I went to a really interesting conference on Friday, organised by the POLIS research centre at the London School of Economics and entitled “The POLIS Journalism Conference 2011: Media and Power “.
It started with a keynote by Helen Boaden, head of news at the BBC, in which she talked a lot about impartiality, and the BBC complaints procedure. I then followed a fascinating session on “Political journalism – is it working?” with Carolyn Quinn of the BBC PM programme and those involved in the Number 10 media set-up in the past, Lance Price and Simon Lewis. I then attended the least impressive session of the day on “An Informed Society?”, finishing with “Has the press lost its power?” which got us right back on track.
I’m not going to report on all the sessions – if you want to see what I thought at the time, I was tweeting a lot, and there are many other interesting tweets to be found on the #polis11 hashtag. But I thought it might be helpful to set out the main insights I got from the conference.
Lance Price, former Director of Communications for the Labour Party, was very frank about the relationship between political editors at major British papers and the Labour Party communication machine – to the extent that Alastair Campbell “wrote” headlines and opening paragraphs. Price spoke of the “complicity” between the spokespeople and the journalists. Simon Lewis, former Director of Communications at Number 10, under Gordon Brown, spoke very forcefully in favour of opening up the parliamentary press lobby system, perhaps through televising the briefings. The experience related by both men contrasts so sharply with my experience working for the Commission, in the two different milieux: Brussels and London. Even in Brussels there is never that level of intertwining. Working out why that is could be my master’s thesis, I reckon, but one possible explanation that could be worth digging into is that power is so much more diffuse through the EU machinery. Talking to the Commission gives just one aspect – there’s also MEPs and Member States to consider, whereas in the UK, with a whipped House of Commons, the Government of the day has much more control over the agenda and much more individual power.
The other very enjoyable and thought-provoking session was on “Has the press lost its power?”. Well chaired by Paul Waugh of politicshome, it started out with the provocative assertion that the appointment of Craig Oliver – ex-BBC – to the Director of Communications job for Cameron showed that the newspapers had lost their grip. I think maybe what the debate lacked was clarity about whoever this power was being wielded over. In simple terms, I think the dailies are less influential on the general public than they were even a generation ago, but they still hold sway over what you could call the Westminster Village, the City and the Brussels Bubble. In terms of general impact, a policy referenced on EastEnders or the Archers is going to be bigger than something on the front page of the FT, but that’s not always the way it’s seen.
Anyway, many thanks to the POLIS team and all their speakers for what was an informative and enjoyable day.