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senior executives of the oil companies when it became clear that their legally contracted distribution agents had withdrawn their services?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