queen out to lunch. (Though, I must admit, on an occasion the Palace invited me to lunch I respectfully declined after discovering that HM would not be revealing what she would do if there were a hung Parliament.) I met Haxell at a well-known Soho restaurant. Sitting directly opposite us, like Government and Opposition, was a Daily Express man with two right-wing trade unionists. When I got to sensitive questions, Haxell's response was strangulated. Out of the corner of his mouth, he said he could not say much considering who had seen him in my company — a fair point. Journalistically the lunch was a failure.

On-the-record press conferences, such as those Tony Blair held, are useful for mood music, but little else, for those who have read the latest Downing Street handout. The same applied, in the end, to the Lobby briefings for political correspondents. But remembering The Guardian campaign against these apparently Masonic occasions, I cannot suppress a wry smile as I now read its front pages littered with "senior sources", all unnamed, pontificating on the latest security story. Incidentally, are all sources "senior", just as all models are "top"? I would like to meet a "junior source" or, come to that, a "bottom model". This is important, because the whole of the Blair-Brown row has been conducted on the basis of unnamed sources. The perceptive reader or audience is left uncertain as to how close to the Prime Minister or Chancellor the source really is, how far he is exceeding his authority, whether Blair or Brown endorses what he is quoted as saying — their frequent denials suggested not — and, whisper it, whether there is a real source at all. Political journalism in these circumstances, admittedly, is difficult, but at least I had the comfort of knowing that when Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan were at odds, I was able to speak to both of them; and when Margaret Thatcher was under irresistible pressure from her Cabinet to resign, I had opinions from many ministers themselves, so that when she said, on camera: "I fight on, I fight to win", I was confident she would not. At the end of the day, viewers and listeners must be able to trust the reporter.

The recent burst of breast-beating about the loss of trust in the media has mostly been concentrated on broadcasting. But when you consider how many newspaper "scoops" are not followed up by other papers, or even by the originator of the story, how many are never heard of again, you wonder whether trust in the printed word is being similarly eroded. Much of the blame for all this is put down to "spin". Certainly the public relations trade, in which I include focus groups and public opinion polls, and not only in politics, but in business, the entertainment industry, and even charities, has gained an unenviable reputation for perverting the truth on behalf of its clients. This is where Tony Blair's criticism of media obsession with "impact" rings bells. Non-governmental organisations, charities, university researchers have all learned that the first sentence of their press release must contain a story. Sometimes it is hyped. When I was news editor and deputy editor of The Guardian, we were very reluctant to print a story claiming a forthcoming cure for cancer, lest it raised false hopes in patients and their families. Nowadays, researchers seem to claim cures for everything down to in-growing toenails, and gain publicity for them. Research grants are doubtless hard to come by, and a few newspaper cuttings may help. The media do not operate in a vacuum. If we wonder why life is more strident today, we must look at others, including politicians, but also at ourselves. We have some kind of duty to truth, so far as we can discover what the truth is. But are we taking on the malignant forces that impede the search for truth as often as we ought? A small example: during the Labour leadership pre-election period, an American expert on focus groups conducted one for Newsnight. Under the influence of one loudmouth, who objected to Gordon Brown being Scottish, the group seemed to veer elsewhere. The "expert" concluded that John Reid might emerge as leader. It was left to Jeremy Paxman, in his outro, to point out dryly that Reid was also a Scot. The American expert apparently didn't know this. But I saw him again later, this time employed to pontificate on some Conservative subject.

Media indignation

I retired before the New Labour era, so I am mystified, as I suspect many older journalists are, by the change that Alastair Campbell seems to have made to our trade. So when Tony Blair made his quite thoughtful speech on the media, just before he retired, I found the reaction largely misplaced. (His ill-advised thoughts on regulation can have no effect, since he is gone from Downing Street.) Probably Blair was no more harshly treated than were many other leaders towards the end of their times — Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major? Or Kinnock, Hague, Duncan-Smith, and Howard? But what is hard to understand is the media indignation that Blair should dare to complain, just because he had presumably authorised the excesses of the Campbell public relations policy. He thought, however wrongly, that he would get Labour a better press by these methods.

We should look to our own performance. Why did correspondents constantly roll over and allow Campbell to tickle their stomachs in the hope of getting a news break the day before others? They encouraged in him the belief they would always curry favour in the hope of scraps from the master's table. What is the real value of sight of a speech the day before a minister makes it, particularly as you know your "scoop" is all predestined in the Downing Street grid? I am aware that these questions will appear naive to some current journalists. "Competitive instincts, old boy", they will murmur. But journalism is a serious trade, and broadcasters and journalists have a duty to audiences and readers not to allow politicians to manipulate them. Some of my best friends are politicians, but... never forget that they and we exercise different crafts. If Alastair Campbell was as unreasonable as he is painted, and as his diaries, which I have not read, apparently show, why did journalists, jointly and severally, not use his favourite F-word to invite him to back off?

I am aware of the likely criticism of this article, that "you weren't there". But one last anecdote to reveal that there have been attempts to manipulate the media before Campbell. At a party conference when Peter Mandelson was Labour's press officer, I arrived late on the opening Sunday to find that the BBC, in my opinion, was leading its bulletins with the weaker of two Labour Party stories; weaker in the sense that it was less interesting. I found that the editor on the spot, who had not been on duty in the morning, shared that opinion. But as I walked through the offices, every BBC employee I met delivered the same message: Mandelson was furious at us. He thought we were leading with the "wrong" story because it was more damaging to Labour. There was a row in the making. Eventually he came to me with the same furious complaint. I told him that I agreed with him, although for different reasons. But because he had aired his views to so many BBC people, it would be foolish for us to change our running order for later bulletins, because it would look to our colleagues as if we were being dictated to by him. He was not satisfied. He wrote to the BBC chairman, complaining that "John Cole had spoken to him like a schoolboy". He told me of this letter himself. The chairman never mentioned it. Presumably his staff wrote a nice, emollient reply. I told Peter that his schoolboy analogy was wrongly directed — it was I who was the recalcitrant fourth-former refusing to be messed about by supposed authority.