How do I answer those who claim that the media is undermining democracy - those who, no doubt, will point to the downfall or the damage done to Messrs Kennedy, Oaten and Hughes in recent weeks? That's a question that I was asked to deliver a lecture on.
It was rather daunting for someone whose usual output is a paragraph here, a catchy phrase there or, at most, a report of two or three minutes in length. Here - in note form - is that lecture - a summary of which appears in today's Media Guardian.
I hope it will stimulate debate among those in the media and politics who are forced to live in what I've called "a troubled marriage" but also from those of you who don't.
Television and democracy: a troubled marriage
Phillip Geddes Memorial Lecture
I didn't know Phillip Geddes. He died aged just 24 when I was completing my first term here at Oxford. In December 1983 Phillip was in Harrods, the Knightsbridge store, when orders were issued for the building to be evacuated. Realising there was a story to be had, he went to investigate the bomb which took his life. My guess is that he never gave a thought to his own safety but simply had a desire to find out what was really going on and to communicate that to others. I salute him. While you'd never want a journalist to lose his life, that is what journalism in my view is all about
It was Adlai Stevenson who observed that "editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff and then report the chaff". This editor hopes tonight to focus on the wheat - the relationship between politics and the media which has dominated, obsessed and fascinating me ever since I left this place.
Why troubled? Why a marriage?
A marriage? Politicians depend on us in the media to communicate. We on them for stories to communicate - we are doomed to live together! A forced marriage, if you like.
Of course we journalists have - and should have - interests that directly conflict with politicians but we also have a shared interest in increasing interest in, understanding of and belief in the value of making informed political choices.
Why troubled? Politicians are increasingly convinced that the media are obsessed with personality, trivia and divisions while ignoring what really matters - policy. We all too often retort that they offer up only spin, soundbites, or obfuscation.
They reply: 'You started it... by not allowing us to debate openly without proclaiming a gaffe or a split'... and so the bickering goes on. Sound like a marriage to you?
Put it another way - it is a breakdown in trust and in respect Like any warring couple we risk boring onlookers with our row about who's to blame. The public may conclude "a plague on both your houses". Arguable the simultaneous decline in voter turnout and news audiences suggest they have already
I am married to a marriage guidance counsellor. Our relationship is as a result without flaw, tension or, perish the thought, argument! My speech today will try to bring this perfection to the relationship between politicians and journalists.
Stage 1 - Both parties have to recognise they share a problem. Our problem is that cynicism & disinterest in politics are bad for journalists just as much as they are bad for politics. Both of us need to look for the roots of this tension
Stage 2 - Don't allocate blame and avoid warnings and threats
Stage 3 - Both parties must listen to and seek to understand the others' problems
Stage 4 - Troubled marriages require both parties to take small steps - there is no Big Bang solution
Stage 5 - we should look - as the election slogan had it - forward not back.
A change of prime minister and an election in which all three leaders will be new to the game gives us all an opportunity to look again at some of the habits, practices and prejudices that have build up over 10 years. But all will have to move quickly as new habits - particularly bad ones are formed fast.
Stage 1 - Understanding the roots of the tension
It's as old as the hills or as old at least as the box in the corner. We demand access. They fear that access will destroy their control and considered decision making . In earliest days Parliament imposed a 14 day rule - nothing could be reported that had been or MIGHT be discussed in Parliament within 14 days!
Churchill defended this: "It would be shocking to have debates tackled in this House forestalled time after time by expressions of opinions by persons who had not the status and responsibility of MPs." The rights of MPs he said had to be protected against "the mass and the machine".
Churchill NEVER gave a TV interview. He demanded to know "Why do we need this peepshow?"
The BBC was not exactly fearless at this time - no BBC coverage of election in 1950 until after polls closed and did not cover by-elections so that "we do not influence voters"
Super Mac you might think was keener. No. He called TV a "20th century torture chamber". On emerging from The Turf Club, Macmillan was confronted with what he called "the paraphernalia of press and television".
This was the first political doorstep. He complained that a chap ought to be able to enjoy a glass of champagne and a slice of game pie with a friend undisturbed
Pols always complained and always sought to control. At the start of the General Strike in 1927 Churchill said "it would be monstrous not to use such an instrument to the best possible advantage". He meant PROPAGANDA. As did Eden during Suez, Thatcher during the Falklands and Alastair Campbell during Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Recent tension stems from early success of New Labour in media management. Their behaviour shaped by terror at return to the bad old days of 80s Labour - splits and loonies - and to avoid a repeat of Major years. Media's behaviour governed by a reaction against the sheer effectiveness of the discipline and control New Labour introduced.
Stage 2 - Don't allocate blame and avoid warnings and threats
One book has - in recent times - fuelled this debate. John Lloyd's book "What the Media are doing to our politics". It warns that journalism risks damaging "the democratic fabric that we need to support us".
John deserves praise for getting the debate going. More praise still for his work in helping launch the Oxford Institute of Journalism. I am self aware enough to know that if he'd called his book "What we can all do to make democracy better" I would never be making this speech
BUT - and it's a big BUT - John looks to too many of his journalistic colleagues as if he's simply taken the politicians' side - he's giving them the cover to simply blame us
Furthermore, he's bandying around warnings and threats to do it. Do you really believe our democratic fabric is under threat? I don't.
Look at electoral turnout, the pessimists say. Look at political disengagement - falling party membership and the like - they add.
I regard this pessimism in the same way as I regarded those books in the 1980s which told us Labour could never win again or the ones in the 90s that suggested the Tories couldn't.
Turnout - like political parties - can go up as well as down - in 2005 it reached 61.2% up from 58.9% in 2001. At the last US presidential election it was 56.7%, the highest since 1968.
Can anyone really argue that there was a lack of political engagement during the build-up to the Iraq war?
If we see another recession with escalating interest rates and unemployment, we'll see if there's disengagement. Voters are intelligent consumers - voting less out of duty, less out of "brand loyalty", less out of habit and more when the stakes are high and there's a clear choice on offer.
Away from the overblown rhetoric there is an argument here that needs addressing - that we in the media are undermining faith in the very democratic institutions we claim to be holding to account and undermining the capacity of our society to have a rational debate about the choices we should make.
There is undoubtedly a real challenge to those of us interested in politics to reach those who are least interested BUT fragile democracy is a phrase best reserved for Iraq or Palestine and NOT the UK.
Step 3 - Both parties must listen to and seek to understand the others problems
The politicians' problem is clear - falling turnout, low levels of respect and trust and a frustration that their only contact with voters is mediated by people who they feel make that problem worse and not better.
Later I will go through some of their specific grievances and how they might be dealt with
BUT first I want them - the politicians, John Lloyd and others - to listen to our problems.
I sense a certain nostalgia among our critics. When I was at ITN one of Tony Blair's rushed across Whitehall to tell me they wished they could have Michael Brunson back on the News at Ten. They're nice like that.
To understand why they can't, take a look at how TV business has changed in then less than two decades since I left Oxford.
In 1986 when I left there were four TV channels. No 24-hour news. No Radio 5 Live. No internet. No mobile phones let alone video IPod, Sky Plus... etc
The News at Ten & the Nine O'Clock News were key appointments to view. Panorama, World in Action, This Week, First Tuesday and Weekend World at the height of their influence.
In the past decade audiences for terrestrial news have been in long term decline - viewing of bulletins down by about a quarter since the early 90s.
Worst among young - fewer than 25% of 15-24 year olds now watch 15 consecutive minutes of BBC News on TV in any given week. Even for under 45s it's less than 50%.
Attitudes to news have changed - focus groups have shown that where people might lie about not watching the news to cover their embarrassment, now some boast about it.
Problem for current affairs worse - squeezed out of prime time as audiences have fallen. Audiences fell by 1/3 between 1994 & 2001. Fallen further in multi channel homes.
Old tricks no longer work. We used to lure people into watching programmes they didn't think they wanted to watch. Schedulers called it "hammocking" - put a popular programme at either end of a worthy one and the middle got lifted. Not any more.
Corporates are now increasingly being advised to ignore traditional media and focus instead on direct communication. Nike care more about sponsoring football pitches than press releases. This has been noted inside government, and ministries are being advised to spend more time and money on direct communication - writing to hospital users, for example, to tell them of progress made.
Political parties know it - at election time they've turned to the internet, e-mail, text, DVDs...etc BUT most politicians forget it in between polling days.
This is why news and current affairs executives are rightly so focussed on what the audience wants. Pick the wrong subject for Panorama or the wrong treatment on the news and you watch the viewing figures plummet. This explains why we may seem to be shouting louder to get a hearing. We are seeking to get attention where before it came for free. This is why there is more focus on personalities - because that's how people connect with TV.
This is why there's more emphasis on the emotional and less on the intellectual. Because that is what works on TV.
This is why there's more informality and a more conversational tone.
Spend half a second thinking about Big Brother and you see all this BUT it is an illusion to think that news and current affairs can exist in a hermetically sealed bubble unaffected by these pressures.
The challenge we in the media are grappling daily with is how to get a hearing in this new world whilst maintaining our values. Politicians should share with us a desire to find a solution for the world as it is not as it used to be or as we wish it might be.
Stage 4 - Troubled marriages require both parties to take small steps - there is no Big Bang solution
I am going to examine the main grievances politicians have and suggest small steps we could both take to restore trust
Who do we think we are? At root of anger of politicians is their proper sense that they are elected and we are not. They are owed therefore respect and assistance in communicating their case to the people
Most extreme form of this expressed by Tim Allan - Alistair Campbell’s former deputy - who warned that "With their puffed up self-importance, their unelected, unaccountable status and their huge and corrosive influence on political discourse, Paxman, Humphrys et al have become the trade union barons of our day."
I will turn to Paxo & Humphrys in a moment but let's start at home - with reporters.
Many politicians are angry that at election time viewers saw and heard more of me, Marr & Boulton than them. Let's be clear why this came about - because audience research suggested viewers wanted "a trusted guide" - a sort of sherpa to get them up the cliff face of political jargon and obfuscation.
Small step from them - learn, as Andy Marr memorably put it, to speak "fluent human".
Small step from us - cut back on pointless "two-ways". We have too often replaced politicians who don't speak fluent human with reporters who don't either.
All too often - as Broken News has painfully reminded us - a two-way is an excuse to put the word "Live" on the screen next to a man who says "As I said in my report..." who's standing somewhere where something did happen but stopped happening many hours earlier. There are some correspondents whose knowledge and experience means I want to hear them expand on their reports but there are many others too
Another small step from us - tell people the who, the what, the how before speculating why they are telling us this and what's going to happen next. Too much political reporting tells us that an idea shows Brown is winning/or losing; that the minister is safe/or doomed or will provoke a row/or assuage one before telling us what the story is actually about and how it affects you.
Who do we think we are? (part 2)
The interviewers - Paxman and Humphries and co - those dubbed "the sneerers" and "the interrupters" - are alleged to undermine respect for politics.
Let's remember : this is not new... When Robin Day had the temerity to ask the PM how he felt about the criticism of the Foreign Secretary, the Daily Telegraph wondered "whether the PM should have been asked what he thought of his Foreign Secretary before a camera which showed every flicker of his eyelid. Who is to draw the line at which the effort to entertain stops?"
Let's remember too - there's not many in the "and co" - Marr, Sopel, Neil, Boulton, the Dimblebys, Nick Clarke are all very different.
Clarke is a favourite of mine for his splendid question to Alistair Darling: "For the sake of neatness do you think you could answer the question I just asked you?"
One man's rudeness is another's necessary persistence to get an answer. I got some flak for my confrontation with the PM in the election run-up over Labour's poster warning of 35 billion pounds' worth of Tory cuts to public services.
I felt it was justified as it came the day after the Budget, neither the Prime Minister or the Chancellor were prepared to take questions on it; It was a highly controversial claim and reporters had not been invited to the launch.
With benefit of hindsight it's hard to say that Paxman was wrong to ask Kennedy about drink or Humphrys to be sceptical about the case for war. What damaged faith in politics more - their questions OR the failure of politicians to tell the truth in answer?
Remember too who killed the long-form political interview. When I started at the BBC, Weekend World and its BBC equivalent and Panorama regularly interviewed at length the PM and her senior ministers.
Tony Blair chose to kill it - avoiding Today, On the Record, Panorama and choosing sofa chats, "masochism strategy" punch-ups and to appear on Football Focus, to call radio DJs on the day of retirement and play quizzes on Richard & Judy.
Outside of election run-ups, he has never appeared on the BBC's Politics Show, having appeared only once on its predecessor On the Record (and that was in 1997) and on ITV's Dimbleby once in the run up to last election.
Lord Irvine was a powerful and influential figure in his government - and barely appeared in public at all.
Tony Blair has always rejected a leader Presidential style debate.
Now to be fair to Blair (and to Alastair Campbell who initiated these changes before the Kelly/WMD row) he has introduced major innovations - monthly news conferences, regular "meet the people" type programmes. The question is what happens once he moves on
Gordon Brown has, if anything, been even less keen than Blair on the long interview.
Brown has never been on the BBC's Politics Show, appeared on On the Record only once and that in 1997 and only twice on Dimbleby.
Brown did do a long film on Newsnight expounding his about on his theme of Britishness. Did he feel that there was no interview that would allow him to do that before being asked when he wants to take over from Tony Blair?
Small steps from us :
- we should continue to ensure there is a variety of interviewing styles
- we should try to find a place where politicians can think aloud more without craving for next day's headline
- there should be a place for an analysis interview looking at long term policy and for personality interviews like those in Saturday newspapers
- There are now six Sunday political magazine interview programmes. It's time to try something else
Small steps from them :
- if you want the media to take you ideas seriously, stop avoiding places which might discuss them seriously
- retain the monthly news conferences - they've not become the place for grandstanding that some feared and do inform people at length about the government's thinking
- add televised daily lobby briefings
- agree to a leaders election debate
Too much Who's Who... not enough what's what ?
This is the oldest complaint of them all. Remember Tony Benn complaining that the media should focus on the "ishoos" and not on "pershunalities"?
After weeks of hearing about Cameron's drug taking, Kennedy's drinking, Oaten's rent boys and Hughes's sexuality... I can see why.
BUT try telling story of past 10 years without saying the word Blair and you'll see how absurd that is. Power is about people and ideas, NOT one or the other.
AND the story of Charles Kennedy shows the tightrope we walk - damned before for raising the issue at all, damned after for concealing the truth.
AND the story of David Cameron shows that there is a way through. On drugs he drew a line and stuck to it. Hughes, in comparison, drew a line then re-drew it in a misleading way and then re-drew it again.
Cameron is playing the personality game just as Blair did - people already know that he has a severely disabled son and is buying a house with solar panels, has a wife with a tattoo, wears the newest Converse trainers and likes The Smiths... Many here may loathe this and wish he'd talk about the issues BUT who can say it hasn't worked for him.
There is, I contend, no going back. However, we in the media should try much harder to cover ideas and try harder too to keep personality in proportion.
Small step for us
- too many of the alleged scandals - you know the ones that end up end up with that damn word 'gate' at the end - add up to very little. There is a danger of political "feeding frenzies"
In the recent case of Ruth Kelly and the sex offenders I went out of my way to ensure that the BBC brought light and not just heat to that story
- stop seeing all politics through the prism of personal positioning - Brown/Blair split/ Is Kelly going to survive... etc. It is lazy and risks boring the public
Small step for us
- Care more about ideas. Not policy per se but the tide of ideas. John Birt's famous attack on "The bias against understanding" pointed out that most mainstream journalism had failed to spot the rise of ideas now called Thatcherism. I think Labour politicians can now complain that we missed the significance of the child care revolution. We need to try harder to find ways cover developments that do not provoke a row or don't have a "peg" which means they must be done that day
- We need to allow politicians to think aloud before they have all the answers. In recent months grown up debates have been launched on nuclear power and road pricing. Even the Cabinet split about smoking bans was covered more as an issue than a split story
- We need to cover not only the policy or the politics but both together. Too often in TV News the political correspondent gives you too much of why and not enough of the what. And the policy specialist gives you all the what and no why or whether the idea's a political possibility. One of the BBC's unique but underused strengths is the number of specialists it has. We should combine more to cover both the politics and the practicalities of ideas. Eg/ on the Turner Report Evan Davis and I worked together.
- We can learn from the "new readers start here" mentality of the BBC News website, Radio 5 Live and newspaper sidebars or what The Guardian calls "backstory". Perhaps the "red button" could be used to give people "the back story".
- There is no regular programme for the examination of ideas beyond the daily strands - Today, WATO, Newsnight. The BBC should have one. Either we should just bite the bullet and create a TV "Analysis" programme - like the old Weekend World - despite the inevitably small audience it will get
OR how about a new programme called "Why?". Why am I going to have to work longer? Why is my hospital cancelling operations when the NHS has had so much money? Why do we need new nuclear power stations? We should use new technology to lead people to more detailed content. The BBC has made programmes on all these subjects - when a topic becomes hot we should do more to guide people to them via the red button, the internet or even a special day of programmes on News 24 or BBC Parliament. Beware politicians who say they wish we discussed the issues more. Did this government ever allow any form of debate on the merits of the Euro OR the need for tax rises to fund NHS? Will the Tories now encourage debate or simply say that we must wait for their policy review ?
Small step for politicians
- Dare to have more of your debates in public - learn from Alistair Darling - mocked for being a speak you weight machine - but who kicked off the road pricing debate
- Stop blaming media for lack of debate. Look at yourselves. Did you allow a debate on the Euro or tax rises to pay for the NHS or did you suppress it?
"We know we're boring but it's your fault"
A lot of politicians have almost given up trying to engage and have a negative, risk-averse, overly protective attitude. They say it's the media's fault for pouncing on anything as a gaffe or a split and turning it into a screaming headline. Eg Charles Clarke gave a candid interview once on the number of hospitals in financial trouble and was greeted with stories about crisis. Eg. Tom McNally gave a candid interview on beating drink problems - it became another Lib Dem embarrassment
Small step for us
- we need to reward openness NOT punish it... by pointing out that someone's taken a risk by being candid
- we should also admit more readily when we're wrong or the limits of our knowledge. Thomas Jefferson once suggested that "Perhaps an editor might divide his paper in 4 chapters - heading the first, Truths; the second, Probabilities; the third, Possibilities; the fourth, Lies. The first chapter would be very short." It's something we’d do well to remember.
I have been doing a blog since returning to the BBC. I relish it in part because it gives the opportunity to give a glimpse of the differences between what I know, what I suspect and what I am merely speculating about.
Small step for them
- Stop being so protective about information that should be routinely given to journalists. I have come to hate the evasion and code of the briefing game. Best illustrated with the trivial example. Travel to White House with Tony Blair and we are forced into a parlour game to guess who's attending the summit. "You're well informed, Nick. The people you'll expect to be there will be there." "Well, I expect X, Y, Z" "I've always said you were well-informed.".
Meanwhile, our American colleagues were simply handed a print out headed "Summit attendees"
- Stop telling lies however white and however small. You always get found out in the end. These days you just wait for memoirs to discover truth eg Lance Price's memoirs reveal that when Number 10 decided to force Mandelson from office they simply invented the story that he had wanted to resign and had been asked to think about it overnight; and "lied" his words about fact they'd invited Schroeder to meet Blair when he turned them down. John Lloyd has written "These are the kind of things you would be annoyed about if you were on the receiving end of them. They are not, however, large matters. There is no suggestion that the prime minister directed such lies to be told, nor that there was a culture of lying in the Downing Street press office." Sorry John, not good enough. Either we can believe what we're told or people like me will pick and choose what to believe.
- Try to engage people in what you're doing - there used to be briefings by the PM's senior foreign policy advisers ahead of summits. Now they've been scrapped. When I suggested to the PM that he be more open with the policy making process the reply came from one adviser that they couldn't trust the papers with such openness. Yet, his news conferences have educated people in his thinking to his benefit - and ours.
- Realise that publicly funded bodies can't be half in and half out of public scrutiny eg police on terror, security services on WMD
- Open up the institutions to coverage. Parliamentary rules for TV reporting are bizarre.
Last Stage - step 5. We should look - as the election slogan had it - forward not back.
New technology. A new political era will give us new opportunities
TV news is not dead. People turn in huge numbers when their imagination is captured eg Tsunami, Iraq War ..etc
New technology makes it easier for people to get added value eg 175,000 people tuned in to watch BBC Parliament on television on the day of David Cameron's first Prime Minister's Questions as leader of the Conservative Party, while there were a further 75,000 hits for the channel via broadband.
On Tsunami there were 8 million requests for streamed video.
The internet can guide people to more detailed information. The internet is now the primary source of news for under 30s in America. On Demand broadcasting allows people to download and time shift what interests them. We need to re-think how people find news and current affairs content in an era of using search engines not Radio Times.
We are incredibly lucky in this country - our politics is not corrupt, our broadcasting is not biased, we have three quality TV news services... here's to the future.
Divorce is not an option. Neither is easy contentment. We are doomed to live together. Let's work at it and stop whingeing each about the other.