Has the phone hacking trial created a new form of journalism?

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

The dead tree press is dead, all hail the new journalism.

The publishers’ grasp is loosened now that a legion of bloggers and tweeters can break news and break the monopolies over it.

Up to a point.

Looking at the reporting of the phone hacking trial you would be forgiven for thinking that old models of reporting the news had been swept aside by something altogether more immediate and democratic.

Although previous trials have been liveblogged and tweeted, this one seems to have attracted a degree more coverage in that way from the media, perhaps because the media, or a part of it, is in the dock.

The break with traditional reporting was completed this week by the presence of Peter Jukes, an independent journalist and author of Fall of the House of Murdoch, who along with other reporters, livetweeted the first week of the trial.

What was different about Jukes was that as a result  of the response to his reporting, he was able to crowdsource sufficient funds to allow him to carry on until Christmas.

Hail the new journalism then, cut free of proprietors; funded by individuals and communicating with its audience via Twitter, blogs and independent web publications.

New journalism though? Not really.

In fact, if you look back at the roots of Fleet Street, it is resolutely the sort of journalism that gave rise to our newspaper industry. Finance, distribution and mode of consumption might differ, but fundamentally it is the same.

And this trial illustrates that perfectly.

 Fleet Street is where it is, not because of the whim of a newspaper proprietor – the Courant was the first to set up there – but because of geography. Positioned between Westminster and the City and on the doorstep of the courts it was perfectly placed to report politics, commerce and crime to its waiting readers.

The first court reporters were trainee lawyers, supplementing their income hawking tales from trials to a public as eager for scandal then as they are today.

The papers fed their readers the stories they wanted to read and so was born an appetite for news, even among illiterate working classes who would have the papers read to them. Papers were partisan then, as they are now, chasing a partisan readership, or creating it, depending whether you believe papers form opinion or reflect it.

So today the ‘new’ journalism does exactly the same as its print forebears.

At its heart journalism is a very simple thing, finding good stories and telling them well. The means of delivery may have changed from timber-based to silicon, but the essence of what those tweeting the phonehacking trial is no different to what those law students were doing around Fleet Street all those years ago. So I am  not so sure this is really the 'new' journalism.

Much is made of the way in which online publication creates a dialogue, and journalism academics will talk about the end of top-down provision of news. But does this dialogue really change the nature of what we do? The comments below online publication and their immediacy may make readers feel empowered, part of the process rather than an observer, but is it really anything more than a souped-up letters page?

In the past the relationship between publisher and consumer was far closer as the bills and papers were hawked around Fleet Street. That link was lost as circulations grew and printing became more industrialised. What tweeters and bloggers are doing is reconnecting with their audience and establishing the sort of immediate relationship that was there when newspapers were born.

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

Good luck to any blogger who wandered into the Old Bailey last week thinking they would file a few juicy pars to their blog on the travails of those in the dock.

Writing about that, and keeping the right side of the law while doing it, and producing something actually worth reading from hours of proceedings requires a special set of skills. Skills that anyone can acquire, but not everyone has.

Those who win an audience are still those bloggers, tweeters and writers who can find a good story and tell it well.

Protestors gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice to demonstrate against Rupert Murdoch's News International. Are all of these people potential news-breakers? Image: Getty
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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.