21 January 2011

Why I am glad Andy Coulson has resigned.

I seem to have known about Andy Coulson for ever. It will mean a gap in my late night twitter ritual of checking to see what new stories were swirling around him, what more was it telling us about the way the press and power operate.

This is not personal. When I think of the individual I have felt real pity for a young man under such remorseless pressure, opening his door to an army of waiting photographers, Seeing the same handful of photos of his drained grey face, growing old before his time. This has clearly been torture for him, and I am glad he has let it go.

My interest is because of what he stands for.

The reason why I spent a morning watching Andy Coulson’s appearance in front of the press standards committee, http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=4634 was that our town found itself in the centre of a media fire storm which I believed then, and more firmly believe now to have been lit and stoked by the Conservative party. I wanted to understand more about how the party's propaganda machine operated and about this person there at its centre .

In reality this appearance is still our best window into the working of this young man’s mind, because he has done his best to remain in the shadows.

There was a single sentence for me that summed it all up. Members of the committee asked a question about the way in which News of the World gets stories through subterfuge. The clear feeling in the mind of the MP was that subterfuge is not a good or decent way to go about things.

Andy Coulson’s answer was deeply revealing. “Subterfuge is not illegal.” He simply did not recognise that there was anything wrong with the way that the press were getting their stories. He and the papers in-house lawyer had tried to ensure that his staff abided by the letter of the law. If you can get away with it then it is by definition alright.

Whilst we have journalists who think in this way, they are not thinking about how to present “the truth”, but how to present attention grabbing stories, preferably in a way which avoids getting sued.

Whilst we had someone at the head of the Conservative Communications operation who thinks that way then the party was thinking not about how to share information honestly with the public, in a way that allows the public to be active participants in the political process, it is thinking about what it can get away with as it herds a passive public into the voting booths, and how it can sell aspects of policy that a better informed public might find unpalatable.

Take the NHS. The Conservative election campaign, was launched with the now infamous airbrushed picture of Cameron, - We’ll cut the Deficit, not the NHS. This reassuring picture is miles away from the policies that were- we are told – planned years ago, but which the Conservative communications machine conveniently forgot to communicate.

Andy Coulson’s departure is I am sure good for him personally. It does not in itself solve the problem of how the party and press operate.

It is an opportunity for the Conservative party to begin with a clean sheet, perhaps even to acknowledge some of the unsavory ways in which they have behaved. It is I believe also a time for us as the public to demand something better.

Better politics means that parties in their relationship with the press need to make a commitment to inform rather than control. Getting there is going to take more than a change of staff. The editors code does not appear to be strong enough to protect the public from highly misleading reporting. Clever operators in communications understand and exploit this. The code needs reform. Perhaps there also need to be a new code of conduct for political parties in their use of the media.

With better behaviour from political parties and the press we should take this opportunity to seek much needed #pressreform