Half listening to the radio this morning I heard the FT political correspondent George Parker, the Indie’s Steve Richards and The Spectator’s Isobel Hardman discussing the election result. I normally like Parker, and Richards and Hardman, though partisan in their different ways, are usually interesting and fair. But this time I found myself not wanting to listen.
It wasn’t the ‘1992 not wanting to listen syndrome’. I felt the unexpected Tory victory 23 years ago like a bereavement. This was different. I was simply irritated by their chatter.
For if the pollsters got it wrong, so did the pundits. And they, I would argue, are more important, and more culpable, for the state of British politics.
Polling is subject to all the usual objections to quantitative social research methods, and no doubt there will be conferences galore in the coming months to fix the problem – though I suspect that the major issue is one of interpretation, not method. But that’s one for the geeks.
Punditry is something else. Political journalists are part of the Westminster eco-system. They mix with politicians, SPADs, senior civil servants, and lobbyists in the gyms, cafes, restaurants and dinner party circuits of the capital. When they go out into other parts of the country, or into other sections of society, the visits are fleeting, and often mediated by someone who interprets that world for them. Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian recently described the incredulity of people he interviewed in Edmonton, North London, when he revealed that he was himself from the area. I recognised his portrait of the ‘other London’ from my time teaching in at a tech college in Tottenham. People acted as though there was an electric fence penning them out of the West End. The undercover work done by the likes of Polly Toynbee to understand the lives of the poor and marginal remains the exception, rather than the rule, most particularly when it comes to parliamentary reporters, who define their brief with comfortable narrowness.
Hence the astonishment of the political journos when they went up to Scotland during the referendum campaign. How did this happen? Who’d have known? Well, you, if you’d ever paid the place any attention. I was certainly aware of some of it, and over a long period. I recall being interviewed by the distinguished Scottish journalist, Arnold Kemp, when he did a tour of the UK to look at attitudes to nation and Europe in the 1990s. He found, in much of England, a profound alienation from Westminster, even back then. But few of his London-based equivalents even began to look.
Why does this matter? Journalists tell stories that get to be believed as truths. The stories have tangible effects. They skew the world, and how we respond to it. We often rail against partisanship and trickery in the press, as when a Murdoch paper trashes Miliband, or Kinnock, or whoever. But the most damaging thing is when there is no ulterior purpose, no intention to deceive. When they are simply, hopelessly, out of touch.
We can’t fix our politics without understanding our country and its people. That means better, truer, journalism turning the spotlight onto places beyond Westminster on a regular basis, and from an informed position. Ideally we’d have some national newspapers based outside London, as used to happen in the past. We’d have a more devolved BBC. I listen to 5 Live from time to time, and it is good to hear how the capital-centricity of its news, and its approach to news has changed radically since it went to Salford. But we need more of this.
Maybe then we won’t be caught out by the changing faces, and worries, and hopes of this country. And we’ll be better able to hold our leaders to account.