Rough trade

What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics

John Lloyd <em>Constable & Robinson, 218pp, £12.99</em>

''Do you want to make mischief?" Lord Beaverbrook would ask aspiring journalists. John Lloyd's answer, I guess, would have been an emphatic "no". He takes this rough trade of ours very seriously, and quotes some obscure academic demanding that we dedicate ourselves to "deepening the democratic stake by enlarging the scope of the democratic process". "What could this mean?" asks Lloyd. What indeed?

It certainly does not mean Andrew Gilligan rambling on the Today programme about how the government "sexed up" the dossier on Saddam Hussein's WMDs. Lloyd wholly disapproves of that sort of caper. Rather, it means, if I understand him correctly, reporting on think-tanks, professional associations, senior citizens' groups, company annual general meetings (has Lloyd, I wonder, ever attended one of those?) and foreign legislatures.

Before I go further, I should explain that Lloyd and I have history. For several years, Lloyd was a contracted writer to this paper. His contributions, from the cutting edge of Blairite thought, were nearly always fresh and stimulating. But our working relations were punctuated by warnings, delivered in the tones of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, as to any slippage in standards. One writer, I was instructed, should not become a columnist because "he debauches journalism". (The debauched column still appears in the NS.) In the end, Lloyd, already at odds with me over Iraq, took offence when I let another writer call him "the house reactionary". He resigned. Only later did I discover that this principled stand occurred after he had secured the editorship of the new Financial Times magazine.

No doubt Lloyd would regard all this personal background as further evidence of debauchery. It would not be allowed in those heavyweight US papers he admires so much. But I am a hack reviewing another hack and the reader is entitled to know what politicians would call my agenda.

In fact, I agree with much of Lloyd's book. He argues that the media reduce public affairs to theatre and that, far from holding politicians to account, the media let them off the hook by attributing their every move to some arcane political strategy to do down the other party or some fellow minister. This is surely right. It is frequently impossible to find in the papers even brief details of what a politician actually said or what a policy document contains. Instead, we are told of the speech's or the policy's significance - it is a sop to the back benches, a stab at promotion, or a new stage in the Blair-Brown war. There is nothing wrong with this perpetual deconstruction of political text, if only we could see the text in the first place.

It is now standard practice for every white paper, report or policy announcement, even ministerial speeches, to be partially leaked in advance ("Mr Blair is expected to say later today . . ."). Journalists once had to work for such leaks; now they are handed out like sweeties. The point is that the journalist - in any case grateful for the story - can only go on what the minister or his spin-doctor tells him. When the full document or speech is out, it is old news and the story has been, to use a John Lloyd sort of word, "framed".

As Lloyd points out, most journalists are generalists and lack the specialist knowledge to unpick policy properly. This applies particularly to lobby correspondents, who are specialists only in parliamentary politics (who's up, who's down) and therefore report in those terms. Among ministers and their shadows, it is a common trick to release an announcement on, say, health or education to the lobby correspondents, who won't spot the holes and ask the awkward questions that the specialist reporters would.

I part with Lloyd where he blames journalists for the inadequacies of our public debate. I blame politicians and their acolytes. It is they who control the information on which the media depend, and there is almost daily evidence of information being doctored or partially leaked (if it is released at all) to put ministers in a good light. The scandal is not how often ministers are called liars, but how rarely.

Lloyd argues that journalists are not held adequately to account. Yet over Iraq and its aftermath, three leading BBC figures and the editor of the Daily Mirror have been deprived of their jobs, but not a single minister or civil servant. Again, Lloyd seems to admire the restraint of the US and French press. Yet he has little to say about the former's failure to question the Bush administration's claims on Iraq's WMDs, or the latter's insouciance towards corruption among French politicians.

Lloyd regrets, as I do, the frequent hounding of politicians over trivial and obscure offences: lending each other money or buying houses in Bristol, for example. He seems not to consider, however, that these stories would be far less damaging if politicians told the truth in the first place. Still less does he seem to grasp that our debauched, mischievous, unaccountable press deserves some of the credit for one of the least corrupt political systems in the western world.

Peter Wilby is editor of the NS

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Palestine - Who are the Palestinians?