Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cards on the table

On balance it probably reflects well on the British political blogosphere that a discussion of the inherent biases and compromises of source-based political reporting versus the liberation of blogging made its way onto Newsnight last night. The centerpiece was an interview with Guardian reporter Michael White and Guido Fawkes, appearing as himself. In an ill-advised move, Guido insisted on appearing only in the dark and on being referred to by his pseudonym. Mr Power has the video clip and Tim Ireland has an invaluable transcript.

One must acknowledge a core of truth to Guido's critique that reporting based on behind the scences contacts with insiders can be corrupting. This makes for an interesting compare and contrast with the US experience. On the one hand, such reporting is equally endemic in the US, and this style was one of the other things on trial along with Scooter Libby a few weeks ago: Bogus WMD intelligence fed in morsels to favoured sources, grabbing the headlines when the war fever was at its highest, with the debunking following only in lower profile later. We could note many examples of media-political pillowtalk that surely have an effect on what the public is allowed to see; consider for example Dan Senor and Campbell Brown.

But anyway, it's still possible that the culture has been less damaging in the UK than in the US and thus that Guido's isolation of it as the problem is misplaced. We'd suggest 2 mitigating factors in the UK context.

First, less slavishness to the "objective reporter" model in political coverage. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has joked, barely, that if the Republican National Committee put out a press release claiming that the Earth was flat, the next days headline would be "Opinions differ on shape of Earth." One of the many successes of the Republican party has been to direct many policy questions, upon which there is a settled respectable expert consensus, into the realm of "Some say, others say."

The leading example used to be regarding tax cuts, which are now subject to "controversy" in terms of whether tax revenue goes down when you cut tax rates. But the method has long since been expanded to such diverse areas as global warming and the situation in Iraq. We'd venture that the UK media are less vulnerable to this problem, because they're less beholden to the objective model in the first place. Different outlets come with known biases, but the space for genuine experts to provide authoritative statements has not been squeezed as badly as in the US. Nevertheless, the proliferation of rent-a-quote think-tanks with thinly-veiled political affiliations is a worrying development. Be especially afraid as soon as an inevitable "British Enterprise Institute" sudddenly pops up on more TV screens.

Second, less dominance of pundits. The issue here is not so much the number of pundits, but the proportion thereof who are considered to be above the fray and therefore allowed to become facilitators of broad political narratives. The cases in point here are the likes of David Broder and Tim Russert; the former who accused Bill Clinton of "trashing this place" (Washington DC) and thus acted as a barometer for the pundits' personal dislike of a superb president, and the latter who acted as the willing forum for Dick Cheney's most egregious lies about the Iraq war. But they're still there today as the wise men, the Guardians of our Discourse as Atrios calls them.

It's hard to think of counterparts in the UK context. Even the grand old men of punditry are usually wearing their political biases on their sleeves (e.g. William Rees-Mogg), while the key BBC anchors seem to try to keep their their epistles within a relatively narrow range. In addition, the newspapers and the BBC seem to view it as part of the game to monitor each other, whereas in the US there's much more of an inner sanctum structure linking the key Sunday morning talk shows, the political desks at a small number of national newspapers, and the political insiders. Much closer to a cartel in the US -- and therefore maybe a more promising environment for bloggers?

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