Taking control of a political debate for the good of our readers

Ahead of the 2005 general election, I was the chief reporter for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. I was tasked with getting Tony Blair to answer readers questions. After some arm-twisting, the regional Labour Party agreed and we put an appeal out for questions.

A lot came in. There was a lot to talk about at the time, of course. Iraq and Afghanistan were particularly potent issues in a racially mixed town such as Blackburn, and the rise of the BNP in the area was continuing to cause concerns. Then there were national issues like PFI, hospital reforms, housing market renewal and various education changes.

Which of those do you think was the most frequently-raised issue in the questions submitted? Answer: None. Instead,  the issue most vexing the good people of East Lancashire at the time was: Lleylandii trees. Proof, if it were needed, that no matter what you think of the Daily Mail, it’s good at spotting the issues which really get people vexed.

The results of the q and a are here by the way.

The conversation isn't as deep as, well, it doesn't even look deep does it?

I found myself thinking my trip down to 10 Downing Street to ‘interview’ Tony Blair about the questions – the questions had been sent in advance to Blair’s office, as they were to the other leaders, with the Lib Dems being the most awkward from memory – in the Cabinet room when I stumbled across this blog post by Steve Dyson, the former editor of the Birmingham Mail.  (The blog itself is by RJF Public Affairs, an agency based in Birmingham, and is written by Marc Reeves, the former editor of the Birmingham Post and editor of thebusinessdesk.co.uk in Brum).

Steve’s entry focuses on the probable round of referendum we can expect on elected mayors. The government is committed to elected mayors in 12 key cities as a starting point. Naturally, this has got the political circles in these towns and cities talking about what the potential impact could be. Steve makes a simple point: Too much political chatter and you’ll just turn the ordinary voter off:

Educated but repetitive participants have become too engrossed in bland, general statements or half-hearted challenges about reputation, prestige, the economy, commerce and the relative merits of ‘the buck stops here’.

All such concepts are, of course, important within governmental, industrial and banking circles.

But guess what? The current wittering is as near as damn it to meaningless to Joe Public and Mrs Annie Body – the people responsible for deciding on whether or not to have an elected mayor.

If it remains so, the already tepid reasons to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the forthcoming  referendum will start to chill – though the ‘no’ count may well inflate as frustrations at a perceived irrelevance of the proposed system become positively annoying.

In some ways, it was ever thus. Offer up a vote to the public in general and along come all the talking politicos to strangle any interest out of it by insisting they know what the public is interested in.

Think about the millions of pounds wasted on the regional assembly vote back in 2004. Originally, three regions were supposed to get a vote – the North East, Yorkshire and the North West. The latter two had their vote quietly dropped when it became abundantly clear that people in those regions frankly weren’t interested.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t people talking about it. It was the then deputy prime minister John Prescott’s pet project at the time. A fully-fledged yes campaign and an equally well-prepared no campaign existed and we vocal. Both received government money to support their campaigns. Prezza was dispatched out on his battle bus to ‘raise awareness’ (to make people vote yes would have been a better description). But the campaign failed to spark much interest.

In the North East, where the political voices shouted loudest that there was a desire for regional government, there was a low turnout on the night of the vote, and no was the answer. Regional assemblies were dead and buried.

Why? Put simply, politicians failed to have a coherent answer to the question: “What difference will it make to my life?” For the average punter, “It’ll place more power in the hands of the region” simply doesn’t mean anything.  Both sides of the campaign became sucked into the tiny details, spending hours debating things such as what powers may come down the line in the future, whether powers would be handed down from government or sucked up from councils, and, and … well, you can see what I’m trying to say.

I detected a similar issue when the Welsh referendum on greater powers for the assembly took place earlier this year. Politicians spent far too much time arguing with each other rather than selling their positions to the public at large. I remember listening to Matt Withers from the Western Mail on Five Live saying that politicians were claiming they could speak directly to voters via social media when, in fact, they were actually talking to each other.

Again, the question which seemed to lack a real answer was: “What difference will it make to my life?” Or maybe “What difference will it make to the issues which are important to me?”

Judging by Steve’s post, the same problem is emerging with the Mayoral debate already – and it’s not even guaranteed we’ll get one yet!

Where does the journalist fit in here? To me, we need to keep asking the question: “What difference will it make to the lives of our readers?” Again, and again, and again. Of course, we have to continue to report the to and fro of the political debate, but we shouldn’t be dominated by it.

It’s quite easy to be intimidated by campaigners if you challenge their agenda. The Labour Party press office wasn’t best impressed at having to come up with a policy on Lleylandii trees back in 2005. And when presented with a senior political figure to interview, asking them about something which is deemed by those around them to be trivial can be quite daunting.

Much better to try and dig up a national line which the paper can claim as an exclusive, right? Wrong. “You’re going to ask the prime minister about Lleylandii trees?” the press officer asked. “Er, I think so,” was my reply.

But asking those questions is the difference between simply reporting on a political campaign which prefers looking in on itself and actually campaigning for the people who matter most – our readers. After all, there’s not much point covering something which most of our readers can’t be bothered to vote for or against, is there?


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