Comment is free – and pointless

Can anyone give a good reason why ministers should bother reading commentary in newspapers?

"What did you think of the cuttings?" a senior staffer in the Lib Dems asked on Monday, after the Sheffield conference. Ashamed that I only delve into whatever I fancy reading online, I started trying to justify myself by asking whether there was any point.

Then it dawned on me. Often commentators are the most tangible form of feedback that we in politics get. But why should we bother?

Why do we care about the opinion of Ann Treneman from the Times, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail or Polly Toynbee from the Guardian? Does their opinion ever change? Does it change any of us? If the answers are "no" to all the above, then why do we want them to spend the equivalent of, say, £70 a day – based on an hourly rate of a cabinet salary – reading all this opinion?

Take the example of a friend who is now a minister. I asked him recently how he was dealing with the media onslaught about the Lib Dems. He explained that he quickly cancelled the doorstep of paper waiting on his desk each morning. He asked instead to receive only the most important ones from his private office. On inquiring how much his set of cuttings cost, he was told it was £5,000 per annum. That, in total, is over half a million pounds for all members of government.

I asked some of my Labour friends (yes, Lib Dems do still have them) whether they read the papers when they were in government. Some did, but by the end many didn't bother.

One former cabinet member explained that if the article was important enough it would find them. Another described to me how one secretary of state went in the opposite direction and became a virtual press officer, trying to respond to everything in the cuttings rather than dealing with the main business at hand.

Suzanne Moore wrote this brilliant critique of the strange world where Jamie Oliver and other chefs are more trusted to run public policy than trained teachers or elected politicians. But I suppose that the same could be asked of the columnists. Are they elected? No. Do they study the subject at hand endlessly? Some do, like Nick Timmins of the Financial Times, but most are generalists, just like the politicians.

Ringing in my ears are the usual journalists' claims that they speak for "popular public opinion". But we have much more rigorous and scientific ways of finding that out. While I'm firmly against the use of polls to govern, extensive polling would cost less than the £500,000 per annum of getting cuttings to ministers. Meanwhile, nearly every paper is being read by a much smaller and ever-decreasing proportion of the population.

So, what do you think? Should ministers read the commentary? What would you do if you were there?

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain