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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Why can’t political news be more like cookery?

Last week the Guardian published a short guide to action on an issue in the news, to end female genital mutilation (FGM), including links to a petition and organisations campaigning on FGM. Two weeks earlier, on 1 Feb, in Guardian Money Patrick Collinson showed how people can take action to get their money back from copycat websites. He gives the name and address of the person responsible for the fraud, the trading standards office, small claims court and how to complain to Google and the Advertising Standards agency.

I hope this is the start of a trend to empowers readers to take and become more effective citizens who make the news, not just consume it.

Fahma Mohamed and other young women at a Bristol school launched the FGM campaign and got the Guardian to back it. This excellent citizenship education, because democracy, like drama, enterprise and music, is best learnt by doing. It also highlights the confidence and skill schools need to support challenging citizenship projects. But most importantly, it shows up a gaping hole in the coverage of politics.

The media churn out a relentless stream of news and commentary about politics – who said what and where and why in the cauldrons of Westminster and other power centres – from their privileged seats at the ringside. Most readers and viewers are mere spectators, who can comment but are not expected to take part in politics except as consumers who purchase a political party with their vote every few years. Newspapers often lead the charge on issues – such as the Mail’s call to cut international aid to support UK flood victims, the Sun’s campaign to switch energy supplier or the Evening Standard’s sustained campaigns in London. But they do it in a way that strengthens their position as privileged members of the political classes who act for readers, like politicians, not by empowering them with information to campaign themselves – as the Guardian did last week.

Campaigning journalism is an important, and readers want paper which campaign on things they care about. But it is rare to find practical advice on what you can do about problems dissected so eloquently – unlike newspaper supplements on travel, cars, health, money and above all cookery. There you will find detailed advice on how to get what you want. So why not in politics?

Politics affects everything, in little ways and large. Aristotle called it the ‘master science’ because it is how societies decides priorities between everything else.  Hemmingway said a few people make things happen, many people watch what’s happening, and most people don’t know what’s hit them.

Newspapers like to make things happen (“It’s the Sun Wot Won It”) and show people what’s happening, but they rarely help people make things happen.  Most political coverage takes one of three forms:

  1. Punch and Judy show: stock characters biff each other;
  2. Hand wringing: what terrible deeds this or that faction gets up to;
  3. Call to arms: support our cause to right some wrong.

Broadsheets are more sophisticated than tabloids, but still follow these basic patterns. The best journalism gives insight into power structures and the struggles between people making decisions, but even it rarely shows citizens how they can influence what happens.

In a democracy, good political coverage should not just warn people about what could hit them, but equip them to make things happen. To do this they need to offer recipes, not just commentary on the cuisine.

Think what difference it would make if alongside news reports on bankers bonuses, domestic violence, flooding, housing shortages – to take a few recent news stories – there was information to help you do something about it? And if news media had done this year in, year out for the past decades. Millions of young women have been mutilated since FGM was first reported in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps more people would have acted if they had some tips and encouragement on how to campaign to end it. With the web it is even easier to campaign and no excuse for news media not to give citizens tools for democratic action.

Patrick Collinson and the FGM guide show what’s needed:

  • background information on the problem;
  • who has official responsibility for it, with contact details;
  • any critical intervention points, such as a Bill or vote in Parliament, an inquiry or public meeting;
  • who is campaigning on it;
  • a menu of options, showing the kind of things you could do about it;
  • and one small step to start, such as tweeting or signing a petition.

The web enables media outlets to provide links to official reports, research evidence, campaigning organisations and political tools such as the Guardian’s Ask Aristotle, Find Your MP, 38 Degrees, Change.org, Theyworkforyou.com, the Government’s petitions site, a ‘political diary’ like our  Democracy Diary or the Parliamentary calendar filtered by issue, and guides to campaigning
and campaigning online – there are many more. There is no excuse for news media not to show people how to do politics about any problem, like recipes in the cookery supplements.

What’s in it for the media?

Most problems are like the copycat websites: tiny on the national stage, but huge for the people affected. But lots of little problems reveal a vast sea of discontent. From a journalistic point of view, this is a treasure trove of stories, rich in human interest and explosive politics. Occasionally little problems mount up and erupt into national news, like the abuse at Mid-Staffs hospital, Winterbourne care home or female genital mutilation.  Most of the time these problems fester, people suffer and the country fails to deal with them. The news reports a litany of woe

Many important stories never start because people feel powerless to act or are defeated at the first hurdle. Think about Ann Clwyd’s postbag from people mistreated by the health service, or the millions of carers struggling with inadequate support, the pensioners’ who’ve been short-changed –  or the millions of young women who’ve been mutilated in the decades since the problem was first reported. That is the consequence of failing to give people tools for action.

Newspapers and news magazines readily take sides between the parties and problems within parties, campaigning loudly about what they believe. It is only be a small step for editors to decide which topic should get a ‘citizens cook book’ treatment when deciding the paper’s editorial line for the day. Then add a bit more information and a first step people can take, as in the Guardian’s FGM feature.

Public service broadcasters like the BBC are in a different position. They have a duty to provide balanced and impartial reporting of politics, which means they should give details of organizations campaigning on different sides of issues, without taking sides. Like all good journalism, they have a responsibility to weigh up evidence and provide informed commentary, so campaigners’ claims should not be reported uncritically, but they can encourage people to take part in politics and develop their political skills.

Current affairs on BBC Radio 4 – Analysis, the Report, Today, PM – and the BBC website provide a fantastic amount of critical information about many contentious issues. But people will remain powerless to act unless they also know how to influence decisions about them. So as well as telling people what’s happening, the BBC and other broadcasters should help people make things happen. This is information is an essential public service for citizens in a democracy. Information on how to take part in politics and influence decisions by the powerful, whether in business or government or the voluntary sector, are matters of fact. They are contentious facts, just as there are many contentious facts in coverage of the arts, business, science and politics. But by withholding information on how the system works and how to influence it, broadcasters are effectively siding with the powerful.  Providing practical tools to campaign on problems covered in the news can deepen and broaden democracy without compromising broadcasters’ neutrality between political parties.

News outlets which support citizens taking action are most likely to survive the fierce struggle for survival in print and online. The Sun, Mail, Guardian and Evening Standard are seen as strong voices which speak up about issues their readers care about. The next step is to empower readers to find their own voice by providing guides on how to take action.

Effective campaign support could create a virtuous cycle for news media: good investigations attract readers; tips on how to take action enables more people to influence events, creating more stories and leads for investigation. Coverage of campaigns will inspire others to take action. People will learn from each other’s’ failures and success, and campaigns will become more effective. More people take part in politics and in the process, politics, governance and the country improves. Established parties wont like it, but we’ll all be better for it.

If a news outlet produced one campaign guide about a different problem every week, it will soon have an unrivalled source of support for people who want an effective say.  Week by week, it will become the place to go on any issue, from copycat websites, exploitative employers and landlords, blundering authorities to the housing crisis, care crisis, pensions crisis, banking, climate change, the EU, immigration and more. The outlet will be the first to see stories brewing below the news horizon and get more scoops by becoming the ‘go to place’ for campaigning tips and contacts, .

Finally, if you have any doubt about the need for the media to provide guides to action, hear Canadian activist and comedian Dave Meslin in this entertaining TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html,  .

Demand cookery for politics

To follow my own advice, here is a short guide on how to get the media to give citizens more support:

  1. Praise the pioneers: whenever a paper or broadcaster provides a guide to action, let them know and tell everyone about it, encourage the journalist and their editor, and defend them from critics who protect the closed shop of politics. For example, tell the Guardian you liked the Take Action section on  FGM, by writing to the readers’ editor Chris Elliott, Guardian and asking why they don’t do it more often (email: reader@theguardian.com), write to their letters’ page or email journalists;

 2.  Fill the gap: use the comment sections on news websites to provide links to campaign support, writing the kind of guides you want to see;

3.  Persuade the powerful: contact editors, producers and leading journalists of your preferred news sources and urge them to publish information on how to campaign and influence decisions about specific issues covered in the news. Above all, use any opportunities to speak to them in person, by going to talks and events attended by editors.

  •  Emphasise the commercial benefits for newspapers
  • For broadcasters, stress that information on how the system works and how to campaign is an essential public service for people to take part in democracy and need not take sides between the parties.

Most newspapers have contact details and Twitter addresses on their websites: Google them or look up UK newspapers or contact journalists

For the Guardian and Observer, members of staff can be contacted using the email format: Firstname.lastname@theguardian.com and Firstname.lastname@observer.co.uk

Perhaps a better bet is The Evening Standard: the campaigns editor is David Cohen:  David.Cohen@standard.co.uk, tel: 020 3367 7000

Editor: Sarah Sands, Senior Deputy Editor: Ian Walker, Deputy Editor: Charlotte Ross, all at: editor@standard.co.uk

Managing Editor: Doug Wills E: managingeditor@standard.co.uk

London Evening Standard, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT  Tel: Switchboard – 020 3367 7000

For the BBC, engage with the editors via their blogs: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_editors/ or LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/title/editor/at-bbc-news

Or write to the Trustees: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/who_we_are/trustees/

Campaign reflection

I’ve written or spoken with about a dozen people at the Guardian, including the editor (twice). Usually they don’t respond. One senior staffer said they couldn’t afford to do it – but now they’ve done it I am more hopeful. But perhaps the biggest spur would be when one of the their revivals does it.

I have also spoken with several people at BBC Education, without much response so far.

My view is that the paper which does this first and best will grow stronger, and that once one starts others will follow, contributing to a more diverse and effective democracy.

Finally, many in the political establishment and media wont like it, so it is important to defend news outlets that do it, even if you disagree with their politics.

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