Monday, June 25, 2007

Spindependent news

Some people think that:

Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is, a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine. The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is The Independent newspaper.

Other people think that:

the need to interpret and comment upon the official version of events is more important than ever. And we are confident that our readers can differentiate between news and opinion.

Now, of course the Independent and the Independent on Sunday are different newspapers, edited separately. But the front-page story in yesterday’s Sindy does rather exemplify the flaws that Tony Blair identified and that Simon Kelner (Indy editor) shrugged off.

The Indy’s readers may perhaps be able to tell the difference between news and opinion, but the Sindy’s reporters seem to either not know or not care. Here’s the summary of their report:

An astonishing confidential document… proves that Tony Blair planned to sack Mr Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer immediately after the last election.
The Cabinet Office document… shows that… the Prime Minister… planned to scupper his [Brown’s] career and break up the Treasury just two years ago.

So, we are entitled to expect details of a document that “proves” Blair “planned” to “sack” Brown.

A couple of paragraphs in, we get:

The top-secret paper confirms talk at Westminster that Mr Blair intended to sack Mr Brown after the 2005 election and move him to another post to loosen his control over the domestic agenda.

This actually firms things up a bit. You could technically (if sophistically) argue that ‘planning to do X’ might only amount to ‘preparing plans for how X could be done’. But the Sindy obliterates any wiggle room by saying that Blair “intended” to do this.

It’s arguable that moving a minister from one Cabinet post to another isn’t the same as “sacking”, but let’s let that slip by. For the following paragraph stresses that this paper “provides the first concrete proof” that Blair planned to get rid of Brown as Chancellor. This is clearly strong stuff.

So what is this paper?

The paper was prepared by a trusted team of advisers in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, in close co-operation with John Birt and the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office…
Downing Street sources have told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Blair wanted to be kept closely informed of its work and watched presentations of the plans as they developed. As proof of how closely involved Tony Blair was, The Independent on Sunday has seen the Prime Minister's own personal copy, drafted for him in March 2005, weeks before the election.

Hmm. So this paper wasn’t written by Blair but “drafted for” him. Both of those words suggest distance from something he actually planned to do.

The Sindy gives some concrete details of the contents of the paper:

It proposes boosting the role of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who would head a new Office of Delivery and Expenditure within the Treasury, which would be responsible for public service delivery and control of spending. …
The proposals suggest that Mr Brown was to be kept in the dark about the changes afoot, while his own civil servants would be asked to work on the plans without telling him.

“Proposes?” “Suggest?” My, how quickly have we retreated from “planned” and “intended”.

Surely there’s some sort of killer quote from this document that actually illustrates the claim that the Sindy is making? Well, not quite. This is the very best we’re offered:

"There were all sorts of presentations to the Prime Minister. He was definitely aware this was going on - he wanted it. There was a big thing about how Mr Blair was going to make a big comeback after the election. His basic command was 'I want to refresh my government'. It was about Mr Blair being so sick of the in-fighting with Brown," said one source.

Marvellous. A vague quote from… “one source”.

I don’t care whether Blair really intended to sack Brown. I care that this newspaper is splashing this story the way it has without showing the “proof” that it claims to have. I care that the report gives us nothing to establish the status of this document: proposals for consideration or established prime-ministerial intentions? I care that lazy assumptions are being made that fit with received media wisdom. I care that a proposal/plan/whatever for massive changes to the structure of government departments has to be filtered through the ‘Blair vs Brown’ narrative.

(It might be replied: ‘Everyone knows the two hate each other and Blair would have loved to get rid of Brown… it fits. Stop being so bloody nit-picking.’ But if this is common knowledge, the news value evaporates; and this has no bearing on the uniquely “concrete” nature of the proof supposedly on offer. If you don’t pick the nits carefully then your cutting-edge investigative journalism becomes pedestrian punditry.)

And I also care that the Sindy has the temerity to report not just on the document they’ve read and the “sources” they’ve spoken to, but on the reaction that their story will – as a matter of fact – provoke:

The revelations will shock Labour Party delegates assembling in Manchester for the formal announcement of Mr Brown's succession as Labour leader.

I wasn’t there, but I didn’t hear any reports of tabloid-induced shock. I think there was some other stuff going on that people were more concerned with.

Spin-doctoring is trying to influence how a story is reported; spinning is taking a particular angle in reporting a story. But a report that tries to influence how it itself will be received – I’m not sure there’s a word for that, other than arrogance.

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