Do the press simply not understand elections ?

Since Ian Gibson resigned his Norwich North seat a few weeks ago, the press have been making predictions and assumptions about Norwich which serve to underline that the press simply do not understand elections properly.

The very earliest reports locally on TV were about how the Green Party would the main threat in this seat whilst the national press also adopted this view, along with the view that it was a shoe in for the Tories. This was a line the press had decided upon and a view that evidence, campaigning and visits to Norwich would not change or alter. Yes, it was clear that the Tories would win this from the moment Gibson resigned, the press' mind was on this all being about the Greens, to the exclusion of Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP.

Take for example the comments made to me by a BBC producer when I was waiting to appear on 5 Live drive. He said "It's going to be difficult for your lot, being squeezed in to 4th by the Greens". Now I knew this wasn't going to happen from the amount of literature being produced and delivered, but the the journalists were not interested in the campaign. In their minds the starting positions of the parties was also the finishing position. In effect they cared not one jot about what was happening on the ground and the campaign, the canvassing, the leaflets were not important and would not get in the way of the story they wanted to perpetuate.

Perhaps the most hard done by party in this election was UKIP. BBC East should hang their heads in shame for doing a head to head debate amongst (as they called it) the four main candidates, excluding UKIP, despite UKIP polling far more votes across Norfolk in the Euro elections that the Green party. The fact that UKIP came in 4th place, well ahead of the Greens and not far behind the Lib Dems speaks volumes about the way the press sought to get the result they wanted and not the real result. The press had their mind set on a Green breakthrough despite the fact that the Greens had no real campaign at all. The only things the Greens actually did in the campaign was to launch a campaign pledge (which all the signatories broke), which the Lib Dems refused to sign simply because it was a meaningless pledge. But oh how the press loved this pledge. Why ? Because it allowed them to indulge their obsession with the Green Party.

It's not just the BBC though. Last week Rod Liddle made himself look like a prize tit by devoting a whole article in praise of the Green surge and breakthrough in Norwich North. Other newspapers too had fallen for this guff. I spoke to a Sky News producer yesterday at the count who was asking me how close the it was between the Greens and Labour. She was shocked when I told her the Greens were 5th. "Poor Rupert" the Sky News producer replied. "You've fallen for it too", I replied, and she had. The press had bought their own lie.

Witness early reports on Sky News yesterday which were effectively saying from the count that they expected a Tory majority of 2000 because of the impressive showing of UKIP and the Greens. I saw the BBC journalist listening and scribbling notes. I said to her, without giving anything away "Take what they are saying with a pinch of salt".

So many of you will be saying these are the words of an annoyed Lib Dem, and yes, in many ways I am annoyed at the way the Lib Dems were treated in this election. All the press stories were negative, fed to them by the opposition. BBC East again reported April Pond's moat, but very little of the positive stuff whilst allowing the opposition to slag of the Lib Dems for refusing to sign their joke pledge not to slag each other off. The BBC didn't seem to understand the irony in this situation. But BBC East also chose to praise each of the candidates in their introductions in the TV debate except for April Pond, with her introduction being about her house. Truly awful and rather pathetic journalism.

But I know I am not alone in my distrust of the way the press seek to tell the story they want rather than telling the real story. I was chatting to a Tory MP at the count yesterday and he told me that the press asked for a statement from him on something recently. He said the thing they were reporting was untrue, and he told them that in no uncertain words. He repeated that he knew it to be a lie, and the press' response was "We're reporting it anyway". So what is the point ?

It is little wonder that political blogs are now becoming preeminent when it comes to find out real political news. Not only do most political bloggers really understand politics, and by this I don't just mean policy, but I mean elections, campaigns and strategy. But they also know what is bullshit and what is genuine. Whilst people might resent Iain Dale's Tory bias, at least we know his political leanings and you can cut through the bits you don't like to get to the key elements of truth within what he writes.

I am no great fan of Guido Fawkes self congratulatory style and his obsession with being Guido rather than Paul Staines, but he does the sort of journalism that political journalists today simply cannot be bothered to do. No wonder they resent him so much. He puts so many of them to shame.

Similarly you may not like my bias, and I have been called an attack dog by some people whose views I don't greatly respect, but I think those reading this blog would have got a far greater insight in to what is happening in Norwich North than you ever would have from reading The Guardian or watching and listening to the BBC (or Sky), which is a shame as they are my TV channel and paper of choice. The other advantage of a blog is that you can send a comment to the blogger and get a response. Try doing this with the BBC. I wrote days ago about their debate and I have still not had a response.

So whilst we are constantly being told that politics needs to be cleaned up, lets not forget that those who report our politics are themselves not entirely honest in their reporting. The truth is not important to them because they work to their own agenda, the agenda agreed by the newspaper owners or producers in advance and the agenda which fits what they want the outcome to be.

Ultimately though the problem with the reporting of politics is that political journalists do not understand anything that happens outside of Westminster and the old style political "lobby" journalists don't understand elections.

Update : I am reminded of what a Tory said to me at the count yesterday which highlight the level of of political knowledge of the typical political correspondent. One major TV news channel said to the Tories that this is the sort of seat they should expect to win because it really should be a Tory seat anyway. When the Tory told the news channel that since the war the seat had been Tory for just 14 years, the reporter had no idea. It would have taken the reporter 5 minutes on wikipedia to find that out.


steve said...

Yes, UKIP were particularly hard done by.

I do also feel slightly sorry for Chris Ostrowski, April Pond and even Chloe Smith though. They were all reduced to caricatures of themselves by media looking for a headline.

Our media - especially the BBC - is awful. I would much rather have a wide political panel of obsessive bloggers with known biases than any bland political correspondent trying to give a 'fair picture'.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see much in the press warning of the impending credit crunch or excess in the city before it happened - I think their credibility is flawed.

But even the BBC has gone tabloid. We are constantly told what to think about the news by what I call "opinion-casters", often with well known political affiliations themselves and totally unaccountable.

As Clive James said on question time that the media believe they run the country.

We have to take the challenge to the media eg "if the media obey their paymasters and delusions of unaccountable paternal rule, and the next election doesn't yield clear choice and debate over tax and spending choices, and political reform - the public reaction in the aftermath may be dangerous".

Anonymous said...

And so we have it. The Lib Dems and teachers, the two biggest whingers in the country converging in one keyboard to produce the self pity and politics of blame as seen above.

As always the fault is with the BBC or the papers or the alignment of Mars...

Clegg is failing. Seems there's a lot YOU don't understand about politics.

Cllr Ross Grant said...

I agree with a great deal of what you say. I was the agent for Chris Heaton-Harris and the Conservatives at the Leicester South by-election. I was a local activist then, having stood in the local elections in 2003.

In the campaign HQ I often had to brief journalists who turned up off the train having done little or no research on the seat, to explain it to them.

They were vaguely interested, but generally had already made their mind up before they had gotten on the train. It was difficult to break out of the media narrative.

Every election I have been involved in since my dealings with the national media have been the same. There is a media zeitgeist that is almost impossible to change. Any message you put out is seen through the lens of that predetermined narrative.

The thing that has changed is blogging. In the campaign office I work in we no longer check newspapers or TV to find out news from the front line. Instead we check through the local blogs, and the national blogs with good connections.

What will be interesting is how long the national media can hold out before they realise they have to adapt to the new reality. The longer they hold out though the longer their credibility will be damaged and the fewer of us will still be reading and watching when they do change.

Thanks for being one of our local sources during Norwich North.

Benji said...

A fine post. Since following elections online last year,it is noticeable how you have to go to the political blogs and discussion forums to get a real sense of how a campaign is going. The main news channels seem to deal only in bulletpoints,and like you,I hate the way that political analysts already have a preconceived ideal of how an election should play out,rather than letting it speak for itself.

None of the above said...

The only 'political' journalist worth any salt was the late great Hunter S. Thompson

His iconoclastic style said far more about politicians and the state of things than conventional reporting could ever say. He knew his subject. And he meant everything he ever wrote. He certainly puts Rod Liddle and co into perspective.


Anonymous said...

Now why do you think the stories in the press about Lib/Dems were negative? The Lib/Dem campaign was unremittingly negative, whether it was attacking the Labour candidate as a career politician, or attacking the Tory on the spurious grounds that she hadn't called for James Clappison to resign, or the obligatory bar chart, the figures for which bear no relation to reality and the bars of which bear no relation to the made-up figures.

I don't expect you to understand the problem most people have with that: it is the pure milk of Rennardism and it has served the Lib/Dems well for decades, or at least it has up to this Parliament.

Spot on though with the BBC ramping of the Greens. I suspect they had looked at the make-up of the City Council and its Euro result, decided Norwich North [which must be, surely, entirely within Norwich - well it's in the name and everything, isn't it?] must be pretty Green and ran with it. I'd leave it to paranoid Tories to say the Beeb is biased towards the Hampstead-Marxism Watermelons etc.

Norfolk Blogger said...

To the first anonymous poster, if you read my posting properly you'd see that I blame all the news media and if you had the wit to search my whol blog under the tag "bbc" you'd see that I am a staunch advocate of the BBC, so clearly you are a just a nameless troll who like hurling abuse under the tag of "anonymous"

Stephen Glenn said...

Have to agree Nich. Every by election north of the border seems to immediately become and remain a battle between the SNP and Labour even Dunfermline and West Fife was despite us placing 2nd in 2005. On polling day they were still discussing the SNPs chances of taking the seat when all of us on the grund were confident it was ours for the taking.

If I reacall you could still get 7-1 on Willie Rennie winning at 10pm on pollling day, because of the misunderstanding of the ground war, even some Labour activists were tempted by that.

Mark Reckons said...

Great post Nich.

I watched the first ten minutes of the TV debate online a few days ago and was actually shocked at the introductions. I am so glad to see someone else talking about this.

Every candidate was talked up in the intro, except April who was introduced as "..and April Pond, the Liberal Democrat candidate who has a moat."

WTF is that supposed to even mean? I know Iain got all excited about this fact and the Tory blogosphere in general had a collective orgasm when the information came to light but Douglas Hogg was in trouble because he used our money to clean his moat, not because he had one.

Of course we lost and came a poor third place and we need to try and do better but if that introduction was at all representative of the kind of coverage we and April were getting then it cannot have helped and I don't understand how the BBC can think it is an acceptable way to introduce a candidates debate.

Is it this specifically that you complained about to the BBC Nich?

Thomas Byrne said...

Without this blog, I wouldn't have won my lovely bet where I won £120.

Your insight makes some of us a bit of money. Many many thanks Nich.

Benji said...

'Fear and Loathing:On the Campaign Trail' is one of the best political books ever written.

Matt Wardman said...

Good post.

Here's to paywalls on the news and local political blogs/reporting.

Anonymous said...

SpelthorneGuru (Lib Dem) writes..

Spot on commentary. I now tend to visit Guido less and less and certainly don't bother to read the hundreds of comments to each post.

The comments appear to be all about how bad Brown is (with the usual foul language). It will be interesting to see how Guido operates with a likely but not certain Tory majority gov.

The media have always gone for a pre-determined line. From 1992 to 1997 it was how wonderful Blair was and what a shame the Lib Dems will be squeezed.

Shock horror at us getting 46 seats.

Now the commentary is how wonderful Cameron is. You have to live with it. The press clearly respect Vince Cable because he is often doing opinion pieces in papers like the Daily Mail!!!!!
Swings and roundabouts.

Norfolk Blogger said...

I too made a lot of money on the Dunfermline result because Norman Lamb had been there and said it was looking extremely good. I wish I had put more on but the press persuaded me not to put another £20 on it as they talked up the SNP until about 30 minutes before the declaration.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 0, in that case!

Only days before the election BBC prime-time news actually suggested that April Pond was "resented" by local people because she had a moat.

When interviewed, unlike the Tory, Labour And Green candidates she had to defend herself for having a moat, saying that she had lived in a caravan for some time too.

If that was not feedback from the ground then it was BBC tabloid journalism!

John said...

Very interesting piece until I read that the Guardian and the BBC are your preferred choices of paper and broadcaster. Keep using them because if you, and your LibDem colleagues, continue to believe their Londoncentric PC claptrap it will mean: "Lib Dems losing here at the GE"

Anonymous said...

I had to be out and about when the result was announced. Came in, watched a random BBC TV News broadcast which said the Tories won. Gave the totals for 4 parties -- Con, Lab, LD and Green. I only learned of the UKIP position from the web. What do they think they are doing?

Norfolk Blogger said...

John, my parents but the Daily Mail, so don't rush to judgement.

Plenty said...

Spot on, has been thinking about writing this type of article for a while, but you beat me to it. Great stuff!


alistair said...

I have to agree with much of what you said. The London media did seem to have the hots for the greens. Can I suggest two reasons , the first is that the green policy's on recycling, saving the planet and all those sort of things (remember when the LibDems were the only party who believed in those) make them feel good. The second and perhaps more sinister is they wanted for their own reasons to talk down the LibDems to make sure Labour finished second. I wonder if it is the first how that might effect coverage at the general election? Can I say how great it is to see that you seem to back enjoying bloging. As a Conservative, yours and Alex Mortimer seem to be the only two LibDem blogs I read

Norfolk Blogger said...

Alistair, thanks.

Psephologue said...

To be devil's advocate, there is a need for an article entitled "Do political activists simply not understand journalists?"

The press (of all colours) regarded the NN by-election as national drama. Cameron and Brown were the leading characters not the local candidates. Everyone and everything else had importance only in so far as there was an impact on the main players.

The press also had a customer base to whom they had to sell stories. OK NN was not the death of Wacko Jacko nor is it the last resting place of Madeleine McCann, but the stories had to capture and hold the imagination and interest of readers.

Brown being punished is one such story. Which reads better: Labour beaten by the Greens or Labour pushed into third by the Lib Dems?

Moats are also a matter of interest to the public, if not a matter of public interest. April Pond having a moat is simply a damned good story - almost a joke. It will be have discussed and repeated in every bar in the land.

Political activists should not be shouting foul when their carefully prepared campaign messages are not advertised in editorial. They must learn what it is the journalists want and then supply it. In this situation the journalists are the activists customers.

Joe Public said...

Hat Tipped by Iain D, so curious, and read on.

Nice piece. Keep up the good work.

By the next General Election, it will be the Blogosphere, not the MSM, that has the greatest influence on the outcome.

Siberian Tory said...

Your spot on.

Just listening the the Westminster hour and the consensus among their journalist panel is turnout is low due to the expenses scandel.

Norwich North turnout 45%

Average election turnout 2001-2005 : 37.9%

17% less than the 2001 election.

I think it's amazing 45% was achieved 10 months from an election.

Where did I find this info. From the House of Commons library research paper 05/34 which I found by googling "by-election turnout" it was the third result...

Their laziness is stunning.

The bloggers are all over them like a rash.

Come the revolution Nick.

Anonymous said...

Nich did you think UKIP were going to beat the Greens?

If so why did you not mention this before the election if I am not mistaken?

Young Mr. Brown said...

Great post, and absolutely correct about the press.

However, you could make a couple of changes.

Your headline was "Do the press simply not understand elections ?"

That should have been "Do the press simply not understand anything?"

And you wrote "I am reminded of what a Tory said to me at the count yesterday which highlight the level of of political knowledge of the typical political correspondent."

You could have simply deleted both uses of the word 'political'.