One benefit of spending many days mass catering and washing up over Christmas has been the companionship of Radio 4 news programmes. Sadly, I now feel a bit like those women who decide on divorce just after Christmas. Prolonged exposure to political reporting has left me feeling betrayed and irritated in equal measure.
Perhaps it isn’t Radio 4’s fault. Perhaps they can only do the best they can with the dross they have to work with. Perhaps the lack of substantial topics and forensic interrogation are products of the absence of principle and passion in political debate.
There is the obsession with retail. I like a bit of shopping myself but retail trends and their reflection of wider society and their impact on the economy are reported with mind-numbing and repetitive banality. If I hear more bland stories about ‘cash strapped families shopping around’ I’ll cry.
Why aren’t the world’s best journalists digging underneath these seasonal superficialities? What about the differences in spending power and standards of living between rich and poor? The poor are rarely mentioned, unless negatively and simplistically as ‘working age benefits claimants’. What about the places our goods come from and the people who make them? Whether we get our bargains from John Lewis or Amazon – they all come across the sea in big containers from the same places but the people who make them don’t get a fair return on their labour and are often brutally exploited. This only gets reported on when thousands die at one time, which makes the issue newsworthy - until it is promptly forgotten again.
Immigration is perhaps the topic where a lack of intelligent, questioning journalism is most evident. National politicians resemble small boys playing football – all dashing after the ball together with a woeful lack of strategy or even tactics. The ball they are all chasing is a nasty construction of xenophobia, fear and ignorance, held together by nostalgia for a misremembered past. At other times they resemble wildebeest (other herding animals with a tendency to mass panic are available). Is UKIP now a lion? Only if the wildebeest think so.
Where are the facts? How much do immigrants contribute to the Exchequer, our culture and our quality of life? Lincolnshire farmers could not harvest their crops without immigrant labour. Our hospitals could not function without immigrant health professional. So the answer has to be ‘lots’. How many of us – that’s us to distinguish us from them who come in ‘hordes’, determined only on scrounging and/or destroying our way of life – are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants ourselves? Lots and lots. Instead, we get a diet of unchallenging reporting of the prevailing narrative which is creating bias merely through repetition.
Reporting of the floods has not been accompanied by many facts. Bald statements about the money allocated to capital works and cuts to revenue leading to job losses leaves us no wiser about the costs and benefits of flood defences and the public policy choices to be made about the best way of allocating scarce resources remain uncharted waters. Cameron was reportedly issuing stern instructions to local government about fulfilling their duties – without challenge. No reporter questioned the authority of someone who couldn’t navigate his way out of damp carpet to instruct sovereign bodies to perform their expert functions.
Going back to work has been a welcome relief from shouting at the radio but I’m still suffering from a deep sense of dissatisfaction. There are questions to be asked and answers that really matter – but who is asking them?
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.