10 resources for understanding British journalism

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1)     Flat Earth News

2)     Everybody’s Hacked Off

3)     So You Want to be a Political Journalist?

4)     Jim Hacker’s guide to British newspapers

5)     The DOSAC Files

6)     Where Power Lies

7)     Alastair Campbell Cudlipp lecture

8)     Jeremy Paxman MacTaggart lecture

9)     Angry people in local newspapers

10)  Kath Viner’s AN Smith lecture

If you only ever read one thing about the British media make it Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. It amply fulfils its promise to ‘expose falsehood, lies and propaganda’ and there’s more than enough in here about the Tory papers to whip any leftie into a frenzy of self-righteous fury. But don’t expect a hatchet job of the sort Davies himself is documenting – he does a forensic number on left-leaning outlets and progressive campaign groups too, making this painful but required reading for social change campaigners of all sorts, not just party political activists.

You’ll find a much shorter, more polemical take on recent media scandals in Everybody’s Hacked Off which, at just 100 pages, still manages to pack in enough jaw-dropping claims to justify £2, whatever you think of the campaign.

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A much more positive take can be found in Sheila Gunn’s So you Want to be a Political Journalist?, an invaluable insider’s guide to media practicalities. Gunn served as John Major’s spinner and is joining Lib Dem HQ’s Olly Grender and Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail on a panel called “View from the Outside: Can Labour win?” at the upcoming Foundations for Victory conference.

While I’m thrilled we will be seeing plenty folk off the telly on November 16th, none of them will do as good a job of explaining how British newspapers interact with Number 10 as this fella. Running him a close second is Malcolm Tucker in The Missing DOSAC Files. I’d avoid it if you are sweary-sensitive but for everybody else the sections on everything from how to manage a photo shoot (“1. Journalists are the enemy 2. Photographers are the enemy 3.Anything we can be photographed next to is also the enemy. 4. The entire physical universe is a minefield of unexploded visual faux pas. The entire physical universe is the enemy”) to his list of people you can safely ignore in focus groups are actually pretty useful.

A rather more sombre account of the relationship between Downing Street and Fleet Street is to be found in Lance Price’s Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v the Media which, among other gems, includes the claim that Clement Attlee had only three standard responses to questions from the media: “Nothing in that”, “Can’t say” and “all poppycock”. Legend.

Price worked for a time as Alastair Campbell’s deputy and the Cudlipp memorial speech of the original godfather of New Labour comms bears revisiting. It’s worth googling to get the whole set of the Cudlipp lectures, but this one in particular is memorable for its justified irritation about the rise of the celebrity reporter: “news is only (considered) news if (a) politician is saying something stupid, controversial, at odds with his own policy, or which fits the preordained agenda for the day. A Prime Minister making the points he wants to make, about the issues he considers to be important – that’s boring, especially when you can have a political reporter talking instead”.

The other set of archives to delve into are the MacTaggart Lectures – in particular Jeremy Paxman’s willingness to engage seriously  with the reflections Tony Blair offered on the media before he left office.

All of the above suffer, of course, from Westminster’s fixation on itself. The physical proximity of the lobby to national political players leads the latter to massively over-estimate the importance of national newspapers and to under-estimate the importance of both online and consumer media.

Perhaps the biggest chasm between their status and their actual importance, however, is suffered by our local media – a highly trusted and often brilliant source of scoops and news that is actually relevant to people’s day to day lives. The only way to truly understand the register of local news is by immersion, but there is one website which serves as a genuinely helpful guide for the kind of human interest stories they tend to cover: if you liked glum councillors, you’ll love angry people in local newspapers.

The final resource here is Kath Viner’s recent lecture on journalism in the age of the open web. Although given in Australia, the speech includes lots of UK examples and is a fascinating insider’s account of the Guardian’s digital strategy, designed to enable it to publish, in her words, “the truth made better by conversation”.

Understanding the currents and trends in the media will be central to how we fight the next election so I hope LabourList readers get stuck in to reading and watching everything above. But more than anything, I hope this community decides that if we want a source of fast, fair, progressive political news then maybe we need to build it ourselves.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a strategy consultant for campaigning organisations. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill. Tickets are still available for Foundations for Victory – men are very welcome to attend. 

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