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9 February 2004

Why we politicians are jealous of journalists

Hacks know what's going on, MPs don't, writes Austin Mitchell MP

By Austin Mitchell

The great British public likes politicians almost as little as it likes journalists. It assumes that we pee in each other’s pockets and serve each other’s purposes in a conspiracy against the people, though one in which the journalists give them more reliable information than we do.

In reality journos and pols, here as everywhere else, have a love-hate relationship that lacks love. Mistrust is too soft a word for it, mutual loathing too strong. We need each other.

In this marriage the journalists are the dominant partner. No man cometh to the people except through them. The media have the people’s ear. We don’t, so we need journalists to reach them. They need us to dignify their stories with parliamentary questions, concerns and debates.

In an age when no one attends political meetings, when only a few thousand watch or read about parliament, when political interest is low, and the political class tatty and mistrusted, MPs are reduced to the status of publicity-seekers clamouring to get into the media, but without the advantage of being celebrities or having Jordan’s boobs.

Parliament’s power is based on publicity and the ability to ventilate issues. Yet it is little use raising an issue, pushing a policy or promoting a private bill or an adjournment debate there unless it gets support and interest from the media. If it does, ministers – ever fearful of the media and the public they influence – listen. To the media, not to us. If it doesn’t, it’s dead. The dull and deep potations of parliamentary pedantry still satisfy some MPs. Others accumulate enormous dignity, though, in fact, they might as well dig allotments for all they can achieve without media interest. Most just resent their dependence in that Valium way in which parliamentary sentiments are felt, while the media-genic and the rising stars are viewed with concealed jealousy.

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Journos and pols face different challenges. We pretend to run the country but, in fact, the media have the real power. Indeed, they threaten to put us out of work by taking over the functions of parliament. We used to reach the people. Now they do. We used to voice popular demands. Now they do. We used to express the public’s views. Now they do, particularly through the polls, which read our constituents more accurately than we ever could. We used to control the executive. Now they do. Parliament used to provide the platform for the opposition. Now they’re it. This shift in the balance has gone so far that journalists are developing delusions of grandeur, even of competence. We’re envious and jealous.

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All of which accounts for last month’s explosion of hatred against journalists – Gilligan, Today, Humphrys, Paxperson and the entire BBC. After enduring years of being frustrated by the media, jealousy and resentments have accumulated. No one, real person or politician, is ever satisfied or happy with their media experiences: they didn’t get enough space, their golden words were cut, their main point was missed, and so on and so on. Anyone who’s ever been interviewed or appeared in the electronic media feels a frustration that we have in spades.

The worst of it is that journos know more than we do. We are fed selective government fact sheets. They get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Dammit, they even see more of our leaders than we do, now that the top people are too busy to come to parliament much. Take the Blair v Brown battle. Journos know exactly what’s going on. It’s all concealed from us.