Chris Mullin: Tabloid culture destroying political reporting


Comment at end

16th November, 2009


Regulars here will know how frequently I have mentioned this ‘opining’ rather than ”reporting” as of fundamental importance. It is SO fundamental that the all-pervasive press is now looked on as the source of truth rather than with a wary eye as they should be. People now invariably believe the press rather than our politicians on anything and everything. They have bred an atmosphere of cynicism which does not serve any of us well.

We did not elect the press. We did elect politicians.

It is not helpful to be constantly told by the press that the people elected to run our country are fundamentally evil, manipulative, lying, corrupt, cunning, dissemblers, unprincipled, colluding with other governments, greedy, callous, war-mongering, driven by malevolent intent,  motivated by personal ambition … you name it, we’ve read it. In fact it is insulting to us as voters. It is power without responsibility and needs to stop.

Meanwhile we have Baroness Buscombe – chairman of the Press Complaints Commission congratulating the press for their illegal leaks of information on MPs expenses thus resulting in most people thinking MPs are all scum. Why is it NO surprise to me that this woman is a Conservative and that the Labour party has suffered more than the Tories from the leaks , despite the Tory MPS being bigger sinners? Somehow if the Tories had been in government during this period I don’t think she would have been quite so appreciative. Remember the Tories as well as Labour governments refused for decades to keep MPs’ salaries apace with inflation. Why? Because they were afraid of looking “greedy”. Thus the present expenses nonsense. And it is and WAS politically inspired nonsense. Nothing less. In this the Press Complaints Commission is complicit.

Tabloid culture is destroying political reporting

The rise of the feeding frenzy means no rational discussion is possible without the risk of triggering hysteria

By Chris Mullin, The Guardian, Monday 16 November 2009

Tony Blair

Tony Blair used one of his final speeches as PM to describe the media as 'feral'. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

As the relationship between Gordon Brown and the Sun reaches a new low, we reprint one MP’s attack on political journalism

The sad truth is that for much of our media (and not just the tabloids), political journalism has become a form of warfare in which anything goes. “Tabloid” journalism in particular requires a constant supply of victims – be they fallen rock stars, misbehaving footballers or errant MPs. The beauty of the MPs’ expenses scandal – and for the avoidance of doubt I concede that in some cases it was a scandal – is that it served up a treasure trove of potential victims.

Unhappily, in recent years the tabloid virus has spread well beyond the traditional tabloids, even into the broadcast media. It is no longer enough for a television reporter or newscaster to report the facts. They are expected to let us know (perhaps only by the raising of an eyebrow, or a grimace) what we should be thinking, too. I am told it is known in the profession as “news with attitude”.

Much of the news is now read by shock jocks wandering around the studio emoting what is on the autocue in front of them. Where political reporting is concerned, the underlying message is usually a combination of corrosive cynicism and deep pessimism.

Is it any wonder that, despite nearly two decades of rising prosperity, there has been no comparable increase in happiness? Or that fear of crime continues to rise inexorably even as crime rates plummet? Or that foreign students at the University of Sunderland have on occasion been assaulted and abused by tabloid-reading youths who mistake them for asylum seekers? Or that people who have not recently used the NHS have a far lower opinion of it than those who have? Or even that those who have actually had dealings with their member of parliament tend to have a higher opinion of him or her than those who haven’t?

The past two decades have also seen the rise of a new British phenomenon, the feeding frenzy – a subject worthy of a PhD thesis. There is now a range of subjects – tax policy, immigration and asylum, the treatment of sex offenders – where no rational discussion is possible without the risk of triggering hysteria. Tabloid culture thrives on ignorance. Remember the mob of shaven-headed tabloid readers who marched on the home of a paediatrician because they didn’t know the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile?

Feeding frenzies come and go. Some fail to take off and disappear as quickly as they appear, only to be replaced by new ones. One of my favourites, in June 2002, was the suggestion that Tony Blair had somehow manoeuvred to get himself a more prominent place at the Queen Mother’s funeral. It raged for several days before suddenly disappearing, as if someone had flicked a switch – which is, I suspect, what happened. My guess is that someone in the palace sent word to the Tory front bench, probably via Nicholas Soames, that the Queen was not amused at this shabby attempt to make political capital out of her mother’s funeral.

Does any of this matter? Should we be worried? Blair used one of the final speeches of his premiership to reflect on the impact of what he called “the feral media”. The deterioration of political reporting had, he claimed: “sapped the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future”. He added that the increasing momentum of the news cycle was “seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted”.

One result is that politicians have wasted inordinate effort in trying to ride the tiger. The former Mirror editor Piers Morgan records in his diaries: “Bored one evening, I counted up all the times I had met Tony Blair. And the result was astonishing really … or slightly shocking – according to your point of view. I had 22 lunches, six dinners, six interviews, 24 further one-to-one chats over tea and biscuits and numerous phone calls … ”

In addition, Morgan was also forever being wined, dined and stroked by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. All to no avail, since he turned on them big time over Iraq. If this much effort was spent on the Mirror, one can only speculate as to the contortions the prime minister and his team must have gone through to keep the Sun sweet. We’ve all gone barmy.

Chris Mullin is the MP for Sunderland South. A longer version of this article appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 20 No 3, available from 020-7324 8701 or email

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