Give us your best guess

I have a stock reply whenever a government minister moans that that the media is dragging politics into disrepute.

They say we should give the public facts, not speculation or spin. Quite right, I say, but it would be a damn sight easier if they gave us the facts in the first place.

Instead, as Benjamin Disraeli once reminded us, “we get lies, damned lies and statistics”.

We get spin, we get hectoring and bullying. And we get silence. Take last week as the Official Secrets Act prosecution of GCHQ civil servant Katharine Gun was so spectacularly and controversially dropped.

Listen to the first report from Nick Robinson, ITV News’s excellent political editor. Nothing to do with us, said the Home Office. No comment from Nunber 10. No explanation, let alone justification, from anywhere.

All you can do is guess, said Robinson. So what is your best guess, asked his newscaster colleague. So he gave us his best guess. And who can blame him? It took two days to get the Attorney General into Parliament to mumble a statement explaining how there was little likelihood of a successful prosecution.

Then came Clare Short’s astonishing, bumbling Today revelations that shocked no less than John Humphrys.

What was the Westminster village to make of it? Let alone the rest of us in the media or the public whose money paid for the war and whose sons and daughters risked their lives.

You do not need to be personally involved or to have been an anti-war protester to start scratching your head.

It led to just the kind of speculation across broadcasting and print of which politicians complain. At least half the population wants to move on from Iraq as much as the Prime Minister wishes to put it behind him.

The war was last year’s story for most people. Most editors would prefer to chase readers, listeners and viewers by moving the agenda on, but they cannot let them forget it… because politicians won’t let us.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, once a journalist and editor himself and the father of an editor, dismissed journalists as teenage scribblers.

John Major, the former Prime Minister, who arguably suffered worse than the current incumbent, found a platform on Breakfast with Frost.

The public was fed up with reading speculation as fact, he said. The media would stand much better in public opinion if it concentrated on accuracy and quality, he insisted.

Change “media” to “politicians” and we might just share the sentiment.

He was following a breathlessly honest Piers Morgan who explained the Daily Mirror’s soft-shoe shuffle over the serious agenda following the 9/11 events in New York. Ditching celebrities worked, he said, as people took life more seriously for a while.

Now it’s back to the celebs but the problem was that the blanket coverage is a matter of who is exploiting whom. The papers and the stars need to be more honest with one another, said Morgan.

Try substituting “politicians” for “celebrities”.

Morgan argued that TV created monsters and the tabloids had to respond. Isn’t that true of politics as much as celebrity? He also suggested that putting up the price of his paper might help his sales. If you keep slashing the price people begin to value your product less and therefore stop buying, he said.

Heresy, or does he have a point? Another dimension to Major’s emphasis on quality perhaps? But back to the facts. What are journalists supposed to do when politicians are so reluctant to provide them, or even their version of the facts? They leave us all guessing.

Robinson and his colleagues in broadcasting and print provide a superb service. Left without “facts”, their duty to the public is to use expertise built on experience to deliver their interpretation.

It should be surprising that their analysis is usually closer to the mark than politicians care, or dare, to admit.

The last week has shown, to pinch Richard Littlejohn’s phrase, that you simply do not need to make it up.

Journalists certainly don’t need to sensationalise when politicians write the script as they go along. Humphrys’ controlled incredulity was all the shock horror we needed.

There was a time, at the height of the Cold War, when a spy scandal could be a godsend. Short of splash as off-stone and train times loomed, stories could be turned round in double-quick time. A spy story would never be confirmed nor denied.

Signing the Official Secrets Act was taken seriously as was Cabinet confidentiality.

The need for security legislation was rarely questioned.

It also meant that governments could too easily hide their embarrassments behind the veil of acceptable secrecy.

The world has changed. The media market has been transformed by the appetites of 24-hour news channels.

Political spin was not invented by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. It was honed to new heights (or depths) of professionalism.

Civil servants, Cabinet ministers and, dare we say, journalists are no longer as fawning and subservient as they were in the days when prime ministers were asked if they had anything to say to the BBC. Journalists ask proper questions now.

Already this year we have had ITN journalists threatened with jail for refusing to reveal sources to the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Katharine Gun lived under shadow of imprisonment.

Technically, Clare Short could be prosecuted or suffer political excommunication.

The latter might not be a bad thing but at least Gun and Short have touched off a review of the Official Secrets Act.

We should be elated yet afraid… very afraid. The nonsense of the past week makes the case for reform. What we need is closely defined legislation that adequately protects our national interest. What the current farce allows is for political, corporate or military mismanagement and wrong-doing to be covered up.

I have long argued for an Official Openness Act. That would require information to be revealed unless there was an overriding public interest in not disclosing it. Definitions of public interest in this instance would not be so difficult to formulate as some claim. It should be prosecuted with the vigour applied to official secrets in the past.

The review will not give us that, of course. The Government failed to deliver the Freedom of Information Act that we fought for together while Labour was in opposition.

The inadequate statute that comes into force in 2005 will only help, if along with the Campaign for Freedom of Information, we keep striving to improve it in its application.

The danger is that a reworked OSA will be dressed up in the language of anti-terrorism legislation, abandoning juries and open reporting.

Gun and Short could be good for journalism if they have set a fashion.

The review of the act must be resisted with all our energy if, as is most likely, Downing Street merely aims to plug loopholes by creating a Stop the Political Embarrassment Act.

Commercial and professional rivalry in TV news is as powerful as in any sector of the media but two things struck me about the RTS Journalism Awards at the London Hilton last week.

One, the applause for the winners who produce the excellent reporting that makes British TV so good was long and genuine.

Two, the call to stand shoulder to shoulder to resist post-Hutton critics of the media, and to ensure we can continue informing the public, won the loudest cheer.

They are lessons for later this month when it will be the turn of the press to scrub up for Press Gazette’s awards in the same venue.  Bob Satchwell is executive director of the Society of Editors and a former editor of the Cambridge Evening News and assistant editor of the News of the World Next week: Janice Turner

by guest columnist Bob Satchwell

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