Robinson, Riddell, White: What Gets on the News

Last night I was watching coverage on BBC Parliament of The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, chaired by Jack Straw, talking to three notable political hacks, Messrs. White, Riddell and Robinson, ostensibly about strengthening the role of the backbencher and making better use of non-legislative time, but in reality about how they could all get their faces on the telly and in the papers more often.

You can read the whole session, of course, but for the sake of relative concision, I have provided some edited highlights below. Some of the phrasing has been slightly amended to make sense of the transcripts, but nothing more. Beneath each quote, I have added some of my own thoughts, which, it will come as little surprise to learn, come from a fairly Lib Dem specific stand-point.

Robinson: There is a huge interest in covering what is topical, significant, surprising or dramatic and there is no prejudice against doing it in Parliament, if that is possible. The question is, is it possible enough, and the question that I put to the Committee is how often is the outcome dramatic, how often is it seriously topical, how often is there a defined outcome in what goes on as against an adjournment debate where there is a discussion rather than a defined outcome, how often is it truly significant? It is those tests that are tests for news bulletins in a way and there is neither a prejudice in favour or against parliamentary coverage.

This seems true enough, but what seems equally obvious in my own mind is that there are obvious prejudices to parties from third party on down which come about through the operation of these “tests”, or “filters” as one might also call them. The Lib Dems can be topical, sure, but the other three (dramatic, defined outcome, significant) are tricky. If we try to be dramatic, we are desperate for headlines, or somehow “not a serious party of government”. We are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of insignificance, one where because we are deemed to be insignificant, we do not warrant the coverage that might turn us into a more significant force in the eyes of the electorate.

Similarly, a “defined outcome” is pretty tricky, because short of campaigning on specific things like Guantanamo Residents or setting our own policy at conference, we can’t really do very much – and hey presto, those are the events which we do get into the news for. Even “topicality” can be comething of a poisoned challice – if we do nothing but chase the news agenda, we both prove our irrelevance to the press through our inability to set said agenda, and we look like bandwagon-jumpers to the general public.

Robinson: If [it] happens to meet my test of significance to find out whether it is topical or dramatic whether, frankly, it be the eviction of Shilpa Shetty from Big Brother or Parliament, it will get on the television.

Riddell: …the criteria that Nick laid down, which I agree with, of topicality, relevance and decision…

Just included this to emphasize that Riddell agreed with this analysis, and White offered no contradictions to it, although for his part he provided a “marketisation” analysis of politics which, whilst probably quite true, is not directly relevant to what I want to say here.

Robinson: [responding to Theresa May’s suggestion that there is “a tension” between being “surprising and dramatic” and making a serious contribution]: Forgive me, surprise and drama were two of my tests, and they do not always have to apply. Significance is a test – I mean, nobody has to be surprising or dramatic on the day we are about to go to war: it is significant, it gets on anyway – and a defined outcome. … One last thought on that: the role of a backbencher in the view of many people outside will be to hold the Executive to account. That can be done by interventions. I see far too few, in my view, backbenchers seeing their role as to intervene on a minister, to challenge a minister on a point—in a sympathetic, not necessarily aggressive way. It seems to me that would have an effect. It was striking that when the NatWest Three debate came, the urgent debate that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat, managed to secure, this was regarded as some sort of freak rarity. That was something that was part of the national debate, of huge significance to relations between Britain and America and yet it was regarded as a surprise that Parliament could find a way to debate it. I would just suggest to Members that that might be a bit odd.

What he argue here is fine for main parties, who have some claim to “significance” or a “defined outcome”, but, as I pointed out above, this is not so for us. Having said that, it is always nice to see Nick Clegg’s ingenuity being applauded.

White: When Members of Parliament say to me, “You lot are never in the press gallery,” I always reply, “We tend to be in the press gallery when you are in the Chamber”—which is, alas, these days, for Prime Minister’s Question Time! Alas, again, only once a week! … My younger colleagues do what you all do, I suspect—which is to sit in your rooms, handling the voluminous self-generated correspondence from your constituents with one eye on the telly, keeping an eye on what is going on in the Chamber. If you are really quick, like Sir Nicholas, you get downstairs to hear George Galloway—heaven knows why, but he is a marvellous speaker—but you are doing other things. We do that too. I say to the younger colleagues, “You can’t know what’s going on in the Chamber by watching the telly. You not only have to see the speaker, you have to see the reaction to the speaker.”

This has been included on its own merit, as opposed to being directly relevant to us, but I would also note that PMQs is frankly a ludicrous thing to pick as the sole window on the parliamentary system, as they all seem to acknowledge. It is also the time when the party with the loudest crowd of boarish oafs get to shout down the rest, no matter how good the question is, and where a glib partisan insult on most issues seems to be all that Blair can muster in response to Lib Dem questions. I wouldn’t care if this was just one event of many that is covered, but as is noted by White, it is unfortunately increasingly all there is. It is certainly the only Parliamentary event which automatically commands live coverage on a main channel, other than the Budget.

White: It seems to me that in the marketised circumstances in which we all operate there has been and there is a far greater degree of pandering to what the metropolitan elite has backed. Unlike poor Mr Lazarowicz, with his website backed by public funds, we have tended to pander much more than we did and for every absolutely mesmerising David Attenborough series which we do all watch, there are 50 which are not what they were.

This, again, is not directly of relevance, and I have stuck it in mostly because it reminded me somewhat of a Chomsky-lite analysis, particularly the phrase “pandering to what the metropolitan elite has backed”.

Straw: I accept we need greater topicality and greater control of the House by backbenchers. But do not forget there are plenty of occasions where these things may well have been raised but they do not get reported at all. It is frustrating … the opposition raise all sorts of issues in short debates, not long ones, in opposition time. They do make a difference, put the minister on the spot, but very rarely do they get reported.

White: But being reported is not the same as making a difference. You are here to make a difference. You are being reported in order to assist you getting re-elected, in an instrumental sense. You can make a difference but you do not have to be reported whether it is a backbench intervention or anything else. You are seen by your colleagues and hopefully feared by ministers who think, “Oh, damn, it’s him.” Reporting is not, it seems to me, the primary criterion.

White seems to slightly miss the point here. Surely the role of the press (at least in some sort of idealised model of how democracy works) is to provide the electorate with an accurate picture of what differences have really been made, and by whom. Surely “being reported” should coincide almost exactly with “making a difference”, amongst other things.

White: You do your best but the one element you have left out of the equation is that any of the three of us have to persuade the man in a suit with his jacket off, sitting at a desk, down a telephone line that what we are trying to interest them in is interesting or important. If they have not read about it in the morning papers or on the Press Association or on the 24/7 news then you have a job persuading them. We are paradoxically very conservative about news: we like news we know already; we are a bit more at home with it. One of the tricks of the trade is that when we see something on 24/7 which you have been trying to sell all day, you send a note in pretending you have not sent a note earlier and you get a sale. They say, “Yes, we will take 500 words on that, as a matter of fact.” And you pretend that you do not know that the reason they have said yes when they have previously said no is that it has just been on the Six O’clock News or on 24/7.

This was interesting, I thought, and its relevance to the Lib Dems should be obvious, in that it is yet another aspect of how difficult it is for a third party to command control of the news agenda. White complained that Robinson all too often controlled his editorial decisions, and in turn Robinson complained that the press have a similar role as far as he was concerned. The outcome is obvious: a system of self-perpetuating status quo, where certain things just are relevant, and some things aren’t.

Robinson [on pre-briefing the press]: I think it is based on a ten-year-old view. It was Alastair Campbell who was a master of this, and the idea was that you would get the same bit of news on for days running: you would preview it, then the adverse feeds and then you have the reaction. The newly competitive media say, after the pre-brief: “We’ve already heard it. We won’t go to the speech.” It is a change, even in a decade.

This is, I suppose, some advice to all parties about media management that might be of interest.

In conclusion, then, what frustrates me is the way that the media seem to see their role as being to report what has consequences and is significant. At the same time, they seem to wilfully skirt the issue of their role in forming people’s perception of what is significant, and therefore their voting habits. It is all very well to have electoral law that demands equal coverage for parties close to elections, but if the rest of the time we are not covered in what we do or say, then it doesn’t matter what is covered in that short amount of time; we will not be relevant or “serious” in people’s minds.

I don’t limit this to the Lib Dems; I’m sure this must all be twice as frustrating to the Greens or UKIP. I suppose in a way, this is all part of FPTP and its self-fortifying nature; with PR, other parties are significant in a way they are not now, and that can only be good for the national debate and for democracy. I don’t know what lessons can really be drawn from this other than what we already do.

It is a perennial complaint of friends on the outside who know of my political allegiances that Ming Campbell/The Lib-Dems just aren’t in the news enough, and that this is somehow our fault, as if we have just forgotten to be in the news, and if only we bucked up our woolly-minded liberal ways and bloody well went to a TV studio and got on the news, we would be doing a whole lot better. I spend a lot of these conversations either getting disproportionately annoyed about them, or trying to divert them. Last night, owing to the one-way nature of television, I was reduced to simply banging my head against the nearest wall.

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