Michael White knows his politics. That might sound like a pretty obvious comment to make about a man whose career is as a leading politics journalist, but he really, really knows his politics, having perspective and a commendable sense of the bigger picture. As happy talking about today’s cabinet as the Emperor Tacitus, White does not strike you as a man who sees every new political development in hyperbolic terms – something both refreshing and necessary in the 24/7 news culture we live in.
His view of how politics has changed over the course of a distinguished career of Westminster reporting since 1976 is “it’s all got a good deal faster”. And there really have been massive changes in this time. From four television channels when White began, there are now 1000 or more available on digital TV, with the increasing importance of the media such that Sky News and other news channels play nonstop in Downing Street over the day. Clearly, governments are preoccupied with satisfying media demands in a way that was not always true in the past – or, perhaps more accurately, there are many more of these demands to satisfy. To this end, White believes the media have become “too important” both in shaping government policy and our reaction to it. The need to constantly ‘create’ news to satisfy the media that the government is doing something is clearly not conducive to good governance.
White is adamant that “The media promotes personality more, and TV exacerbates that”. But it’s not clear that personality has become increasingly important in politics – personality was fundamental to the appeal of Lloyd-George and Churchill – “people understood the personalities though they didn’t see them on 24-hour television” and “the public knew they couldn’t really trust them”. In politics – not just now, but through the ages – “Personality and policy are inseparable.” To give an example of this, White just “can’t imagine Brown doing a deal with anyone”.
Though he admits to being a man of the left, as one would expect from The Guardian’s former political editor, White had not much nice to say of our last Prime Minister. Brown was “a strange, tormented figure. Mr Brown, reminds me a bit of Richard Nixon – very clever, very hard working, but not very good at politics. Though he wrote books about courage, he lacked it and didn’t seem to trust people.” But in contrast to all those who say they knew all along Brown was temperamentally unsuited to being Prime Minister – and if that was so then why was Brown able to become PM without any form of leadership election? – White says that, had he never become the main man, plenty would have said he would have been brilliant at the job.
There exists a feeling among many that Labour generally gets a worse deal than the Conservatives in the press. In Chris Mullin’s excellent diaries, the former Labour minister makes regular reference to the “Tory-controlled media” and their tendency to put their particular slant on everything. And it is undeniable that, for all Brown’s many faults, the media had a tendency to only report on him in a negative way. But while White partially this, he believes “the man persecuting Gordon Brown hardest was Gordon Brown himself”. He flatly reduces the notion of any sort of institutionalised bias, saying “Tony Blair got away with too much and got a pretty easy run from the media, but John Major got an awful time.” Equally, White himself is less critical of the coalition government than most voices on his paper, saying, “Do I think the coalition’s a terrible thing? No, of course I don’t. It’s not as good as they say it is and it’s not as bad as their critics say either. It’ll muddle along, like most governments do. It’ll have some successes and some failures.”
Many politics journalists interpret their brief as to be unremittingly critical of politicians, but White clearly does not subscribe to this. He doesn’t share the loathing of many for politicians, unfashionably admitting to have “a lot of sympathy” for them, “trying to do their best in increasingly difficult circumstances”. The “anti-politics” tone of the media is crucial to explaining the general ill feeling towards politicians. When he begun his career, White believes only 30% or so politics stories were negative; now this is “80 or 90%”, something the public could hardly fail to be affected by. And do we really believe our politicians are innately worse people than 35 years ago – especially to such an extent?
Of course, much of our current loathing of politicians stems from the expenses scandal. And White does not shirk from criticising the politicians – “they did some bad, wrong and dishonest things”. Prior to the expenses scandal breaking, “things were wrong, and we knew they were clearly wrong”. But “there’s never a good time to raise MPs’ salaries”, which led to them essentially being increased by other means – expenses. “Claim up to the maximum, that’s the regime that existed”. All the Prime Ministers of the past 50 years “contributed to this laxity”.
White is vehemently critical of how the expenses scandal was broken by The Daily Telegraph. The paper used the scandal “to abuse and condemn politics in general far more than was justified by the facts”. And it’s clear he has an incredibly low regard for The Telegraph in general. He says they’re swiftly “becoming almost a Tea Party sort of paper, as hostile to David Cameron and the coalition as to Labour”. He was appalled by their “way over the mark” ‘expose’ of Vince Cable – “If the police had done that sort of thing it would be regarded as entrapment.” The Cable affair, indeed, is indicative of the “anti politics atmosphere which corrodes public trust in politicians and is very bad for the health of the country in the long-run”.
In an age when only the sport of banker bashing is more popular that hating politicians, we need more political journalists like White: cynical but fair, and never prone to jumping on populist bandwagons. Or, for that matter, trying to make the news themselves. That isn’t on any journalist’s job description, but an increasing number seem to think it is.
White and Wigmore talk politics: