Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

More policy on the telly please

Posted on 20 April 2010 | 7:04pm

There is a bit of a problem with the way the media, public service broadcasters included, now cover politics in general and elections in particular.

Back in my journalistic days, writes a middle-aged old fart, not only did the manifestoes get covered seriously and in full but so, on subsequent days, did specific policy issues that flowed from them. So it was perfectly possible, as it still is today, to wake up to the news that Labour would be focusing on x, the Tories on y, the Liberals/SDP or whatever on z.

The difference with today is that then through the day, and into the next day’s papers, the media would report what it was the parties were proposing on x, y and z, and engage in a debate of sorts about it.

Today, the tone is more ‘well, Labour wants to talk on a, the Tories on b and the Libs on c, but we the media have decided that what the public want to hear about is d.’  (currently speculation about May 7 and beyond)

The first election I was properly involved in was 1987. The phenomenon I describe above has developed step by step with each election, to the current position. It is one of the great ironies of our time that we have more media space for debate (24 hour news, radio station proliferation, bigger papers, the internet) but actually less policy coverage than ever.

I said after the first TV debate, in genuine hope, that there might now be a chance of getting the election onto policy, rather than Cameron curtain-measuring type stories. But instead of Cameron government processology and TV debate processology, the media have now moved to a mix of Cleggmania so-called and hung parliament processology.

At a time like this, surely the media has a responsibility to set out for the public, in detail, what the parties are actually putting forward. I caught a package on the news last night designed to show that the public don’t know any of the Lib Dems’ policies. I doubt many of them are much wiser about Labour’s or the Tories’ manifestoes.

Instead of doing pieces saying nobody knows what the policies are, I wonder if it might be an idea to set them out. Otherwise, we really are now into politics as beauty contests.

X Factor, Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent are fine in so far as they go – light entertainment which makes a star or two. But the consequences for the country are not that great. General elections surely have to be about more than the stuff we are hearing, five days on from the debate, a lot of which is policy-less processological space-filling before the next one in two days’ time.

  • Hamish

    Good point. If left to tele alone, I think I would know more about the views on food of the three finalists in the last series of Masterchef than I would on the specifics of policy of the three parties.

  • allan sayers

    The Media with Peston started the Northern Rock disaster and the media (all fighting one another) just seem to go with what sounds most extreme. They hyped SARS, Swine flu, bird flu and now we are being ruined as a country because the state is frightened of the media. That is why NATS despite all the advice saying the air is safe is puting hundereds of people into great anxiety both personally and in business in ordering the current no fly zone. If gordon wants votes get the airports open or he is toast

  • chris morrell

    I’m with you on this Alistair…but this incredible series of apparent events ie the HUGE bounce in the Polls for Clegg,Cameron and Osborne looking SO naff a “story” and Gordon seeming to gather sympathy and regain credibility ,the upshot of this crazyness could,hopefully be the return of a Labour Government..A Labour majority due to netTory votes lost to the Lib-Dems(?)
    The thing is ,the detail is ALL there all the time for those of us that want it..For instance,front page of the Guardian today..TWO peerages apparently already “bought” by signing up to the nasty “anti-NIC rise letter…
    Vox pops on “Pm” this evening revealed complete ignorance of Lib-Dem policies,even though they supported them!
    Devil in the detail indeed. Ha! Remember the “Demon Eyes” posters?

  • Graham Jones

    The BBC have an obligation above all others, to report policy at the time of a general election. Yet, they are more guilty of a policy blackout than others. You don’t expect the tory papers to report poicy, because they know that will be counter productive. Sky could show the others a lead, and gain credibility by focusing on policy, in the build up to the debate this week. The public would clearly respond to an intense media debate on policy.
    If the media do not respond to the public appetite for such a debate, then the public will seek out other ways of consuming their news.
    They are failing in their public duty, and perhaps it’s time there was a petition set up. I would sign it.

  • Tom

    Yeh it’s amazing how poor the journalism is in this country. The one job they have is to inform the public! thats it.I agree there’s so much news coverage, yet most of it is such poor quality. It’s ridiculous that with all the power’s of instant new’s and 24 hour coverage, the broadcaster’s still take their direction from the newspaper’s? its lazy. I think channel 4 are the best at the moment, but journalism should be so much better in this country, especially during an election. With such big issues at stake, their letting the people down. There’s too many journalist’s wanting to be celebrities,too many celebrities wanting to be politician’s and too many politician’s having to be journalist’s.

  • Megan

    Alastair, for the first time ever, I agree with the content of your blog! I find it astounding that people would consider voting for the Lib Dems without having any knowledge of their manifesto. Like you, I would hope that the main stream media would concentrate on the policies of all the parties, instead of focussing on the ascendance of Clegg in the polls.By the way, I also agree that you are a middle-aged old fart!

  • Cat Anderson

    I agree to some extent however, the way informed people (especially, but not exclusively, young people) access information today means, they are enthused by the hype, but then go on to use variety of digital means to inform their political decisions. This is what I am doing right now. I know I am not alone, facebook walls are on fire with political discussion, well beyond headline and sound bites. Thoes that are not engaged in meaningful debate and discussion are the same people who would not have not shown interest in newspaper policy dicussions.

  • Steve Brundish

    The media cannot complain about spin when they are busy attending to thier own agendas. The politicains have no choice but to spin to get any message across at all. For instance GB states in a jokey fashion that he did not win the leaders debate on presentaion or image but conentrated on substance so the BBC runs with Brown admits he lost the debate. Also when the Tories were spinning the NI increase as damaging the economy the media ran with it even though impartial ecnomists said otherwise. and the media have the front to complain about sound bite politics

  • Ian

    I fully agree. The consequences of the nation’s over-exposure to X Factor and the like are now coming to the fore. I felt like I’d watched a different debate when the polls started coming in immediately afterwards.

    I honestly felt that Clegg looked and sounded out of his depth almost straight away. I was actually disappointed by that as it seemed clear to me that his role in the proceedings would be largely insignificant (how wrong I was!). I felt that GB and DC went the full 15 fifteen rounds, with the PM unequivocally winning on points. Cameron was clearly afraid of GB’s intellect and substance in my view.

    How we (the nation) can find ourselves in a situation where policy and substance are still not really being covered in the media or considered by the population at large this close to an election is beyond me.

  • Dominic

    Agreed. I am especially sick of everyone being asked what they would do in a hung parliament. The polls are bouncing all over the place, so it really is an irritating question. And it’s not as if the politicians are ever going to give an interesting answer.

    I saw one commentator talking about the Clegg bounce and suggesting we’d all better have “another look” in the LibDems’ manifesto. I couldn’t help feeling his first look might have been a little, er, cursory.

    Please let’s have the issues. (I quite enjoyed Paxman on banking regulation tonight. Pretty clear that international agreement is necessary. But JP did insist on asking the Hung question. Grrr.)

  • Sally Phillips

    Dear Alastair,
    Your comment was a good one, re. setting policies out for the public but doing so may in practice turn out to be futile. Trying to read through all three manifestos cold, from the internet, is a pretty mind-numbing exercise. I should know, I just tried. (Though, when I was looking at Labour’s policy on immigration recently for some reason, I found it good and totally relevant.Labour SHOULD shout more about what it is doing.) Maybe a tv documentary or two, on each manifesto,for each party, repeated several times during the year, to make the contents more accessible and meaningful to the public would be better. But I suppose, this could lead to a field day for the press. Not good.
    But politics is still to do with beauty contests, Alistair. To name but a few, (in their time): Blair, Hoon, Clinton, Putin, Obama, Portillo, Harriet Harman, Jamie Rubin, Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams, JFK, Anthony Eden.

    Yours sincerely

    Sally Phillips

  • peter

    Talking of X-Factor.
    Didn’t Gordon Brown phone up Simon Cowell to enquire as to Subos’ well being? What a whelk – new prime minister please.

  • Richard Burnell

    The public and the media are dictating the agenda, and not the SPINNERS? That must be a horrible feeling Al: all that talent and no influence on matters.

    You and GB are not dictating the schedule any more. The public is out of control. Bastards! Ungrateful bastards!

    Despite all your collective efforts they will not listen to your mindless “black IS white” rantings any more.

    To extend your reference to TV shows, the public voted for John Sergeant despite their betters telling them not to.

    The New Labour experiment, big state, central controp is over, Al. Get used to it, and start looking at teh world like a human. Myopia ia no longer the answer. The public has spoken.

    I hope you are spending time honing your CV, without too much exageration, mind. Be careful no to overemphasise the Lions job you did.

  • Chris lancashire

    Congratulations on a sensible, serious and non-partisan post; I could not agree more.

  • Billy Blofeld

    Policy isn’t interesting. This is why:

    1. People have made their mind up about Gordon Brown. They don’t want him. Even if he has amazing policies – they just don’t care.

    2. People don’t trust politicians. Blair did not deliver on his policy promise. Thus policy is irrelevant – the only choice is, who seems the most trustworthy and likeable.

    3. So many important policy decisions have been ceded to Europe. People have been systematically disenfranchised. We may as well vote on personality.

    Who cares about policy? Especially when government has reneged on key manifesto commitments. Voting on personality is the only sane choice. Shame for Labour that Gordon is so unappealing.