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25 Sep 2017

TV journalists set out to make me look stupid – and missed the real news

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22 Jul 2017
This week I was caught up in a ‘gotcha’ storm. The headlines should have
been about the alarming rise in crime, not about an interview stumble

I found myself in the middle of a “gotcha” journalism storm this week.

The government released new crime statistics on Thursday, revealing the highest annual rise in crime in a decade. This, together with the fact that we are seeing the lowest police numbers in 30 years, is a story. It shows that Tory austerity is actually making all of us less safe. So I sent out a press release which included the fact that Labour in government would recruit 10,000 more police officers. And I did a series of media interviews.

Problem for PM is that crime figures are accompanied by news that police numbers have reached lowest level since 1985

But one media outlet were not really interested in the big story of the day. ITV just wanted to catch Diane Abbott out. So, on camera, they asked me how we would pay for the extra officers.

I have answered that question innumerable times – including one famous time on LBC radio where I stumbled over the figures. But, precisely because of the treatment I received in the media on that occasion (which morphed into horrific levels of racist abuse online), I froze. It was entirely predictable that they would ask this. I knew the answer. But for fateful seconds I couldn’t get the words out.

That was enough for the television journalist editing the footage. They put up a carefully edited video on Twitter.

But they didn’t include anything I had said about the crime statistics. Their considered news judgment was that the “story” was not the rise in rape and violent crime, but making a politician look stupid.

Far be it from me to complain about journalists editing footage to  make politicians look stupid. It is free entertainment in an age of  austerity. But yesterday I spoke to a succession of senior journalists  at the news outlet; after the footage was tweeted but before it was  broadcast. I found that instructive.

They insisted that my stumble was the real story. They were proud of their fact-free, research-free and investigation-free “story”. They were unmoved by the racist abuse online (including the usual death threats)  that their tweet had already triggered. They were entirely unable to  explain why Philip Hammond or Boris Johnson getting their figures wrong  was not treated in the same way as Diane Abbott doing the same thing. And they were very clear that they saw no reason to carry what I had actually said about the crime statistics.

As it happens, I was a television news journalist for most of the 1980s. It would have been inconceivable that a politician having to stop and start an answer would have made it on to an evening television news bulletin as a “story”. If I had tried to pitch this to my news editor, he would have looked at me uncomprehendingly.

But today television news organisations have less money to spend than in the past. It is easy to see the attraction of “gotcha” journalism.

It is easy and cheap. But does it help the public understand complex  stories any better?
Tomorrow too many people will experience the horror of a violent crime. It could be rape, robbery or having acid flung in their face.

Perhaps what we need from news organisations is not more “gotcha”  journalism, but a journalism that sheds light on complicated issues like violent criminality. And, in the age of Brexit, we probably need genuinely illuminating journalism more than ever.

* Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/21/tv-journalists-make-diane-abbott-look-stupid-rise-in-crime

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