Politicians and the press: why we need to be each others’ critical friends

I used to speak to my paper’s local MP two or three times a week.

At one point, he said something which I found both reassuring and terrifying in equal measure.

“You know what I think about this, Paul. I’m happy for you to make up a quote and attribute it to me.”

The relationship between regional journalists and the politicians that serve their area is a delicate and complicated one.

Both are theoretically working for the common good, with a mission to celebrate and champion their communities.

Like all senior figures in the public sector, MPs will say something like: “We just expect you to be fair. If I’ve/we’ve got something wrong, we know you’ll hold us to account for it.”

Like all senior figures in the public sector, they don’t always mean it.

And God knows leading a public sector organisation today is nightmarishly challenging – and getting worse by the day. It’s not a barrel of laughs being an MP, either: your life is no longer your own, the hours are relentless, and your waistline and heart must feel under continuous attack.

The reason I could square the role of quote-writer to the political party veteran with my conscience was that I remembered far livelier conversations – often around election time, and occasionally involving stroppy silences that lasted several weeks.

I also recall being ambushed by that politician and a neighbouring MP from a different party on live TV. Both accused my paper of being biased. The fact that the allegations of bias directly contradicted each other gave me great pleasure. As always, if everyone thinks you’ve got it in for them you’re probably doing a pretty good job.

But despite that TV encounter, and despite those periodic spats, our relationship never descended into downright abuse.

Our paper was never described as ‘journalism with crayons’ or ‘shoddy’ – terms used by Teeside MP Emma Lewell-Buck and her husband Simon Buck in attacks on the Shields Gazette over its coverage of a boundary shake-up.

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I wonder how some of our past political disagreements would have played out on Twitter.

I was intrigued to see one of my home city of Plymouth’s MPs criticising the Herald over its coverage of both defence cuts and the cleanliness of the local hospital.

When I first read Johnny Mercer’s comments, I was tempted to put him in the same category as the Lewell-Bucks.

But I know he’s an interesting, intelligent, thoughtful character. And maybe there is slightly more nuance to his criticism. He’s certainly not critical of all journalism.

Having said that, I was glad to see reporters, former reporters and journalists on other Trinity Mirror titles defending the Herald’s corner.

Herald crime reporter Carl Eve wasn’t taking any nonsense about political bias in the regional media. Nor was he prepared to accept that the Herald has a glass half-empty approach to local life.

At least Mr Mercer is engaging in the debate.

That’s more that can be said for Sheffield MP Jared O’Hara who has vanished without trace after taking a period of sick leave in the face of criticism of some comments he made in the past.

There’s been some good coverage by the Yorkshire Post on all this, including some nice doorstepping of his office, which seems to have triggered his sudden decision to return to work.

As one of the commentators in a Twitter thread on the Mercer vs Herald debate acknowledges, MPs and the media should be each others’ watchdogs.

I like to think both are critical friends, honestly holding the other to account in good faith, and in pursuit of similar goals.

I made it a principle never to be friends with a politician on Facebook. But I don’t subscribe to the view that the only noble position for a journalist to hold is one of constant and suspicious attrition.

The best journalists and politicians realise that, even if they don’t always feel they need each other, their communities require both.

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A New Year’s resolution: let’s make sure we share good news reporting in 2018

As presentations go, it was a pretty rubbish one.
When I first started giving talks about how to write, long before that became my job, I put together some slides containing advice and tips.
I was particularly keen on one of them.
It just featured one word: READ.
I went on to elaborate: you will only improve your writing by reading more of other people’s.
And I urged my audience – whether students, would-be village correspondents or radio station newsroom volunteers – to put any sensitivities and snobbishness aside.
“Some of the greatest writing in the English language today is in The Sun,” was a line I regularly used.
Sometimes I’d go further. “If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be writing headlines for The Sun,” I once claimed.
So let’s get this clear: I have always been a fan of the way in which our most popular newspapers make words work. The way they paint pictures, encapsulate ideas and wage war on waffle.
Great journalism can be found in The Sun and the Mail, along with very welcome investment in good writing, of that there is no doubt.
And there are good people writing for both titles. I know and am very fond of some of them.
I say that not just because it’s true but also because there have been some fascinating debates on Twitter in the last few days about whether it’s possible to be both a decent human being and a writer for the tabloids. One was started by Thea de Gallier
with another by Sophie Brown.

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I hate the world view the Sun and Mail espouse, the political hang-ups they cling to, the misleading stereotypes they encourage and the division and negativity that characterise so much of their coverage.
But I’d never discourage one of my students from working for them.
I’d make sure they went into the application process with their eyes open. But also that they had the courage to keep their mouth open, too, if what they were being asked to do challenged their conscience. Call me woefully naïve, but I can’t believe there are organisations that cannot be reformed from within.
You only have to look at the way in which sports journalists on The Times refused to accept their paper’s sidelining of the Hillsborough inquest verdict, and ensured that the second edition was changed to reflect such landmark news.
And here’s one final thought, the basis for a New Year’s resolution for all of us.

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It stems from a tweet in one of those threads from journalist Jessica Bateman, and a cracking blog from a man who has felt himself under fire from both the Mail and the Sun. John Sutherland is a senior police officer in London and was understandably riled by The Sun’s critical coverage of what it regarded as failures in the war on crime. He also happens to suffer from depression, and has for some time been on anti-depressants – or ‘happy pills’ as The Mail’s recent inane splash headline called them.  Both stories to him illustrate a media default setting of carping from the sidelines, of seeing darkness rather than candles.

Tearing down is easy. It’s a little more difficult to build things up

I like to think that my own Twitter thread already reflects the glass half-full outlook recommended by both Jessica and John.

Rather than just railing against news coverage that disgusts us, we need to praise and celebrate the good stuff. Particularly if that good stuff is on occasions rolling its sleeves up and floating enlightened solutions to problems.
If we want a different, more positive and constructive, sort of journalism, it starts with us.