Yesterday, after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Brexit, he moved on from press questions about the substance of his policy change to seeking non-media questions. It was presumably to show that Labour is more interested in the real questions of real people rather than the biased agenda of the press. That real question ended up being ‘please will you hurry up and be our Prime Minister?’
Corbynites would argue that even a question as pointless as this is better than the mocking tone that journalists take as they try to claim, on the basis of whispered gossip, that this is a result of some kind of Shadow Cabinet falling out. Why not focus on the real issues, they argue. But the problem is that politicians are the least able to gauge what a legitimate press question is. All too often, for them, a legitimate question is in fact merely one they can answer easily, or one that contains praise for them.
It’s easy to see how a party leader might end up in this position. The House of Commons operates on a system of patronage, whereby ambitious MPs in the governing party believe it is advantageous to waste their time in the Chamber asking ‘questions’ which are in fact elaborate attempts at praising the party leader or minister at the despatch box, and of giving that colleague a breather from real scrutiny. We see this more obviously on the Tory benches as they are in government, but a burrow through the archives of Hansard will show that Labour MPs (albeit not Jeremy Corbyn) have been just as guilty.
Yesterday’s question also suggests that ‘real people’, which by the way is almost always a misnomer for ‘members drafted in to provide the applause at a party event’ may not necessarily provide the sort of probing questions that those seeking to lead our country deserve. Using non-media to ask questions merely suggests that a leader wants a break from scrutiny, rather than a better level of questioning.
I can feel the hackles rising on the backs of non-journalists as they reach this point in the piece, so it is worth pointing out that journalists aren’t intrinsically better or more clever when it comes to asking questions. They may be a little more practised, just as some journalists may have a latent talent for bricklaying but don’t tend to get the opportunity to have a go at it on a daily basis. But the outlook of a reporter should not be that they are better than the public, but that they are the eyes and the ears of the public. It’s one of the first things you’re taught at journalism college, before you start learning shorthand and how not to find yourself in contempt of court. Given the public do tend to have better things to do than turn up to political events, and given the parties tend to invite safe non-media audience members, largely from party mailing lists, it is important that journalists get to ask their annoying, possibly even mocking questions, so that the public has a better chance of finding out what’s going on.
The Labour Party is currently doing what many parties keen to evade scrutiny tend to do, which is to run down the media as being intrinsically bad, pointless, and driven by the agenda, either of the evil overbearing ‘barons’ who own newspapers, or of the journalist in question (see the obsession with whether or not key broadcasters such as Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Marr are too ‘Tory-friendly’). There are legitimate questions to be asked about the press in this country, but politicians are rarely able to ask them without having their own agenda. That agenda tends to be to weaken the authority of those annoying journalists to the extent that their legitimate questions and scrutiny can be dismissed.
Here’s another example of this slow running-down of the media at work. Barry Gardiner has spent the past few days irritably explaining why he hasn’t lost the Shadow Cabinet debate on the question of a customs union arrangement. It did seem a bit harsh to send the man whose ‘vassal state’ line has been quoted everywhere out to defend the new party line, and Gardiner didn’t seem to be enjoying himself when he pitched up on Pienaar’s Politics on Sunday. Asked by the Mail’s Jason Groves, who was also a guest on the programme, whether he had lost the argument, Gardiner decided to claim that Groves was in fact working for the Tory party:
‘Jason, as I said to John just a moment ago, you and other rightwing commentators try to paint this as a semantic problem for the Labour Party. It’s not: it’s a problem for your lot and you just have to get over it, because actually it is the Anna Soubrys of this world who are making it impossible for your government to implement its own red lines, and I think the sooner that you accept that most members of Parliament actually want to see the UK continue to have the benefits of a customs union with the European Union then actually you will get to the right place. For as long as you try to make this an issue about the Labour Party, then you are in the wrong place because the real issues are the ones that concern business up and down this country…’
Ah, the ‘real issues’ argument. This is often deployed when someone asks about the dynamic within a party, which members of that party always dismiss as the sort of superficial tittle-tattle that Westminster bubble inhabitants become obsessed with. The problem is that dynamics are important: just look at how the personal divisions of the Blair/Brown era undermined the Labour government’s ability to achieve its objectives. Much better to suggest that a journalist is in fact just a Tory press officer trying to advance the interests of ‘your lot’ and ‘your government’.
It’s also easy for a Labour politician to run down the integrity of the journalists who work for the Daily Mail, because so many Labour members have a visceral dislike of the newspaper. Never mind if the question is entirely legitimate, which this one is: if your party doesn’t like the values espoused by a paper that never claims to be an outlet without views, then your party can avoid its annoying questions. The problem is that no outlet seems to be pure enough for politicians when those annoying questions start coming. It’s not just the obvious bogeymen of the Daily Mail, but the BBC, and even the Guardian, at times.
There may well be a kernel of a point in some of the complaints that politicians make about the media. But let’s not pretend that they make these points for anything other than their own convenience: a media that is less trusted is one whose probing or annoying questions those politicians don’t need to worry about.