'The role of political editor has become more like a skating judge'

By
Julie Tomlin When Elinor Goodman announced she was quitting ITN, and
her job as political editor for Channel 4 News, a draft invite to her
leaving party asked people to celebrate her “awardwinning”

career.

Surprisingly,
particularly for a journalist picked by former ITN editorin- chief
Richard Tait as a member of his dream team of the last 40 years (Press
Gazette, 25 November), Goodman says she hasn’t bagged a single award.

Until this week, that is. On Tuesday she was named political broadcaster of 2005 by the Political Studies Association.

“It’s unnerving because it’s slightly redolent of aging actresses,” says Goodman.

“But I suppose it’s good to end with one.”

Perhaps
Goodman couldn’t expect to be in the spotlight when presenter Jon Snow
is virtually synonymous with the programme and often carries out the
big-name interviews.

But Goodman says she has spent most of her
career avoiding the kind of personality journalism that has grown so
exponentially since she joined Channel 4 News in 1988.

“I’ve
never really sought a high profile. I suppose I’m slightly unusual in
that,” says Goodman. “I’m against personality journalism – given the
choice of appearing in vision and appearing behind a picture of the
House of Commons I would go for the House of Commons as a voice-over.

“We
now have the cult of personality just as much in journalism as in
politics or entertainment, but I’ve always been a bit wary of it,” she
continues. “I think the people you are writing about are more important
than the person who is writing about them. It makes me uneasy when
journalists become too much of a story or become lured into too much
interpretation. It’s a very simplistic creed and difficult to put into
practice, but my thesis has always been that you try and give readers
or viewers the facts and leave them to make up their minds.”

Having
spent her career picking over the policies of politicians as both a
print and a broadcast journalist, Goodman was asked by Jim Knight, the
countryside minister, to chair a commission on affordable rural housing
almost immediately after she left ITN.

“I grabbed at the
opportunity because I wanted to do something for the countryside,” says
Goodman. She originally gave up her Channel 4 News job in order to
spend more time in the countryside, but her four-day week that gave her
time to spend with her horses, animals and books now seems a luxury.

“I
said I wanted a challenge, but this is mad. It’s as big a challenge as
I could have asked for,” she says. “Television usually gives you six
hours to get to grips with an issue and I’ve got six months, which is
fairly mind-blowing.

“The concentration span is very different. I
wanted to do a policy. After all those years of somehow managing to
imply that if I was in charge life would be better, it was about time I
had a go at policy.

“I think when the thing comes out I’ll have to be prepared to stand up and be asked some very difficult questions,”

she continues. “But I’ve had good training because I know where the questions will come from.

“It’s a completely different set of skills and this is much more demanding.”

“I look nostalgically back at the idea of a four-minute package on the day – that seems like a piece of cake now,”

she says.

Since
leaving she has worked for Sky News and also BBC Radio’s Week in
Westminster. Her hope of spending more time at home may not have been
realised yet, but the latter has given her an opportunity to do what
she enjoyed most about her work for Channel 4 – having time to examine
policy.

“I was fortunate at Channel 4 because we had rather more
space to put things in context than you do if you are working for the
News at Ten or the Daily Mirror,” she says.

The role of political
editor changed enormously during her time covering Westminster. “This
isn’t a personal criticism of those who do it, but I think the role of
the political editor has become much more like a skating judge. You are
asked ‘how did the prime minister do?’ and you more or less put up the
card saying 9.4 because he managed a double salko,” says Goodman.

The televising of Parliament and the Freedom of Information Act have changed the nature of political reporting, she says.

In
her early days at Channel 4 News she would put together packages in the
bedroom of a flat close to the Houses of Parliament – a far cry from
the media hub that is the BBC’s Millbank studio today.

The
development of the two-way – in response to the explosion in 24-hour
news as well as the desire to establish some correspondents as trusted
figures – has been the source of the biggest change in political
journalism on TV, she claims.

“It probably wasn’t very
professional and made me deeply unpopular with programme editors
because they had a programme to fill, but I had to be pulled kicking
and screaming to do a two-way if I didn’t actually have anything new to
say,” says Goodman. “It was probably only because I had been there such
a long time that I got away with it. Some of my colleagues have to
spend hours on doorsteps filling time.

“It’s a delicate balancing
act; being a guide helping someone understand what’s going on and
putting things in context, and giving your own political and personal
opinions. Sometimes I think it’s not so much that political editors
want to do it but that they are asked to do it too much, to act as
judge and jury.

“The thing I feel most strongly is that you have
got to somehow manage to be tough with politicians and show their
inconsistencies and draw things out of them, and yet I don’t think you
should treat all politicians with contempt.

“What I’m not very
happy about is the way that in some parts of the media the whole
political class is treated as guilty of the offences of one or two of
them.

“You can’t go round telling people politicians aren’t to be
trusted, they’re lazy sods who don’t do any work and they’re fiddling
their expenses, if at the end of it you want to say you should vote for
somebody. You have to accept some responsibility for low turn-out.”

Beginning
at Channel 4 News when Margaret Thatcher was still in power, Goodman
was witness to the increased efforts to influence and control the
media. The Conservative leader was the first to grasp its significance,
she believes.

“Because I was on Channel 4 and I had the space to
do it, I was one of the early people to talk about spin and say why
people were doing things,” says Goodman, who admits to feeling some
guilt about the role she played.

“I wouldn’t say the soundbite
was born in my era, but it certainly reached a hearty adolescence in my
time,” she says. “Thatcher was one of the first politicians who really
grasped the importance of the media.

“I sometimes think it was
too easy to go on about spin and it is much harder to write about
policy. In a way I feel slightly guilty because there’s nothing like a
spin story to get the newsroom going. I know I sound like Alastair
Campbell when I say that, but I do think we tended to focus too much on
politics and the scheming behind the scenes rather than on policy.”

“It
was all good fun and I think people do enjoy all that sort of stuff,
but I’m slightly worried that we disappeared up our own backsides with
such a lot of talk of spin.”

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