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A day in the life of the self-obsessed TV reporter

Posted on 5 March 2009 | 7:03am

If anyone wants a good illustration of the utter self-obsession of the modern TV journalist, they need look no further than the sad spectacle of Adam Boulton rebutting a JP blog from outside the White House. I mean, with all due respect to JP, whom I love dearly, did the Sky reporter not have better things to do when two of the (current) most powerful leaders in the world were in the building behind him? You know, people to see, calls to make, ideas to pursue, old-fashioned journalism?

The answer is probably not, at least not in his eyes, not at that time. For in the mind of the modern TV political editor they, rather than the people they cover, are the centre of the universe. JP sent me the Boulton vlog because he thought I would find it as funny as he did.

In fact, I found it rather tragic. There is a new President. The UK Prime Minister is visiting. But seemingly top of Boulton’s mind is the need to talk about himself, how many Presidents he has covered (I doubt any of them remember Adam), how Sky ‘broke the story’ of JP’s punch in 2001 (kind of difficult to miss that one) and to justify the Sky ad in which he ends an interview with Gordon by telling him the BBC will see you now, Prime Minister. (‘Pathetic’ – JP.)

JP also sent it to me because I was enjoined by Boulton as a Go Fourth co-collaborator (I’d prefer colleague) and as a fellow bully of journalists. He talks a lot about being bullied, though I’ve never been clear what form my bullying of him took. Apparently he has tried to explain in a book, which he mentioned on his vlog, but somehow all those novels I didn’t read at university seem a better use of my time.

His vlog rebuttal was sparked by JP cutting through the media ruminations about the fact that the White House did not organise a full press conference for President Obama and GB. He said what the two men discussed and decided was far more important than whether Boulton and the Tory press could ask their smart alec questions designed to embarrass the Prime Minister in front of the President. Hardly a big blow.

As it turned out, both Boulton and the BBC equivalent Nick Robinson managed to get their smart alec questions in at the pool spray (great phrase in the lexicon of spin doctors) in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Needless to say these questions figured prominently in the Sky and BBC bulletins respectively. Indeed, the purpose of the questions these days is simply to ensure the reporter is on screen, rather than to elicit interesting answers, which are incidental.

One of the side effects of the media age has been the TV reporter seeking to become player rather than spectator. When I blogged yesterday, I urged people to try to see GB’s speech in full. Last night’s 10 o’clock news on the BBC confirmed such a need for anyone really to understand what had been said or how it had gone down. Once you’d got through the intro and cleared away the journalist-as-spin-doctor commentary, you had four GB clips, one a few words long, followed by a sit down interview with Robinson asking pretty much the same question as the day before. (Memo to aforementioned spin doctors, don’t do interviews with self-obsessed TV reporters when you want coverage for the speech).

To be fair, in the modern age, three and a bit clips is a lot. But neither they nor the report in general conveyed anything like the richness or the depth of Gordon’s speech. Space given to the reporter would have been better filled by letting people hear what the PM had said.

But this is considered terribly old-fashioned these days. The general media wisdom is that viewers and listeners have no attention span, and cannot absorb words directly from people in the news without people of the news interpreting and giving their own opinions. Whether Boulton and Robinson in politics, Robert Peston and Jeff Randall in business, the aim now is to make the reporter as much a part of the story as the people and issues they are covering. They think it is the way to build respect and reputation, and maintain viewers. I wonder if it is not one of the reasons why they’re losing them.

I somehow can’t imagine John Cole standing outside the White House rebutting a moderately robust but not terribly contentious statement by a former minister back home.

  • Mark Martin

    For most people outside the bubble of the media, the main event was the “spectacle” of GB addressing Congress – surely an historic event in itself before we get down to what is being said.
    We are at a critical point in history, with the need for new political thinking that doesn’t fall into the simplistic traps of capitalism v socialism. At least the latter was never truly tried out, whilst the former in it’s purest form, only took about thirty years to destroy itself.

  • silent sinner

    I agree. Tragic, indeed. 24 hour media just doesn’t seem to have enough things to report about so their favorite past time are bullying and reporting about themselves.

    In case you’re interested, a friend also blogged about politics and media:

  • Rob Atkins

    Brown speaking to Congress on solving the world’s economic problems … and not a shred of shame between them. That’s modern politics for you.

  • Obnoxio The Clown

    You’re quite right to speak out on how self-obsessed journalists are, Alastair. I mean, none of those stories about Blairite “management” of the press corps should be considered “bullying”, should they?

    Heaven forfend!

  • laurence lee

    agree to some extent – reporter involvement, or RI as it’s known in the trade, has been around now for a good few years, and went along with ‘treated tops’ and a general move away from letting the pictures tell the story. point is that it came from the top – it was the victory of output over traditional newsgathering, and you can see how that plays out in the management structures of all the main channels. some of us who thought that the reporter should take a back seat and that what you said was more important than what you look like found ourselves fighting a losing battle. don’t completely blame the reporters though – if they want to get on in life they have to follow the rules. or get out

  • Jonathan

    Crumbs! Bit of a tirade there Alastair.

    At heart you have a point here. News has been dumbed down. Reporters are given too much prominence. Complex, nuanced argument doesn’t get a fair airing.

    But there isn’t anything terribly new in all this. Neil Kinnock was convinced that his failure was attributable to the red tops being against him. Margaret Thatcher was sure the BBC was simply a division of the Labour Party. John Major felt that the obsession of the press with “sleaze” and party divisions meant that his public service reforms weren’t communicated effectively.

    I don’t really have any sympathy with politicians who blame the media for not putting their message across “properly”. Politicians have the sole responsibility for communicating their arguments. If traditional media (Adam Boulton etc) are perceived not to be working you guys need to find another way.

    And there is another way. There is a HUGE appetite among the public for something other than 10 second sound bites. Look how much of a response John Prescott gets when he blogs on Labourlist and look at the posts showing people understanding and engaging with his argument.

    Direct communication with the electorate is going to be HUGE in politics. Political organisations will soon find that they don’t need everything they say to be refracted through the medium of TV and newspapers. Direct communication won’t make everyone agree with you, but at least you will be master of your own destiny and fully in charge of communicating your ideas.

  • Fugitive Ink

    Boulton’s rebuttal does, unfortunately, make him look silly and more than slightly pathetic.

    Maybe if he had someone close to him who was good at all these communications / spin doctor / image management type issues, he’d avoid these basic yet embarassing mistakes?

    Err …

  • Karen Redman

    Hear, hear! I get very frustrated at reporters who seem to do little other than miss the whole bl**dy point. Don’t they have job descriptions? I’d be quite happy to subscribe to a campaign to bring John Cole back!
    Pleased to note that JP’s on Twitter – I shall follow him forthwith!

  • Samantha

    I agree with Jonathan. These days I go directly to the horse’s mouth for my news rather than the filter that the current affairs departments represent. So, keep on blogging, Alastair – it’s so much more enlightening.

  • Mennard

    Hey loved it you are talking my kind of language !

    And they use news to advertise their programmes , University Challenge , John Seargent on Strictly .The worlds gone mad !

    Its the cult of personality Nick Robinson; the use of his clip last night is just transparant though , you hope people will see through it and Nick Preston cause the world economic crisis , did you know !

    Personally I think bollocks is a good word to describe it (mention it to JP) ..but news is so powerful ..what can you do ..

    Either that or you (and me ) are out of step and we have (just as Dr Who does ) regenerated into Victor Meldrew !

  • Peter S

    Surely you also have more important things to do then to criticise Adam Boulton?
    Then again, surely i have better things to do then criticise you…….it could go on forever….pot kettle black!

  • Alina Palimaru

    No one could have said it better, Alastair! Right on!

  • zoe

    love the comment! adam is such a big head!

  • JP

    Hello everyone.

    Just off to Dundee for the Scottish Labour Conference but thought you might be interested in this.

    P.S. He’s not boring you about Burnley and dishwashers is he? Anyway, if they get past Arsenal at the weekend in the FA Cup, they’ll be up against Hull City!

    Take care,


  • Rob Brooks

    Lots of wind from Boulton, JP and Alastair – but Labour will still lose the next election.

  • Pierre cronje

    does AC know his v from his b or is it is a from his e

  • bunty bailey

    Communicator, writer, strategist. Bullshitter would no doubt be a better description, Mr.Campbell. Interesting that you feel the need to spend time defending Mr Prescott against someone for whom you clearly have no time …

  • Roger Ball

    Dear Old Radio 5 did at least cover the speech in full; it was well reasoned and entirely relevant to his audience.
    When a journalist has an idle 5 minutes, are we not due a full account of Jeff Randall’s time with Maxwell?

  • Jailhouselawyer

    Adam Boulton is just the anchor, he can be ditched overboard. I see nothing wrong with introducing a blog post into the news, if it has relevance to the topic being broadcast. Ok you are blogging now, but mentally you are still very old style media.

    In The Whitehouse there is One Man and His Dog being repeated. Cut to something more interesting, somebody who has said something to fill the pregnant pause on the stage.

    I thought Prescott was married to Hyacinth Bucket? That was my impression formed from the documentary shown on the Beeb. So, your loving him I have difficulty with even with my broadmindedness. I love my dog. But another man? I leave that to the likes of Iain Dale. Prescott is no oil painting. So your taste in whine is suspect.

    Today I received a phone call from a journalist working for the News of the Screws, he said that John Roberts of Inside Time (The National Newspaper for Prisoners)had referred him to me. Instinct told me to tell him to go forth and multiply. But, in my role as Media Adviser to the Association of Prisoners this would not have been a wise move because the story is going out anyway in that respect it’s good to talk. It was only when he questioned how long I had served and the nature of my crime that I got a bit annoyed. In the Prisoners Votes Case, Hirst v UK(No2), the Court only referred to my offence as manslaughter and how long I had served, in passing, sticking to the case in hand. The journalist tried justifying what I suspect will become a retrial in the media, by blaming his editor would ask him those questions. Why? Don’t tell me in the public interest. What is in the public interest is that citizens are having their human rights abused by the State, and that the State is being taken to task for this abuse. And, that it is in the public interest if the taxpayers are saddled with damages which might be between £60M and £120M being awarded to 60,000+ convicted prisoners because the government thought the public wanted prisoners to suffer human rights abuses in their name. I get frustrated when Simon Israel of Channel 4 News after I have given him a story asks “What’s the story”. Duh! The story is the story, the editor and the journalist are but the conduits.

    Blair was rightly, in my opinion, accused of being Bush’s poodle. Brown will go into the White House Oval Office and when Obama offers him a seat he will sit.

    If they have sent reporters to cover a story hoping to get more than they actually did, the story needs to be padded out or they cover another news item instead. Whether it is Sky or the BBC, like an Easter Egg which is in more packaging than necessary for a relatively small chocolate egg, presentation is important. The contest is to say nothing better than the rival broadcasting channel.

    If one wants to see the spin doctor at its worst, in my view, there is a classic example of Clarence Mitchell and the McCann’s case. A government committed to telling the truth does not need a spin doctor. An unpalatable truth is better than sugar coated crapalarta.

    Ch 4 once sat on a story for almost a year then gave it 11 minutes coverage the day before others would pick up the news. Then cocked up by not following up the next day when the media circus rolled into town, and having to rely upon handouts from the table of the BBC. Three and a bit clips is peanuts in comparison. Brown, for all the build up you have given him, hasn’t really got the bark. A barking dog is alright to alert the owner and/or neighbours to the presence of a stranger, but sometimes the dog will bark when it is not deemed necessary. Then it becomes a nuisance. Paxman is a news reader I cannot get enough of, whereas as Jeremy Whine grates on my nerves and I have no hesitation in muting him, or changing channel or doing something else more interesting.

    We can all harp back to the past and the good old days. However, the present and future is the internet. Catch up at the back there Alastair, and give that Fatty Two Jags a dig in the ribs to wake him up he attention span is a lot less than his waistline!

  • jamie

    You’ve hit the nail on the head as usual, Alastair.

  • Get Labour Out

    Having read Pathetic Prescott’s tirade against Adam, I am suprised to see you supporting him as I did have some respect for you. Didn’t always agree but then I’m not always right.

    Unfortunately 2 Jags / 2 Face cannot stand any critiscm. I saw him walk out of an interview once because he didn’t like the questions he was being asked. Well TOUGH!! That’s what you used to get paid for Johnny Boy!! And you are one of the reasons I would now rather have ANYONE in power than you lot.

  • Mennard

    I don’t want anyone to think I’m sad but I was thinking about your blog this morning on the way to work

    I consider life has become confusing . I realised I don’t watch the news as much as I used to .

    I feel that news has become Showbiz

    It is like any other television programme ,most of which I avoid .

    Your blog emphasises tha .

    Gone are the days as you say of John Cole of ‘straight ‘ news readers . Maybe it is all Morcambe and Wise and Angela Rippon’s fault Maybe their Christmas show caused a seismic shift in our attitudes .

    Maybe Adam and Nick want to be on TV singing their ‘Aint nothing like a Dame’

    Red Nose day approaches perhaps the links between showbiz and news will become further blurred .

    Hence what has become apathy to news programmes and confirmation that they have dumbed down .

    Some interest remains

    My daughter studying politics at Liverpool was excited by Obama and the US election coverage ,she goes on marches has become politicised .

    I remember when that was me .I wanted her to be like that .I warned her of disappointment.

    I am getting Victor Meldrew like .

    I was reminded of a Ray Davies lyric copied below and found on a Jools Hollanbd album .

    Dear sir or madam, I don’t normally write to the press
    But the neighbourhood where I grew up is really quite depressed.
    Society is crumbling but the media’s obsessed with boobs, bums,
    Dot-com millionaires, fame, fashion, FTSE shares
    But people they couldn’t care less

    Ray seems reactionary and whilst what appears to be right wing attitudes perhaps in part of the track I have sympathy with the sentiment. The verse about news items being equally profound. He also lays into spin doctors. I am not causing trouble .I am a fan. Will always vote socialist and remember the excitement of the first days in office for New Labour . Being in politics must like parenting teenagers ,always thinking you have an element of control and influence but being unable to protect your teenage children from peer pressure or predict exactly how they will react to certain things . You do your best then they come home after a night out and vomit on your carpet !

    The world has gone mad !

    News reporting has gone mad !

    Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton have gone mad!

    Its all confusing

    Its Morcambe and Wise fault

  • betty curtis

    Do you agree that the bias media should be held to account.

    I would like Giles Oakley and Eric Silleto (Guardian today) to know that they are definately not alone. It is blatently obvious that journalists and broadcasters “talk down the economy” amplifying every downturn,while hounding anyone detecting “green Shoots” of recovery.

    It is not possible for Labour to get a fair hearing on TV news.
    What we need is a full in-depth study of how the current crisis has been reported. Is it all bad news?

    Giles informs us in his letter that it was the Glasgow Media Group that investigated in the 70’s & 80’s
    and they were able to present compelling evidence there was deep rooted bias against Labour.

    We certainly need this kind of scrutiny to be carried out to stop BBC,ITV and SKY news continuing with their bias reporting against Labour and Gordon Brown.

  • David Barrie

    I remember Nick Robinson from his days when he was in the Federation of Conservative Students. His early affiliations translate in to consistent anti-Labour bias in his news reports. Isn’t it time that he was outed? Or at least someone raised the question of political affiliations of supposedly neutral commentators-turned-actors?