January 31, 2004

The truth about Westminster, politics, the BBC and the Hutton Enquiry

In December I spoke to around 100 of the most senior people at the BBC about their future, and future of broadcasting / journalism in general.

There is a huge crisis of confidence in both politicians and journalists which is undermining our democratic process, with falling interest in political debate, manifestos or election voting.

A primary reason is that most people believe that politicians are insincere, and that journalists exaggerate to make a story.

In my own experience of the media (audience reach over 200 million in the last 12 months on various interviews - see medialog) there is constant pressure to fill papers and programmes, because or a lack of enough real news.

The gap is filled by debate and conflict between individuals. However there is not enough of that either, so it is often hyped or even invented.

I have lost track of the number of times over the years I have been phoned to appear on a TV or radio programme, and it has been made absolutely clear that they are looking for highly coloured views. If they think that one's views are likely to reflect those of the middle majority, they are keen to proceed if it a general comment piece, but if it is a debate they tend to drop the idea of an interview with me and start pumping me for the phone numbers of people who have a more extreme position (it makes better TV).

Frequently I have found myself in a one-to-one interview being invited on-air to criticise what someone else has said in a previous interview. On many occaisions that person's own words are re-positioned to give a superficial characture of their actual position. I know for a fact that has also happened immediately after I have left a studio.

It also happens in the press. A journalist trying to stir up a fight may phone to suggest that an individual I know has said a particular thing, sharply critical of what I am saying on an issue. A time to take care. A quick call to the person concerned or a reading of their own press release often makes it abundantly clear that their own position has been deliberately distorted.

The truth is that most people agree on most things in most Western countries and this is especially true in the UK.

Most politicians also agree on most things.

Tony Blair and Michael Howard agree in private on most things. That is an inescapable fact. We know that whoever was in power over the next three years, very little would actually change.

The truth is that ministers try to do their best, but have very limited influence. Their job is difficult and complex: they are also very dependent on advice they receive (which can be wrong). Many decisions are dictated by Brussels, much of the rest is decentralised. Yet other decisions were inherited by a previous government. Most other parts of traditional government have been privatised. What little that remains is run by a civil service that endures from one government to another, comprising of (in the main) experienced and competent people who maintain stability and continuity through all the fads and fashions of political policy experiments.

New governments very rarely reverse legislation when they get into power - however bitterly at the time they have pretended to be opposed.

There is a collusion between politicians and the media, both of which have a strong interest in exaggerating differences. For the media it makes interesting copy (they think) or rivetting viewing (they hope). For politicians it gives them exposure and (they fantasise) makes people see them as different from the other side so they win support.

This offensive and melodramatic drama is played out every day in the public media theatre.

It looks awful, is very tedious and boring, invites ridicule and cynicism, damages broadcasters and politicians alike, destroys ratings, contributes to the decline in audiences for current affairs and news programmes, makes a rising generation disinclined to enter politics at all.

After all the virulent criticism of Lord Hutton, the BBC has on opportunity to lead our nation in a more mature political debate.

The BBC, along with all news outlets, must learn to tell the truth - and force politicians to admit the reality.

The truth is that in Select Committees different parties work very happily and harmoniously together for the good of the nation. That MPS seem to undergo a personality refit when elevated to the House of Lords, leaving the infantile rough and tumble of party-poltiical posturing in the dustbin where it belongs. That most MPs have very good friends in the other parties. That many MPs agree more with MPs in other parties over a number of issues than they do with their own leadership. That there is overhwelming agreement on the fundamentals about how the economy should be managed, the need for social welfare as well as vibrant free-market economy which is friendly to business, a cautious view of entry to the Euro-zone, and so on.

The alternative is to continue with the current madness, which is such a distortion of reality. Failure to bring a culture change will result in further destruction of public confidence in both politicians and the media, and will risk further misjudgments such as that which led to the Hutton enquiry.
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