Will the Tories take television seriously?

Politicians usually measure their authority in column inches

BACK when Nick Pisani was editing Question Time, he achieved the great coup of persuading Davids Cameron and Davis to debate together on the show. The Times reported Pisani saying: "It will give the Conservative Party members who have a vote, and the wider public, a great opportunity to assess which of the two they think will make the most effective leader." And now a few months later, Pisani has achieved the great coup of running the Conservative Party's communications. As Harry Hill might have observed — what are the chances of that?

While one of my eyebrows remains in the elevated position, Pisani's appointment nonetheless offers the interesting prospect that the Tories are going to be the party to finally take television seriously.

Since forever, politicians in office have ignored the fact that most people get their news from telly. They've also ignored the fact that television is under an obligation to exercise impartiality and fairness, and by ignoring it, they've chipped away at the medium, turning political journalism on TV into a sophisticated form of second-guessing.

Television is a relatively ‘clean' channel of communication for politicians. Political journalists such as the BBC's Nick Robinson or Five's Andy Bell are hardly poodles expecting a good tummy-tickling, but nor are they opinion-mongers looking to twist politicians' words to fit a pre-ordained ideological formula (unless you're Jack Straw — see below). Sky's Adam Boulton does not treat his guests like Fox's Bill O'Reilly.

And television offers wider opportunities too. Boris Johnson is regularly featured on Have I Got News For You, sometimes even appearing as a guest on the programme.

Michael Gove is known to millions of toddlers as a stunt double for Archie from Balamory.

But TV does have its drawbacks. Television is on the record. And that means Government has to be prepared to come out of the closet, abandon cosy relationships conducted behind closed doors, and speak to the public openly. A frightening prospect for ministers and civil servants, who love nothing more than empty chairing TV programmes.

Engaging with the public through television might just be the way to establish the connection with voters that the Cameron crowd needs to transform the Conservative Party's future. According to recent research, 65 per cent of Britons get most of their news from the box, compared to the 19 per cent who get it from papers. For politicians in power who like to measure their authority in column inches, the message still isn't getting through — getting your name in the paper isn't the same as being read.

If Pisani can get the Tories to tune into television, he'll be doing them, and us, a favour. And if they ever leave the wilderness of opposition, and carry the habit of communicating through the box into government, we might just refresh our political culture.

AS A journalist, I always feel uncomfortable about trust. I've always used ‘trusting' as a euphemism for ‘stupid'. So when Ofcom produces a study that says more than three-quarters of the population trust TV and radio news, and less than half trust newspapers, it's hard to know how to respond. Should broadcast journalists slap each other on the back? Or do we slap the audience in the face, and remind them of the immortal words of Otter in Animal House: "You trusted us — you fucked up."

I'm with Otter, and so too it would seem are the good folk of News 24, whose pundit conveyor-belt carries hopeful job candidates from the vibrant bustle of Wood Lane reception to the obscurity of a rolling news channel.

In fact, the much-repeated story of how IT job seeker Guy Goma substituted for IT columnist Guy Kewney on live TV is a tiny parable of reportage for our times. Goma, you may recall, took a while to hit his stride in a studio interview with Karen Bowerman, thinking that it was a twisted human resources plot to test his mettle. (Maybe they should wheel Karen out when they're interviewing for the editor of Panorama.)

But here's the parable. First, the BBC screws up. Then a journalist, who is also a blogger, gets a story about himself half wrong via the net. The national and international media then repeat the mistake across newspapers, agency wires and websites. And when at last journalism gets it right, there isn't a scintilla of apology for previous errors. A minute's silence then, as we remember journalism's sacred oath — "as long as you get it right in the end, and no one dies…"

JACK STRAW, last seen playing Goofy to Condoleezza Rice's Minnie Mouse, lambasts BBC newsreaders for earning too much money and prancing round the studio. Also indulging in a bit of Parliamentary Beeb-bashing is Chris Mullin, a man so determined to improve the standards of TV journalism that he left it. Mullin thinks a tabloid virus is infecting the BBC.

If it is, then the global supply of retro-viral earnestness is stockpiled behind the desk of BBC4's The World.

Straw's attacks follow in a fine tradition of politicians picking on those who cannot defend themselves. Don't expect to see the recently sidelined Leader of the Commons taking on any of the political heavyweights actually campaigning through print against his Government. That might require convictions and courage.

Meanwhile you probably won't have noticed the subliminal ‘Vote Conservative' message running repeatedly through this column. I'd ask you kindly to ignore it, at least for the next few months, until I can nail down the contractual details of my new post as Gravesend Conservative Association's director of communications.

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