The Reuters Institute report last month, Public Trust in the News, based on focus group findings, revealed that the majority of people didn’t understand the news and therefore didn’t trust it. For anyone interested in the workings of democracy this comes as no surprise, but to have it spelt out in a report is something new. At the same time, we have news organisations encouraging instant comment, welcoming contributions from the floor in Question Time style debates. The one follows on from the other. We’re encouraged to have an opinion whether or not we have the full picture, and then we have the press out there desperately keen to create a partial picture.
I enjoy Question Time. But what I hear from the floor often scares me. It’s not the opinions, which we need to hear, but the certainty with which they’re expressed, the bitterness, the alienation …
We have a major issue here. A perplexed public is an easily prejudiced public, and easily manipulated. We can’t expect the press to take a lead, given its current ownership structures and attitudes, and so it falls to the politicians. There is simply no alternative to constructive debate, ensuring the key issues in any debate are properly understood, identifying common ground, elucidating points of difference. Both sides, all sides, need to buy into this. The only points scored should come about as a result of clarity and conviction of argument.
It all seems so simple, and yet … so impossible? Who will dare? Demagogues have always preyed on democrats, and it will take courage and determination (our old friends) to raise the standard of debate. But it is critical that we do so.
Andy Coulson, ex News of the World editor, friend of Simon Cowell, press secretary to David Cameron… giving a populist angle to Cameron’s presentation. That’s where we are at the moment.
As a postscript, written two days later on 24th July, David Cameron enthused about the new politics that had helped win Chloe Smith the Norwich North by-election. For once I caught the mood, not least because Harriet Harman then came on and chattered on about Labour investment against Tory cuts which is just the argument they tried to hammer home in Norwich, and which failed them abysmally. Bury Andy, and let Harriet bury herself, and Labour with her, and the Tories just might begin to catch the public imagination the way New Labour did back in 1997. But they’ve a long way to go.