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02 May 2016

A New Deal For Political Coverage

This week, voters are going to the polls across England to elect local Councillors, and to choose the Police and Crime Commissioners who supervise forces in England and Wales. Londoners also have the little local matter of a Mayor.

Turnout is unlikely to be impressive. Most people can't name their Police and Crime Commissioner, let alone describe what they do for (in West Yorkshire) their £100K salary. I don't sense a huge enthusiasm for the town hall contests either.

What I do sense is profound cynicism towards the democratic process. Call it the Boaty McBoatface phenomenon. People don't vote in huge numbers but when they do it's for anti-politics, anti-establishment options or candidates. As to the real decision, they don't believe any party or individual is speaking to them or for them. The prevailing mood is that politicians - all politicians - are in it for themselves.

And we in the news media are partly to blame for this sorry state of affairs.

It used to be so simple. We had the blue team and the red team, and at reasonably regular intervals they swapped sides (in Westminster, and in the local Council chamber). We had a yellow team to act as the conscience for the other two, and to soak up a greater or lesser number of protest votes. And we had Screaming Lord Sutch to provide a bit of English eccentricity.

In this binary world the adversarial style of interview made sense. The radio station, as chair or referee, allowed red and blue candidates to attack each other. The objective was to decide a winner, in the studio and ultimately on polling day.

Other factors began to cloud the issue. As news (on commercial radio, at least) became shorter and shorter arguments had to be condensed into ever shorter and pithier soundbites. That can only go so far before it becomes ridiculous.

The politicians began to get media training (Disclosure; I've been paid to run media training sessions for Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Councillors over the years, although not usually together in the same room) so they know all about bullet points and embracing the opposition and "ABC" strategies. The whole thing locked into a kind of stalemate, with everyone playing the media game and no-one, journo or politico, actually addressing what listeners care about.

In terms of local elections that means schools, potholes and bin collections in roughly that order.

We entered the era of multi-party politics; whether BNP, Green or UKIP, Morley Independent or Ratepayers' Alliance, Respect, TUSC or Yorkshire First there was bound to be a name on the ballot paper no-one but a political anorak knew anything about.

After first ruling that all candidates had to be given equal time or no constituency profile could be aired ("Our phone-in with the Grimetown South candidates has been cancelled as Miss Whiplash has a most urgent engagement elsewhere") OFCOM basically threw in the towel and decreed "larger parties" must participate. Size matters, but the decision on who measures up is the broadcaster's problem.

Add in the complications of social media, where people live in echo chambers absolutely convinced of their own righteousness and the evil of the other side because they are never exposed to counter-arguments, and the political communication model is fundamentally broken.

So how to fix it? This is awkward. It will need trust on both sides, journo and politico.

Firstly we all have to accept that no-one has all the answers. If only problems were that simple. I've worked with Councillors and MPs of all stripes over 30 years and I've only met a handful of bastards in that time.

The huge majority get into politics because they really want to make a difference, usually at local level. For many the party label is almost irrelevant; when I ask Councillors why they're not Independents the answer from all sides is usually that they need some kind of organisation to work within as it's just too much hassle to get elected single handed; think of doing your own defence in Magistrates' Court. It's possible, but risky and much easier working with an intermediary who knows the system inside out.

I remember pinning a Councillor (whose real job was being a firefighter) with a killer question in training. He blurted "but that's a question for a politician!". I felt quite cruel reminding him he was a politician. There was a lesson in that exchange for both of us.

If no-one has all the answers we have to accept that problems are nuanced. It's much easier to oppose than to govern. I recall Labour types in 1997 who genuinely felt I'd turned against them with my lines of questioning. The difference was they could no longer blame "the government", or "Westminster" for all their woes. They were the government. They ran Westminster. If anything the problem was even more acute with the Lib Dems after the 2010 coalition was formed. I recall a couple literally speechless when facing questions on their support for government policy they'd helped forge.

So no-one has all the answers, and pragmatic solutions are nuanced. Now add in the factor than no-one has a money tree. Throw enough money at any problem and it will go away. That money is finite under any administration. How tight the constraints are is one of those nuances; but no-one has the money to end all problems by spending. There have to be hard choices. Some people will get what they want, others won't. It's how the choices are made that needs to be transparent.

This, then, is my proposed new deal for politicians ...
  1. I will give you time, at the head of an interview, to outline the problem and what the constraints are that you face in tackling it. If I give you that time, without challenge, you agree to use the opportunity to genuinely address the issue and not heap bile on your heartless, incompetent or feckless opponents (actually, Steve and Irene who, as you well know, are decent people doing their best for the city, just like you).
  2. I will challenge you, politely but firmly, with points the opposition have made on the issue. I will not use this to indulge my ego, or pretend I'm auditioning for a gig on Newsnight. This is local radio, I'm one of your constituents and the decisions you reach matter to all of us. I will give you time to answer. You will accept that the opposition also starts from a position of principle, and has a valid argument. You will answer questions as to why their solution is not possible and/or not in the best interests of the city. 
  3. You will admit when you don't have a solution, or when others (be they residents, or another political grouping not currently in control) have a good idea to incorporate in your plans. You will accept these inputs with good grace, and I will accept you are not weak for asking residents or others to contribute their ideas to the mix.
  4. I will put your entire interview (probably about 3 minutes) as a sound file on the internet, and I will signpost listeners to it in my programme or bulletin. When I choose a clip ("soundbite") to use on air to give a flavour of the whole I will do my best to avoid inflammatory or antagonistic quotes that simply provoke a tribal argument over what's going on in London .. in other words, I will avoid giving my listeners the am-dram version of the Westminster pantomime.
  5. I will of course do the same for all sides, just like I always have. 
This proposal might be hopelessly idealistic.

I am after all a child (Young child. Very young child) of the Sixties, when it felt like there might be positive solutions to problems. A cynical politician could probably run rings around me.

But the present sterile stalemate isn't working either. Can we really dare to do things differently? Technology has created the echo chambers, but it also gives us the opportunity of broadcast interviews without rigid and artificial time constraints, which often reduce argument to absurdity.

Something to ponder in election week whilst we wait for the votes to be counted.



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