Political journalists under fire

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Thanks to the government’s daily coronavirus briefings, more people than ever before are witnessing the press lobby at work – and they don’t like what they see. But are they being unfair about a trade that’s meant to ask difficult questions?


As Britain moves uncertainly into the next phase of the coronavirus crisis, the people whose job it is to keep us informed about what is going on are feeling embattled.

Journalists, particularly political correspondents, have been dogged by online vitriol and by opinion polling suggesting that public confidence in them is at a low ebb. I have been berated even by friends and family members over the performance of my former colleagues. I was in the Lobby – the collective name for reporters given privileged access to parts of the Palace of Westminster frequented by ministers, MPs and peers – for 35 years. Now I get to share some of their pain.

Journalists have never rated highly in the popularity stakes. We know there will be no Thursday night ovations for us. Being liked does not go with the territory when most of what we write will upset someone or other in high or low places.

But now we journalists are far more visible than ever before – and that’s part of the problem. In the past, events such as political press conferences would normally be seen by tiny numbers. People might watch a couple of excerpts on the ten o’clock news, but would never dream of tuning in for the whole thing. It’s pretty boring, after all.

Recently, however, confined for much of the time in their homes, people have finally had a chance to observe the political and other correspondents at work. Millions are watching the daily Number 10 press conferences, in which ministers and scientific advisers update us on the latest corona-happenings, and in which journalists get to ask questions (in the early days, from the room itself; now, via video-link). Many don’t like what they see.

Journalists attend the daily government briefing – before the lockdown

Unused to watching these customarily adversarial encounters between the press and politicians, people on social media and elsewhere have lambasted the “gotcha” mentality of the hacks, accusing them of totally misreading the national mood, of being negative when the country is supposed to be pulling together.

At a time of crisis, it seems, people do not see the government of the day as party politicians, but ministers doing their best to help the country through.

And they have not enjoyed seeing journalists either asking what are, to them, stupid or obvious questions (a regular complaint) or trying, in their view, to catch ministers out. One question (not, incidentally, from the Lobby) over whether Boris Johnson was breaking the rules by recuperating at Chequers, a second home, took things to a new and specific low. But it has been the general tone of the media’s daily inquisition that has rubbed the public the wrong way.

A former Cabinet minister tells me: “The Lobby is behaving as if we are still in peacetime. For the country, this is the nearest most of them will get to wartime.” A serving minister adds: “Do they know there’s a pandemic on?”

Literally speaking – of course they do. Lobby journalists are dealing with the peculiarities of the pandemic every day. They are handling the biggest story of recent decades without the day-to-day, face-to-face contact with sources and potential sources that their access normally allows them. MPs are in scarce supply.

Social distancing means that only 16 reporters are allowed in Parliament’s Press Gallery at any one time. There is one conference-call briefing each day, typically at 12pm, with the PM’s official spokesman James Slack – usually chaired by Jason Groves, political editor of the Daily Mail.

By all accounts, questioning can be rigorous, with the journalists keeping in touch with each other via a WhatsApp group to coordinate lines and to make sure there is no let-up when a line of questioning proves fruitful. But the control of information is tight and stonewalling not uncommon.

What’s seriously irking my former colleagues in the Lobby is not the restrictive working conditions – during lockdown, everyone has had to contend with new ways of doing things – but the narrative taking hold that trust in journalism has suddenly “collapsed”. This, they believe, is a dangerous story struggling to become orthodoxy. And an untrue one, at that.

Ostensibly, the narrative seems to have some basis in the evidence. There was, for instance, a recent Sky News poll suggesting that just 17 per cent of the public trust newspapers and only 24 per cent trust television journalists. Today, YouGov polling for Tortoise reveals that 41 per cent think the media are being too hostile, and undermining the Government, rather than reporting facts. By contrast, only 18 per cent think they are being too supportive.

But the truth, as YouGov’s Anthony Wells explains to me, is that “trust in some parts of the press may be low, but it has been [low] for many years, so it is not a result of the coronavirus”.

He adds: “However, these figures do suggest that the media’s attitude is not necessarily in line with the public in these strange times. The British public are usually just as cynical towards our politicians as the press are. Their attitude towards the government is unusually charitable at the moment, though – they want them to succeed – so, right now, perhaps the media’s usual cynicism is a little out of step with the public.”

Why do these distinctions matter? What’s the difference between collapsing trust and flatlining trust? A whole lot, say Lobby journalists – and not just for reasons of professional pride.

They worry that a bogus narrative about diminishing trust is increasingly being deployed by the government to avoid questions, and to evade the kind of scrutiny that journalists are duty-bound to provide.

In his must-read daily newsletter, Politico’s London Playbook, Jack Blanchard gives examples: “Here’s a No. 10 spokesman angrily dismissing a Guardian story last week: ‘Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this.’

“Here’s Matt Hancock responding to a question he didn’t like on ITV: ‘Frankly the way questions are being asked by journalists irritates a lot of the public at the moment.’”

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s special adviser

It should be remembered that, before the pandemic, Downing Street – under the heavy influence of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser – was at war with parts of the media, including the BBC and its flagship political radio show, the Today programme. While much of that tension has abated, as Matthew d’Ancona suggested in his Tortoise piece on the corporation on Monday, some of it still persists.

A political editor told me that Downing Street was enjoying the spectacle of the media taking a hit: “They’ve now organised for members of the public to put in questions each day. That’s so that people can say that the question is better than anything we’ve mustered.”

More to the point, even if there is some truth in the claim that the Lobby has failed to adjust to today’s circumstances, the government information machine hasn’t risen to the occasion, either. This was especially true during the prime minister’s spell in hospital. Briefings to papers often turned out to be inaccurate, generally because ministers tried to interpret the mind of an absent Boris Johnson.

In normal times, this confusion might not matter too much. But, with the country hanging on every word emanating from Number 10, such chaos can only reduce confidence in both the government and media.

There is exasperation, as well as concern, among senior journalists at the situation. One told me that there was a lot of “bullshit” being spoken. “Many of the hacks now being pursued, like Laura (Kuenssberg, of the BBC) and Beth (Rigby, of Sky), were subjected to horrendous social media stuff during Brexit and it’s just been carried on by some people. It’s another stick to beat them with.”

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, outside Number 10

And as Mark Austin, the Sky presenter, pointed out, around a third of the social media complaints are from people who feel the journalists are giving the government an easy ride.

One disconsolate reporter captures the contradiction of the attacks: “On the one hand, we are the lackeys. On the other, the gotcha merchants. We can’t be both.”

But has any of the criticism hit home and made reporters alter their approach? Not in a big way. What has changed is the cast list of journalists at the briefings.

As the crisis has deepened, political correspondents have been joined at the 5pm press conference by health and science writers, many of them much better placed to ask probing questions of the men and women most likely to produce the real news, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the chief health and science advisers, and their deputies. The pressure on the Lobby has eased, the tone has changed, and the exchanges are less aggressive.

One such regular questioner is Hugh Pym, the BBC’s health editor, a superb journalist who is supremely fitted to his current role. In recent weeks, his authoritative reports have added to the sense that the BBC is having a pretty good war. And it helps that his gentle style makes him sound and look like a hospital consultant.

But Pym is no stooge: he provoked a spurt of fury on the Twittersphere by asking a surprised Rishi Sunak whether the Government was ashamed of putting NHS workers at risk with its response on personal protective equipment (PPE).

Had the question come from the Lobby it might not have caused such a flutter. But posed by the calm and mild-mannered Pym it was devastating. It was a short, sharp, single question to the Chancellor; in its way, a rebuke to those journalists who, given their chance to make a virtual mark at the daily show, ask two or three questions of each of the three figures at the podium, giving them the easy option of concentrating on the ones to which they have good answers.

Pym’s question, though tough for Sunak, was obviously justified by the circumstances, and the minister handled it the best he could. But if Pym could provoke the social media hordes – being smeared with the usual “BBC leftie” jibe – anyone could.

Hugh Pym, the BBC’s health editor, who has become an even more familiar face on our screens

Lobby journalists accept that some of the criticism is valid. “Yes, we have our long-winded colleagues. Yes, some of us ask too many questions. Yes, one or two might show off with an aggressive question to make sure it gets in that evening’s broadcast package. And, yes, there have been stupid questions,” says one political editor. “But, Phil, in your day and before your day, there were always people asking stupid questions. The trouble now is that they are getting noticed.”

That said, the misfires are more than outweighed by the positive effects of sharp scrutiny. “The media has been asking for weeks about the crisis in care homes and problems with PPE and testing, which have all caused the government to act. Some messengers deserve to be shot, but without most of them, more people would have died.”

Or, as Francis Elliot, the political editor of The Times, put it to me: “When the crisis is over, there may well be a reckoning for the government and others if it is shown that wrong decisions were taken and warnings were not acted upon. As a journalist, I would rather endure the short-term anger of the public and politicians than the long-term ignominy of being shown to have not asked the right questions at the right time.”

As a long-time Lobby journalist myself, I understand that feeling. So, I suspect, would most members of the public – regardless of what the polls and the pitchfork brigade say.

PHILIP WEBSTER

Philip Webster was political editor of The Times from 1992 to 2010.

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