Thursday 25 September 2008

Ruth Kelly and the 3am news cycle

24 hours on, I have given up on trying to make hear or tail of the competing theories, claims and counter-claims of why the confirmation of Ruth Kelly's announcement of her resignation took place in the small hours of Wednesday morning.

The Fabian staff missed the 3am excitement in the Midland Hotel bar, arriving there a little later on for a very welcome cup of tea having been somewhat reluctantly dragged from the excellent ippr party dancefloor (where Schools Minister Jim Knight perhaps shone most brightly of all).

My first reaction on being told the news by a reporter was that this wasn't surprising - it had been reported as probable in the Sunday newspapers earlier in the month - but that the timing seemed very bad for Gordon Brown, and risked overshadowing the positive reaction to his conference speech. A few hours later, watching the news over breakfast, Kelly's clear insistence that this was a purely family matter seemed a setback for those seeking an end-of-conference 'spectacular' to destablise the Prime Minister. (The BBC's Iain Watson almost having a John Sergeant moment as Kelly came out to make her statement during his live report),

Nobody gains, as far as I can see. But the episode also tells us something about how our political and media culture is changing - and probably not to the credit of either side.

The rise of internet reporting, following on from 24 hours news channels, makes more in-depth reporting and analysis possible, in principle at least. For example, blogs from several political insiders makes the Westminster village more transparent.

But the lines between news, briefings, rumour and gossip have never been more blurred.

So I can see that the reporting of David Miliband's alleged comments about a Heseltine moment, criticised as 'hearsay' by the Foreign Secretary, could be (if solidly verified) defended as legitimate. But something that might once have been a diary item or an aside in a column was the primary news angle around his speech. And the intensity of short-term coverage sees process overshadow substance, and is often combined with a loss of perspective: as, for example, with the sense that the Palin phenomenon had broken everything we know about how much Vice-Presidents affect elections in November.

Over the last fifteen years, the response on the political side has been to fight for every headline and every news cycle. Increased professionalism in handling the media was an understandable, and necessary, response to Labour's traumatic defenestration under Neil Kinnock in the '80s and in the 1992 election. But it was obvious within a couple of years that New Labour's news management techniques, so effective in opposition, were much more problematic in government.

When fighting for every news cycle means 3am briefings, while Cabinet Ministers are asleep, knocking the PM out of the headlines, then it must be time to think again.

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