Despite all the column inches, nobody told us what was going on

Media - Ian Hargreaves

I don't know how much stuff you read, watched or listened to during and about the great petrol war, but the soaraway ratings for TV news bulletins suggest quite a lot. So let me ask you three questions.

First: why did petrol and diesel stop leaving British refineries and storage facilities over the weekend of 10 September, stopping more or less completely by Tuesday 12 September?

Second: were the many tanker drivers who failed/refused to move their vehicles from the refineries frightened out of doing so by the threat of retribution, or did they have other motives?

Third: what conversations took place between senior executives of the oil companies when it became clear that their legally contracted distribution agents had withdrawn their services?

I doubt that anyone not directly involved in the dispute can answer these questions because, so far as I can tell, they were unanswered by British journalists. Although we have "news" pouring out of every public orifice, the media failed, during the biggest purely domestic story since the death of Diana, to inform us who was doing what and why. We were as ignorant about crucial facts in the petrol dispute as we were about events inside Kosovo when Nato started bombing Serbia last year. But at least, in the case of Kosovo, the place was in the grip of murderous men with machine-guns; the refineries at Stanlow, Milford Haven and the rest were surrounded by a few dozen men with mobile phones.

The papers that covered the story most vigorously and with the most resources - as usual, the Daily Mail set the benchmark - focused their efforts wholly upon the political side of the story, lacerating the soft tissue of the government's pronouncements on the dispute and revelling in the Prime Minister's discomfort.

We can all debate the irony of right-wing newspapers condoning and, in some cases, enthusiastically applauding what they and their political allies used to condemn as "wildcat" actions and "the enemy within". The Mail, for the most part, held back from approving of civil disobedience, but writers in the Sun and the Daily Telegraph cheerfully welcomed the uprising as a new flowering of democracy.

What the Mail did especially well was to identify and articulate the mood of the protesters, culminating in a page-one headline on Thursday 14 September that read: "To the fuel campaigners: As a friend who believes in the justice of your cause, the Mail urges you to end your blockade today, while you still hold the moral high ground." And they did.

Yet, for all the column inches devoted to "government lies", the Mail didn't answer the questions I have posed. Nor did the Saturday and Sunday newspapers deal satisfactorily with these questions when "the blockade" (does it really deserve that name?) was over.

Television did a little better, in that it allowed us to see and judge for ourselves whether the odd burly figure's gesticulations and shouts through a tanker cab window really amounted to illegitimate pressure.

The BBC reporter Stephen Evans used his good union contacts to get inside a refinery where Transport and General Workers' Union executives were trying to persuade the drivers to resume operations. The shots of the men discussing their fears about the dangers to their families at least indicated that such fears did exist. Even so, by the Friday, it was still possible for ministers to claim that there had been no intimidation, and for BP, the only company in a shamelessly arrogant industry to make a spokesman available, to state the contrary. Nowhere did we get a detailed, coherent account from inside the protest or from within the oil industry.

One explanation for this failure is that the dispute first took root and found expression in parts of Britain about which the national press know little. Although the national press have been very alive to the general public resentment about high fuel prices - various campaigns on the subject have come and gone in the past year - they do not know the hauliers and farmers who live in west Wales, or the hinterlands of Grangemouth and Stanlow.

Although political devolution has resulted in a flurry of media activity in Scotland - with new titles flinging themselves into an ever more crowded scene - for the London papers, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland feel ever more distant. These are increasingly foreign places, in an era when most papers are either cutting back or don't employ foreign correspondents.

The other explanation for the great unleaded petrol reporting disaster is that newspapers have convinced themselves, with some encouragement from reader research, that what sells is not news, but features and opinions - what editors and TV people like to call "attitude". Add to that the multimedia revolution, which is enabling news organisations to "re-purpose" their "content" for "a variety of platforms" (which mostly means reheating old food for new plates), and you can see how old-fashioned reporting has been squeezed.

One of the newcomers to the news scene, the internet "news aggregator", doesn't even set out to discover information; it merely pulls together and resells material collected by others. At the same time, those news organisations with a strong niche, such as business, prosper by deepening their attachment to the niche - and so narrowing their vision.

The incontrovertible evidence of the petrol war is that there is a gap in the British market for a news service that invests in finding out what is going on and telling us, without political spin and without the camouflage of attitude.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.