Where are the Liberal Democrat journalists?

As a nation, we are pluralist, but the print media seem to be lagging 20 years behind.

As a fellow sufferer, I love the Catherine Tate sketch where people are in a refuge for redheads called Russet Lodge. If you are a journalist who is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats, I think it must be similar.

"No wonder," I hear you scream. "It is a result of the utter betrayal of the past year." But this blog is about the past 20 years. So let me ask just one simple question. Given that roughly one in five people has supported the Liberal Democrats, or their predecessor parties, over the past 20 years, where are the well-known Liberal Democrat columnists? Why have editors passed up the opportunity of hiring one?

Halfway through the 2010 general election someone at editorial level of a broadsheet phoned me. "I need to understand about the Liberal Democrats, their philosophical base, how they got here, where they are in policy terms." I instantly sent him in the direction of Julian Astle, who at the time was director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank.

I admired this journalist for his honesty and for his genuine interest. I think that many opinion-forming journalists, pre-2010, had a tendency to consider us useful only when we were a moderate influence on Labour's excesses on civil liberties or constitutional reform. They rarely took a good look at us for what we were in our own right: a party with a strong philosophical base of liberalism, however heated the debate between the "social" and "market" strands.

The dismissive approach of the papers on the right barely needs explanation. Or rather, it was explained by David Yelland, in a brilliant piece written during the election. The sense from him was that if the Liberal Democrats ever got into power, editors would have no idea who to pick up the phone to, although his account includes a bit of exaggeration.

Always take the weather with you

When I asked on Twitter for people to name a columnist at a paper who is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Daniel Finkelstein at the Times, or Kevin Maguire at the Mirror, there were no answers.

Someone mentioned David Mitchell, another Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but neither matches what I am talking about.

I do not mean someone who views us as a tactical convenience. I mean a fully declared, card-carrying member of a political party – it may be an often critical friend, but one who will continue to support and explain that party, through thick and thin.

For the Tories: Matthew Parris, Andrew Pierce, Matthew d'Ancona, Fraser Nelson – the list is endless. For Labour, there's Jackie Ashley, Polly Toynbee, Steve Richards and others. Of course, there are those who are rabidly opposed to all parties, those who are truly objective, and those who follow the political weather, snuggling up nicely to the next lot in power in order to ensure that they have good access with each new government.

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters. Is it that career-destroying? Or is it, as I suspect, a sad fact that while the UK has moved to a scenario where we are a pluralist nation, the print media remain 20 years behind?

Therefore, credit to the Telegraph, which currently has Julian Astle blogging for it, and to the New Statesman, which asked me to give the Liberal Democrat view, and to the FT, which publishes Miranda Green. But we are rarely in print. (By the way, this is not a pitch for a column – I struggle to keep up with my small commitment to this blog. It's a pitch for others.)

No wonder that, when we are written about, by columnists from other parties, our story is viewed through red or blue-tinted spectacles, never yellow. Inevitably, it rarely reads well.

So this is a direct question to the editors of all the print media. You employ people from Labour or the Conservatives, who then appear in the broadcast media with insights about their respective parties. Why no Liberal Democrats? It can't be that difficult, especially when you have a readership that's gone beyond the two-party system.

Come on, Alan, Simon, James, Tony and Lionel. Isn't it time you caught up?

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.