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?