Political Coverage Is Broken, programme notes
At Byline’s event Political Coverage Is Broken, former journalist and government advisor James Chapman discussed Brexit, the Parliamentary lobby, the potential for a new party of the centre and much more beside. It took place Downstairs at the NUJ on Monday 2 October 2017. This is the accompanying podcast.
Chapman was George Osborne’s spin doctor and before that, political editor of the Daily Mail. He is a passionate defender of popular journalism, thinks that Boris Johnson should be imprisoned for lying and makes a plausible case that Brexit won’t happen at all.
The premise of the discussion draws on an essay by political scientist Jay Rosen. In this he explains his theory that the way politics is reported treats it as a game to be second-guessed, almost for sport, rather than a the machinations of a system that can profoundly affect all our lives. This, he argues, ill serves engaged democracy.
At first glance, Chapman appears the quintessential insider – success in political journalism followed by a senior role in government. Since leaving his job, however, he has shared information and views that are so candid that many friends assumed that he was having a break down. So breathtaking have some of his Tweets been that their have been public appeals to confiscate his phone.
A selection from the podcast give some flavour of his unvarnished opinions.
“I tried to make George (Osborne) more likeable, and I didn’t really succeed… he has a slightly sneery mouth… and his pallor…is very pasty.”
“Both main parties have been seized by their extremist wings. A new party could be incredibly successful. It would take some brave MPs and peers to go with it.”
“For most of my career at the Daily Mail I managed to avoid (its editor) Paul Dacre….He was known as ‘day-late Dacre’ at that time.”
“We (at the Daily Mail) were promoting Gordon Brown’s bit of the Labour government and denigrating Tony Blair’s.”
“The Mail is like the 1950s in terms of its management structure.”
“(The top priority for broadcast news) is the clip they use, which is exactly 18 seconds long…(so we) made (George Osborne) learn these 18-second-long sentences (then) whatever was the question, that would be his answer. It worked perfectly, but when he did it for too long, he looked like a robot because he didn’t answer the question”.
“(During the referendum campaign) we were trying to reverse 40 years of negative stories about the European Union and we we couldn’t do it in six weeks.”
“I don’t believe Brexit will happen. There is a separate treaty, the EEA Treaty. Article 127 of that Treaty has not been triggered (although there was a big discussion in government about whether to). That is the single market – so Norway, Switzerland and other countries. There was a reluctant majority in the Commons for triggering Article 50. Is there a majority of leaving the Single Market? Almost certainly not. There are legal arguments around this, but I think that by next March, it will be clear that we are not leaving the Single Market, we will be paying more in and we won’t be able to control immigration. At that point, the country will say ‘what on earth is the point, lets forget the whole thing’.”
“Should we have got down in the gutter with Nigel Farage when he talked about 80m HIV-infected Turks swarming across the country? You can’t contend with that.”
“I found it morally indefensible to promote the govenment’s position on EU national’s rights. We have left 3.2m people in limbo and soured the negotiations. We should have said unilaterally that we would respect these people’s rights – which the government still hasn’t done. I heard very senior cabinet members talking about ‘regularising’ EU nationals and frankly I found that a bit chilling.”
Chapman, who is 40 this year, also full of insights for those interested in careers in both journalism and public relations. For example, he took grave-yard shifts on the Daily Mail to get the opportunity to write lots of big ‘overnight’ stories early in his career. Shorthand is the bedrock of reporting, he believes. And he suggests a different pr approach might have made Harriet Harman a cherished national figure rather than the subject of jokes and attacks from the right-wing press.
The timings below refer to the position of these topics in the broadcast.
01.30 The worst night of his life
07.40 How he got into journalism
15.20 Joins the lobby
21.45 Becomes political editor
36.45 Why he left journalism
39.30 The struggle to make George Osborne likeable
40.40 The rule of 18 seconds
42.30 The coalition government as a period of glorious stability
48.40 Government ministers are lying about Brexit
49.20 The punishment budgets
50.45 Six weeks wasn’t long enough to reverse 40 years of negative stories about the EU
51.50 Working at the Department for Exiting the EU
53.15 The government’s position on EU nationals rights was not morally defensible
54.40 Very senior government ministers were talking about ‘reguarising’ EU citizens and I found that chilling
57.05 If we had the electoral law that Canada has, Boris Johnson would now be in jail.
57.30 Brexit won’t happen
59.00 A new party could fill a gaping void in British politics
1.00.30 The referendum campaign was based on some Eton rivalry
1.01.30 Newspapers have nowhere to go, so must rely on BBC. In Canada Boris would be in prison for lying.
1.02.30 We need a new party
1.03.45 I agree with May that politics is not a game.
Photograph: Tim Dawson