Journalists â€"not guilty” of crimes against politicians

By Wale Azeez

Not for the first time, journalism found itself in the dock for
crimes against politics – but on this occasion was found not guilty.

In a mock trial at the Edinburgh Television Festival, presided over
by the former Tory MP Michael Portillo, television coverage of politics
was accused of being responsible for “fomenting public cynicism, apathy
and disengagement from the political process”.

Former ITV News
political editor Nick Robinson stood in defence of broadcast journalism
against former Downing Street spokesman Tim Allen, in an engaging
session that included four witnesses and a packed audience, of whom 75
per cent backed the defence.

The trial came at an important time
in the calendar of political coverage on British television. Robinson
took over as political editor of the BBC this week, often called the
most important job in political broadcasting.

It also follows comments last week from the man he is replacing, Andrew Marr, about “trivial” and “personality” stories in modern political reporting.

The
prosecution opened with a video clip of the now infamous exchange
between Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and Respect MP George
Galloway on election night, to demonstrate the presumed contempt with
which journalists treat politicians.

“There are flaws in the way
politics is reported in this country today and we should do something
about it,” Allen said, adding: “Radio and television coverage of
politics doesn’t see its role as a mission to explain, but to destroy,
in a pernicious culture in which journalists pit themselves against
politicians.”

Allen backed his arguments by calling John Lloyd,
the Financial Times journalist and author whose book What the Media Are
Doing To Our Politics accused journalists of causing public cynicism;
and former ABC News London correspondent Richard Gizbert, who thought
British political journalism “bootlegged opinion with facts.”

Robinson
countered with two clips from ITV News and Dispatches from the Labour
Party campaign trail: one in which the journalist doorstepped the Prime
Minister to question the party’s assertion that the Tories would cut
public health spending, and the other in which Labour ‘supporters’
formed a human barricade, preventing journalists from asking questions
after a photocall.

Robinson asked: “Is it possible that the failure to find weapons of
mass destruction may have been a factor in brewing cynicism? Or the
introduction of top-up fees despite a manifesto pledge? Or finding
September 11 to be ‘a good day’ to bury bad news?

He called Sky political editor Adam Boulton and Newsnight editor
Peter Barron as witnesses. Boulton said he had been “constantly lied
to” by politicians during the election.

Closing, Robinson said
politicians and journalists ran the risk of “appearing like a
squabbling couple in public arguing about why they don’t get on”. He
said: “I agree that by recognising we have a problem, we all have small
steps to take to reconcile our differences.”

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