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Gone and largely forgotten

Posted by Richard Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On 31 August, we picked up a "tirade" from Julia Langdon, in The Daily Telegraph, on the employment of 3,259 PR men by the government.

Readers will recall, though, that we were somewhat less than sympathetic with our Julia, not least because we felt her protest was simply a space-filler. There was no real commitment to seeking change and, as long as the situation suited the media, they would confine themselves to ritual complaints that would soon be forgotten.

In the letters column today, of the same newspaper, there is some support for our view from Christopher Jones, the Parliamentary correspondent for BBC Radio and Television News between 1964 and 1989.

What he has to say is that political journalists "should also look at the motes in their own eyes."

Since the premiership of Harold Wilson, governments have made every effort to control political reporting through the lobby system – a system that is based entirely on secrecy and unattributable gossip and rumour; the antithesis of good journalism.

This system means, of course, that politicians – and especially governments – hold the whip hand, since they can act against any journalists who break the secrecy code, while journalists accept the system in order to keep their credibility.

It also means that the proceedings of Parliament – the reason why politicians are at Westminster – now go entirely unreported (except by the BBC, which has a charter obligation to do so). Only the weekly nonsense of Prime Minister's Questions is ever covered, plus the occasional appearance of some unfortunate fall guy before an entirely toothless departmental select committee, or sketch-writers portraying politicians as figures of fun. Journalists should find it hard to complain about a PR system which is set up, at enormous taxpayers' expense, to feed them with their livelihood.
This is not quite the point we made – which was that whole tranches of the media rely for their copy on the never-ending supply of free government press releases – but it is a good one all the same.

And the net conclusion is the same. As long as the current government PR system suits the media – which indeed it does – we will see no fundamental change. Largely proving the point, the indignation so forcefully expressed by Mz Langdon is gone and largely forgotten. In due course, she will get her cheque for writing her piece and that will be the end of the matter.

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