Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers

1. Swine flu was as elusive as WMDs. The real threat is mad scientist syndrome (Guardian)

"Remember the warnings of 65,000 dead?" asks Simon Jenkins. Health chiefs should admit they were wrong -- yet again -- about a global pandemic.

2. John Denham's right: It's class, not race, that determines Britain's have-nots (Daily Telegraph)

White working-class anger has become a force that no politician can ignore, says Andrew Gilligan. To tackle it, we must talk about it.

3. Race to the bottom (Times)

The Times leading article agrees that John Denham was right to say that class matters more for life chances than racial origin. But his statement is a shocking indictment of a failure to enable social mobility.

4. Cameronomics have been tried in Ireland -- and the result? (Independent)

Johann Hari looks at the collapse of the Irish model of low tax and almost total deregulation. Following suit by slashing spending would be a disaster, but Labour has not argued the case for Keynsian economics.

5. Liberty and mendacity (Guardian)

The Tories pledge to replace the Human Rights Act. Their position just doesn't add up, says Charles Falconer QC, and it puts Britain's reputation at risk.

6. Chilcot inquiry unlikely to find the smoking gun that does for Blair (Daily Telegraph)

Former officials' outbursts -- speculative, rather than factual -- have brought us no nearer to knowing the truth about the invasion of Iraq, says Con Coughlin.

7. An Islamic girls' school top of the tables? (Times)

The secret of success is the same for all faith schools, says Jack Straw, following the league table success of the Tauheedul Islam school in his Blackburn constituency.

8. Here's one way to reconnect voters (Independent)

Andreas Whittam Smith attends a "deliberative poll", a subversive form of political marketing that yields surprising results.

9. The Haiti quake must not be dismissed as an "act of God" (Guardian)

Brian Tucker argues that this catastrophe was foreseeable, and suggests that we spend one-tenth of the disaster fund on preparing for future earthquakes.

10. The irresistible rise of the aid industry (Times)

Meanwhile, at the Times, Ross Clark worries about the millions who will give money to victims of the earthquake. Will their cash get to the right place?

 

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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.