Stories blatantly planted by politicians aren’t ‘news’
A slew of obvious plants of articles in the press from both Tories and Labour undermine journalistic credibility.
There are leaks, exclusives and blatant ministerial plants of articles, complete with their very own bylines.
Cabinet ministers and Prime Ministers have always, with apparent ease, been able to knock up a coherent article — written naturally by a loyal press officer — and have them inserted in an equally loyal media outlet.
Such articles should be paid for as sponsored advertising instead of being treated with uncritical respect, labelled “exclusive” and turned into a front page splash.
There is an increasing amount of it about, and Labour plays the game just as enthusiastically as the Conservative Government.
It is a sure sign that the opening skirmishes of the coming media battle in the run-up to the next general election are now well under way.
Media merry-go-round begins with a plant
Curiously the epicentre of the genre of planted “exclusive” political stories from both Labour and the Tories seems to be The Daily Telegraph, even though it is for now owned by Lloyds Bank and is under the auctioneers hammer.
Monday’s Telegraph front page was an absolute corker. With the exception of a picture of Prince Andrew, who may or may not be on the way to rehabilitation, the entire front page was made up of stories resulting from planted political articles.
The splash was devoted to Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s new policy requiring the police to investigate every offence where there is a “reasonable line of inquiry.” Ignoring offences such as shoplifting and car theft was “completely unacceptable” and police officers would in the future be required to attend burglaries “as early as possible.”
Naturally the splash was based on Braverman’s own “exclusive” article on page 2 of The Daily Telegraph.
Braverman claimed that on a like-for-like basis crime had fallen by 50% since 2010, although the situation is muddied to say the least, by the fact that fast growing categories of crime such as fraud and online offences are not included.
She concluded her exclusive piece by emphasising that the government was on the side of “the decent law-abiding majority.”
That was why the police had been sent a message saying the Government was right behind them in tackling every type of crime.
“Now it’s time for action,” the Home Secretary declared.
Braverman got really good value from The Telegraph. On Page 4 there was another Home Office-briefed piece that thousands of “illegal” immigrants would be electronically tagged to control their movements, a story that also made its way onto the front page of The Times.
On both stories Braverman got close to a free run with little examination of the practicalities of either idea.
Then, with The Telegraph coverage firmly planted, Braverman was off to the radio and TV studios to do her stuff, although here she ran into much stiffer scrutiny.
On Sky and BBC’s Today programme she repeated the deeply misleading claim that she had increased the size of the police force by an “additional” 20,000 officers. She had to be reminded that the Conservative Government had cut the size of the police force by 20,000 since 2010 and there might be at best an additional 3,000 additional officers — not even remotely in line with the scale of population growth over the past 13 years.
Braverman also provoked a new round of stories with crude attacks on the European Court of Human Rights.
The Media Merry-Go-Round had all begun with the planted article in The Daily Telegraph.
Commentary extrapolated into fact
More bizarrely, the second story on The Telegraph front page came from another political plant — this time an exclusive article written by, or for, Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary.
In it, Streeting outlined a new Labour policy where GPs would be paid more if they allowed patients to see the doctor of their choice, something that 64%, according to a new survey, fail to do.
There was no mention of the fact that the British Medical Association believes the idea is completely impractical given the growing shortage of GPs.
Both the Braverman and the Streeting articles were clearly labelled as Commentary but it is still a curious sub-set of journalism when the information contained in the commentary pieces are then extrapolated into factual front page news stories. To complete the trio, Labour’s shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was outlining some of her fiscal and tax policies — or at least what she didn’t plan to do — at the weekend talking, obviously, to The Sunday Telegraph.
Reeves clearly wanted to reach out to normal Conservative voters and assure them they needn’t be afraid of Labour because she had no plans for a wealth tax or higher levies on capital gains or property income.
But why is The Telegraph being so accommodating to Labour politicians? Is it a sign that the arch Conservative publication is preparing for a period in opposition and is reaching out to senior Labour figures who might next year be sitting round the Cabinet table.
The Mail on Sunday had two front-page exclusives at the weekend.
The most explosive came in yet another excusive by a politician, about to become a former politician, the worst Culture Secretary the UK has ever had: Nadine Dorries.
Dorries who finally decided to go months after saying she was resigning as an MP with immediate effect, announced her decision in an interview with the Mail on Sunday. Helpfully, she also provided a copy of her resignation letter, which included an excoriating attack on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The main splash, another political “exclusive” claimed that Labour, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan in particular, had a secret tax plan to charge drivers by the mile. You had to read to the final paragraph of the story on page 2 to see the story denounced as “compete nonsense.”
The Mayor’s spokesman added: “Sadiq is crystal clear: a-pay-per-mile scheme is not on the table and not on his agenda.”
That may be for now, although it stands to reason that eventually the Treasury will be looking for a replacement to the petrol tax as the transition to electric cars intensifies.
In this pre-election jockeying for position there is a lot of political cross-dressing going on. Tuesday’s Guardian had a strong exclusive splash saying Housing Secretary Michael Gove planned to rip up water pollution rules to enable more houses to be built.
Perhaps the story was leaked by an environmentalist hostile to the Government’s plans.
Or could it be that The Guardian was briefed by the Gove side in advance to take the sting out of the likely negative reaction?
These days, who knows, although for a change Gove didn’t write an exclusive article about his plans for The Daily Telegraph.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.