Political journalism in Britain is suffering from an “anti-democratic” fever, is too obsessed with blogging and needs to have more respect for Britain’s elected leaders according to Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee.
The veteran social affairs commentator was speaking at the annual Bagehot Lecture organised by Queen Mary College, University of London.
In a speech entitled “The art of the column” Toynbee said: “If you are going to report on the world of politics, you need to have a strong instinctive sympathy for the political process and the very difficult task politicians face in getting anything done at all. “Even if you lean strongly to the right or the left in your views, you need an underlying respect for the business of politics.” She stressed that columnists should not be silent when errors are made by public figures, and cited the 2003 Iraq invasion as “without doubt” the worst of her reporting lifetime, but added that newspapers are in danger of demonising elected leaders.
“If you start out assuming that all politicians are ill-intentioned knaves and bounders who are all out to feather their own nests, you will illuminate nothing for your readers and discover very little of interest,” she said.
“You will be adding to the dangerous anti-democratic mood that is creeping up on us at the moment where every lazy comedian or chat show host regurgitates the current knee-jerk view that Westminster is a palace of rogues who should all be sent packing.
“The right-wing papers are perplexed and affronted that Labour can have been in power so long despite their daily assault. The press is often near hysterical in its hatred of Labour – just look at the ever-more demented Mail and Express.” “There really is no point in becoming a political commentator if you despise the business, no more point than there would be if you became a football writer and you hated football.” Although Toynbee conceded that she is no “insider” with powerful friends and has never worked as a lobby correspondent, she said her second golden rule was “spend some time as a reporter”.
Human side to politics
Toynbee spent seven years as the BBC’s social affairs editor in the ’80s and early ’90s and said the hardest job for her was to wrestle political stories away from the BBC’s Westminster correspondents so her team could tell viewers how policies would affect their lives.
“People who spend too much time in the lobby sometimes forget that rows, cabals and caucuses and plots are also about issues of substance,” she said.
“Most political columnists these days are overtly and strongly opinionated, wearing their views on their sleeves as their brand. Many behave like mini-governments in exile. They’re part of the political weaponry of their proprietors.
“The world of media is becoming an ever-noisier and brasher place with ever more competition to be heard among the great cacophony of views. And that’s before you even click on the internet and get that great explosion of blogging rawness. The quiet reasoned voice does seem to get trampled under the elephant heard of opinionators.
“But I’m well aware of the insidious pressure to keep turning up the volume, to shout louder. Editors tend to nod with more approval over a piece that will really get the readers going.”
No blog threat
And as for the “cacophony” of voices on the internet, it seems Toynbee may be less enthusiastic than some of her Guardian colleagues to join the revolution. She argues that her craft is “not yet threatened” by the huge rise in the influence of political blogs and sites such as MySpace “People say: ‘What’s the difference between a blog and column anyway? Isn’t MySpace just as good as the Guardian comment pages?’ I think not. There is a skill in crafting a column with a beginning, a middle and an end, a coherent argument and at least three facts readers don’t know, preferably information gleaned from talking to the leading players in the case.
“There is a risk that the style of the blogosphere is dragging us all along to shout louder. It may be that the short burst of opinion is all anyone can absorb and the longer column becomes too much of a time-investment.
“A number of us columnists are anxious about it because it is a different style. It’s not crafted, you haven’t had the time to ring someone up, they want it now. There’s a danger that it becomes more opinionated.”
Torrent of abuse
Toynbee, who has written about the abuse she has received from bloggers, said one by-product of the internet age has been that when her columns are posted on Guardian Unlimited, the abuse pours in almost immediately. “I have around 50 arch-enemies who seem to get up at about five in the morning – they have obviously never bought The Guardian, they wouldn’t contaminate their fingers with it, and they are right-wingers who hate The Guardian and everything it stands for.
“Letters used to be quite polite, emails were a bit ruder, but this is of another dimension because you can’t answer back unless in public because they’re anonymous. I think that’s wrong – they should have to put their own names up there. It would make them stop and think twice if they thought their colleagues and families would see what they wrote. Anonymity brings out real mischief in us. It is a debased discourse.” When asked why she is such a hate figure for right-wingers, Toynbee said: “There’s an old traditional thing if you’re a woman, middle class, middle-aged – it goes right back to the beginnings of the Labour Party. You are a class traitor.
“They really, really hate me. But if you look at middle class women in the Labour Party like Tessa Jowell and Harriet Harman, these women have had far more personal, harsh, vile criticism of them non-stop from Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail than the men have. It goes with the territory.
“But you have to read the Mail once a week. You have to know what they’re scared of.”