Failing to look beyond the lobby

Mass Media, Politics and Democracy - Westminster Tales
November 2, 2001

The dominant theme of these two books by three well-established political scientists is that there is something rotten in British media coverage of British national politics. Both books, however, have a marked element of Hamlet without the prince; they have a narrow focus on Westminster politics, yet they largely ignore the top 40 or 50 stars of British political journalism, most of whom do not inhabit the Westminster lobby.

Both books are more textbook than research monograph; they look as if they started life as lectures for undergraduate courses in politics and media. But neither book really constitutes a genuinely student-friendly text, for neither has any charts, tables, diagrams, pictures or summary boxes.

Because Steven Barnett and Ivor Gaber both know a lot about British broadcasting, another strength of their book is its useful account of the major political broadcasting controversies of the 1990s. Their main title, Westminster Tales , accurately reflects the book's content; but their subtitle is rather less accurate. They are less sure-footed on newspapers; their 19 named interviewees are mainly around the number-two level of lobby correspondent.

John Street's previous books have covered the connection between politics, popular culture and popular music. His book continues in this general direction, advocating a broad view of political media encompassing a wide range of television, popular culture and the tabloid press. Street also helpfully gives an overview of large swaths of new literature on the media and popular culture. There are chapters on media bias, media effects, the state, ownership and so on. His book may be chosen as a text for some courses on politics, but most lecturers will probably prefer Denis McQuail's Mass Communications Theory , which covers most of the same ground and much more besides.

Barnett, Gaber and Street argue that British political journalism has deteriorated in the past two decades as a result of increased commercialisation, tabloidisation, sensationalism, and mogul and corporate ownership. They deplore what they see as the dominance of the government publicity machine and Downing Street spin doctors.

This line of argument depends too heavily on press cuttings and other textbooks. Both books surrender to the traditional journalists' grumbling assumption that there was a golden age of journalism about 25 or 30 years ago. Alan Lee has shown that London journalists around 1900 believed there had been a golden age in the 1870s.

Westminster lobby correspondents are now only one of several categories of political journalists. These authors ignore financial journalism, The Financial Times and The Economist , which have produced much of the best political journalism and many of the best political journalists of recent years. They mention only briefly the huge outpourings of the political columnists, the political "big interviewers" and the Treasury watchers.

On the United States and the Wilson-Heath era, both books are highly unreliable. In the late 1960s, the leading political journalists were people such as David Wood ( The Times ) and Walter Terry (The Daily Mail ), neither of whom would compare well with today's equivalents. Only one quarter of the lobby correspondents in the late 1960s were graduates. Only three organisations ( The Times , The Daily Telegraph and the BBC) offered a well-established political service; and since The Times and the BBC had a daily working "partnership", competition 30 years ago was less than ferocious. Few of those lobby journalists understood any economics at all; a number had difficulties with simple arithmetic.

Both books fail to appreciate the emergence in recent decades of a political journalists' elite. Some of these are in the lobby, others are columnists, editors and work in broadcasting. Nearly all have significant expertise in Westminster politics but also in another area. Most appear on television and in newspapers and also write books. Their broad experience and their personal reputations give them independence from bullying by editors or owners. By way of example, Andrew Marr of the BBC is an ex-editor who worked on The Economist and is an expert on Scottish politics. Simon Jenkins, another ex-editor, is an expert on railways, churches, South Africa and many other things. Jon Snow (Channel 4 News) was an outstanding foreign correspondent, as was Michael White ( The Guardian ). The books oddly also ignore book writers such as Andrew Rawnsley, whose analysis of Blair-Brown is uniquely revealing. I believe they are also wrong about the "death of investigative journalism".

Jeremy Tunstall is research professor in sociology, City University.

Mass Media, Politics and Democracy

Author - John Street
ISBN - 0 333 69304 3 and 69305 1
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 297

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