Archive for June 27th, 2007

Gordon! What a pleasant surprise!

I woke up this morning, turned on the radio and heard the news Tony Blair was due to step down and Gordon Brown would take over as Prime Minister. Now this didn’t come as a massive shock to me, partly because myself and a colleague had already spent time speaking to local MPs, organisations, the IT man in my office [1] and general voxing to get a local angle on what was going to be the biggest issue of the day.

And big it was. Bar the weather and Wimbledon, nationally it’s been pretty quiet. But two things bothered me slightly. The first was the nature of the news itself.

Now, call me old fashioned, but when I was just considering starting a career in journalism I was taught two vital pieces of advice. The first was always ensure you go to work with a tie and jacket on hand. The second was ‘news’ should be to tell the audience something they don’t already know.

Now, unless somebody had forcibly kidnapped me a year ago, flew me to the moon and stuck large wedges of cheddar in my ears and eyes I think, even without working within journalism, I could have hazarded a guess that Tony Blair would be calling it a day today and there was a good chance a Scottish neighbour would replace him as Prime Minister.

I could have also guessed that he would have made a last appearance in the Commons before visiting the Queen, resigning and letting Brown put up the road to Buckingham Palace and take the reigns

Now, strictly speaking, under the definition I was taught – and largely stick to – this isn’t ‘news’. Perhaps it could classify as ‘olds’ or the less catchy ‘something we already know about but happens to be occurring this instance’.

But here’s the paradox. Really, Blair leaving and Brown’s coronation isn’t news, but is still the biggest story of the day. But could broadcasters have covered it any differently? I honestly can’t answer that. At a local level, I think my newsroom did a good job [2]: a range of opinions from a range of people, all equally valid and interesting. I would have  tweaked bits and pieces and got in a couple more voices had I had time, but in my office it was a job well done, I hope.

But if I’d been working in a national newsroom, I can’t honestly think of how I’d have played it differently from all the national feeds I saw at various points during the day. Odd thing, broadcast news. It’s up to date, right up to the minute often, but is also stagnant because if nothing significant or new is happening, that’s what gets reported.

Things picked up a bit later in the day, when Brown took over as we moved into speculation of the cabinet, but I was left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction at what I’d seen. The best coverage: probably The Times’ News blog [3], which I’ve only seen after the event[4].

[As an aside, Iain Dale is fuming about the BBC’s decision to go to Wimbledon coverage of Eastern European tennis players in the middle of PMQs, as act that makes me wonder if my old friend, Guardian music journalist and female tennis obsessive, Alex Macpherson, had temporarily been installed as programme controller at the BBC. The mind boggles. But frankly, I’d have rather have watched Wimbledon than PMQs. At least with the tennis you genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen]

But the other aspect of today’s coverage was broadly deferential, which troubled me. Even the most ardent Blairite would have difficulty denying that Tony’s not exactly loved by the whole of the country, and there are plenty of vociferous, and not-so-vociferous, critics of assorted policies.

Yet we got Tony smiling and waving to the crowd. Tony getting an ovation in Parliament. Tony cheered by an adoring public as he popped into visit Mrs. Liz Windsor. Tony solemnly announcing his new job as Middle East envoy. You’d have thought he’d single-handedly solved every major issue at home and abroad during the last 10 years and rounded it off by rescuing a bag of drowning kittens on his last day in office. It’s as if Iraq and Cash For Lordships had never happened.

I don’t want to get into my own take on Blair’s legacy (although for an entertaining and distinctly partisan take on the last 10 years, Justin McKeating’s your man) but one commentator really stood out today – Jonathan Freedland:

For Tony Blair will leave today not with his head bowed, or drummed out of office, but on a day and in a manner of his choosing. He has choreographed his exit with a thousand send-offs: cheers at Sedgefield, a last hug at the White House, a final round of backslapping from European leaders last week and yet another ovation from a Labour conference on Sunday. No hint of a leader made to dip his head for a fateful, lethal mistake.

His whole piece could be used as a cool, reasoned argument of why Blair does not deserve lavishing of praise when he leaves office. I can’t think of another Prime Minister, save perhaps Churchill, who left to such fawning, and even the cigar-chomping V-signing one was voted out of office once inbetween.

Yes, we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the past ten years. Yes, there will be plenty more time to reflect on Blair’s legacy. And yes, to sum up the gradual move from near-euphoric expectation in 1997 to a state of disengagement, apathy and malaise with politics today would take more than a bulletin’s worth to explain. But it would have been nice to have some genuinely critical voices around, to remind us of his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

Today went exactly as Tony Blair hoped it would. And that speaks volumes about the current state of politics, the media and the public.

[1] This wasn’t an arbitrary choice or one of my, ‘Oh shit, we’re running out of time, he’ll do’ moments. He’d actually first voted in ’97 and hadn’t moved away from the area since. 

[2] Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Journalists are not noted for their lack of ego.

[3] HT: Martin Stabe.

[4] I had work to do today. Much as I could easily spend my day surfing around the internet, I’m usually too busy to even get a chance for my requisite number of cups of tea.

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As someone in the comments of the first post says, next time someone tells you blogging is irrelevent/self important/whatever other garbage they come up with – show them this.

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Writing at its very best, and quite possibly the best blog post I’ll read this year.


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