Reading the political codes

How is it possible to find meaning in something a politician doesn't say? For the political correspo

As I flicked back through my notebook, my eye fell on the words "TORIES IN TURMOIL". The Daily Mirror, Guardian and Daily Telegraph were all saying it. Reading on, I saw it was mid-June, just after David Davis resigned his seat. Remember that? Well, the Tories survived their supposed turmoil without so much as breaking sweat, and the headlines, viewed from a distance of a mere three months, now look plain foolish.

But if June was an excitable month for the political correspondents, how much more so was August, the month of quietness and silliness, the month of the Boris Johnson leadership bid? "Watch out, David, Boris wants to be PM too," said the Sunday Times, while the People announced: "Exclusive! BJ for PM: Huge blow for Cameron."

That story began when Johnson wrote in the Telegraph that Britain's Olympic success exposed as "piffle" the idea that our society was broken. This was a "pointed attack" (Independent) which "made a nonsense" (Mirror) of David Cameron's "key mantra" (Sun) and "piled on the agony" (Financial Times) in "an amazing example of èse-majesté" (Daily Mail).

When next interviewed, Johnson was asked whether, given such bare-faced disloyalty, he had ambitions to be prime minister, and he replied that it was "highly unlikely" he would be asked, but it would be a privilege to do the job.

Don't be fooled, the Mail on Sunday warned. "As any ordinary politician will tell you, should they ever be asked if they would like to be prime minister, the correct answer is: 'No . . . absolutely not . . . never.'" It was obvious what Johnson was really up to. Hence: "Watch your back, Dave."

This classic silly-season episode was built upon two things: the airy ramblings that are Johnson's Telegraph column, into which no normal person would dream of reading anything of significance, and - more interesting - the idea that political correspondents are in possession of codes not known to the rest of us, which enable them to detect hidden meanings in the words of politicians. These codes are worth dwelling on, not least because this autumn we are likely to see them in constant use.

The theory is that, because political correspondents know what politicians should say in any given circumstance, they are instantly alert when one fails to do so. And having identified a point of deviance, these correspondents are able to construe, from unnamed sources or circumstantial evidence, the true intention behind it - a signal or manoeuvre the ordinary reader would otherwise miss.

In short, these people know the meanings of the things that politicians don't say. So, for example, when David Miliband did not mention Gordon Brown in his Guardian article a few weeks ago, and went on not to swear undying loyalty to Brown in a subsequent press conference, he was obviously launching a leadership bid.

And his intentions were all the more transparent, we are told, because Miliband also knows the codes. Since he knew that reporters would construe what he didn't say in the way they did, it follows that he must have not said it deliberately because he wanted it construed that way. QED.

No doubt political correspondents are shrewd types, and maybe Miliband will seek the leadership, but this game of codes is surely a dubious one.

One obvious shortcoming is that it obscures what lawyers call the ordinary meaning of the word. Sometimes, just sometimes, it must be possible for politicians to say unexpected things that are sensible, interesting and worthy of being reported as something other than doublespeak. Instead, they are actually deterred from saying such things, making politics duller.

More worryingly, since the reporters all seem to work from the same codebook, this approach encourages pack journalism, whose constant companion is pack error. Decoding the Tories after David Davis's resignation, they detected turmoil where there wasn't any (or at least only the most fleeting kind). And decoding Johnson, they fed each other's excitement to whip up a story that may be best described using his own word, piffle.

Officer class

Here is Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph, on Gary Glitter: "Most rational people would find it quite acceptable if he were to be taken out and shot in the back of the head."

This prompts several thoughts, including, just how many rational people does Heffer know? And, since when did right-wing British papers have such trust in the infallibility of justice in countries like Vietnam, where Glitter was tried and convicted?

A third thought is more general: no matter how much the Telegraph comment pages try to be modern or intellectual - and there have been heroic strivings down the years - somehow they can't quite shake off the attitudes and tone of the officer's mess, circa 1937.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food