It makes you want to turn off your bleeper

June 12, 1998

The modern political journalist does not need an electronic message bleeper to be told what to think and write. He or she simply regurgitates the last article on the chosen subject. After several such cycles, whether the original were true or not becomes irrelevant.

One such example is the alleged dependence of new Labour MPs on their electronic message bleepers.

At first the joke was funny. Heard the one about the new Labour MP in the hairdressers? He refuses to take off his headphones for the haircut despite several requests. Eventually he falls asleep, the hairdresser removes the earpieces and the MP drops dead. The voice of Peter Mandelson can be heard from the headphones: "breathe in, breathe out, breathe in". The caricature is wearing a bit thin.

The House of Commons, and Lords for that matter, have long been based on a party whipping system. The use of the message bleeper, email and mobile phone simply complements the posted whip, message board and the word in the ear of the lobby. Electronic information, far from being an instruction as to how to act, is a very helpful prompt. It tells me when the next vote is, where meetings are being held and what the score is in the semi-finals. Yet its existence has come to symbolise for many unthinking journalist no less than silicon-chip Stalinism.

It is the reproduction of news without original sourcing and confirmation that is turning politics into a slave to presentation and not to policy. The real reason why our message bleepers from the whips carry advice (not instructions) - to ignore media surveys, for example - is that they know the results of the survey will inevitably be used by some media outlet, if not the one asking the questions. All the message bleeper is doing is telling us that some teenage scribbler is phoning round asking oversimplified questions to get a headline that his or her 1960s London School of Economics graduate editor has thought up this morning listening to the Today programme.

I know, I have done it myself and my very private view of my senior Parliamentary colleagues is based on their response at the time.

Virtually all modern political news coverage is based on slavishness to a particular line of interpretation. If the interpretation is written or broadcast by a senior journalist, it is guaranteed to be recycled in hundreds of column inches and hours of broadcast time.

Take the endless speculation about the Cabinet reshuffle. Every flipping article about the reshuffle, about which nothing has been known of any substance whatsoever, says that David Clark is for the chop. Who said so? Well, the last article in the clippings. So there.

I am not denying of course that such speculation is fuelled, but that does not count for responsible journalism. After only 12 months in Parliament, I am so weary of hearing the same nonsense on the news that I have stopped listening to the Today programme. Now I know you may scoff at the sheer scale of my revolutionary fervour, but you are talking to a serious news junkie. Not only did I produce the stuff for a living, I was for ten years the original news monster, devouring every article, item, comment and analysis. And I got paid for it.

Whether I have grown up (unlikely) or whether being in government is just so different from being in opposition, where saying is more important than doing, I do not know. Perhaps I have just got fed up with John Humphrys' rudeness or perhaps it is because I have realised that who and what comes through my constituency surgery doors and what is on Today are inversely proportional.

Whatever the reason, I am starting a one-MP campaign. The only reason why the Today programme is so important is because we all say it is. Like Bishop Berkeley's tree, if I do not perceive it, it will disappear. Until, that is, the next time I am on it.

Phil Woolas is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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