Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Much ado about what in particular? Or the Guardian and lazy journalism

When I tell certain people that I enjoy reading the Guardian, they give me a quizzical look - as though they are a parent whose son has returned from his first term at university with his polo shirt done up to the top button.  He looks like the son you knew and there shouldn't, in theory, be anything wrong with doing up the top button of a polo shirt but...you just know he probably won't be the same again.

But there you go.  My name is Nik and I read the Guardian.  I've said it.

Why do I read it?  You get something different from its news coverage, for a start - the Guardian tends to cover quite different sorts of topics, or at least the same topics from a quite different angle.  So it is informative and challenges me to think differently or to reinforce my views.  Plus it has a stellar cast of columnists, from Michael White to Michael Kettle; Sir Simon Jenkins to Simon Hoggart; Julian Glover to Polly Toynbee.  Even Polly.  You might not always (you might never) agree with her but she is a media heavyweight.

Yet sometimes you do wonder why you read the Guardian; moments like when you come across Patrick Butler's blog today, 'Domestic violence: women's charities face 100% cuts'.  From the starting blocks, you know precisely where this is all heading:
"In an era of senseless cuts to vital public services, here's one that in its brutal scale and short-sightnedness almost beggars belief: Devon county council's proposals to reduce funding for domestic violence support services by 100%."
Brief summary: as part of its budget settlement, Devon County Council is, like all councils, having to make cuts to its expenditure.  As part of that, it has proposed to remove £1 million of funding from three domestic violence charities.  That represents less than one-fiftieth of the overall cuts being made.  It represents 0.0006% of local government spending; or 0.0001% of total UK spending.   Of course cuts to charities - whom I'm sure do a good job - are regrettable but Butler's way of expressing it is utterly pathetic.

First, of course these things look bad, but that's localism for you and the chief paradox at the middle of the Government's worthy decentralisation programme. The centre wants to devolve responsibility and accountability but flak still returns to the centre, even though it's not their decision.

Secondly, this is simply media trailing.  The council is putting out an interim suggestion on where cuts might fall but the actual decision isn't being taken until later.  It's part and parcel of announcements to gauge public reaction and act accordingly and governments have been doing it as long as there's been a popular press.  The decision has not been made.

Thirdly, in typical Guardian style, the author mews sanctimoniously about a single issue and won't mention any context.  At least Polly Toynbee tends to put things in context.  What other actions are Devon County Council taking as part of their budget settlement?  Who knows, not the general reader because they haven't read the settlement, perhaps the journalist hasn't bothered either.  If you go to Devon County Council's website you will see that, yes, they have to propose £54.6 million of budget cuts.  In spite of that, there will be increases for social care for older people and people with disabilities, children in care and children with special needs.  Direct grants to schools will increase and no libraries will close.  They are undergoing public consultation before announcing the full settlement next month.

Moreover, what do we know about or are told about the state of Devon?  Have quick look at the National Statistics website and you'll see that the south-west of England has the highest life expectancies and the lowest proportion of the population in social rented housing.  It has one of the highest household incomes in the country outside London; the lowest proportion of workless households; and the lowest crime rates in England.

Now have another very quick glance (its quite simple all this research) at recent British Crime Survey statistics on domestic violence:
"The risk of intimate violence varied by demographic, socio-economic and lifestyle characteristics. Characteristics that were independently associated with an increased risk of intimate violence across all the forms included marital status (in particular being unmarried), housing tenure, age (under the age of 45), and having a limiting disability or illness."
I'm not saying for a moment that there are not some serious cases of domestic violence against women that occur in Devon.  But, in short, Devon is evidently not the epicentre of the problem.

It isn't only the Guardian (the Daily Telegraph is turning into a tabloid with a bow-tie), but it does really grates me the way things like this are reported.  A narrative has been cast about these cuts and elements of the media will use any scraps they can find to flesh that narrative out - irrespective of context or relativity.

The Government is chucking (increased) billions of pounds at fighting poverty and preventable diseases in the developing world; ring-fencing the health budget against much opposition (including the Labour and Liberal parties) because, what a surprise, Tories do care about the NHS; protecting Post Offices from further closures.... And the Guardian is kicking and screaming about a million quid for a charity doing a job that local social services probably ought to be doing anyway?

Of course, these hacks aren't going to stop this sort of thing.  So, an apt consideration in present circumstances: the Government must sharpen its communications operation.  Richard Lambert's pronouncements on the economy recently may well have been "pathetic" on some levels, according to Lord Lawson, but his accusation of drift and lack of purpose in the Government's overall message holds a fair amount of truth.

In Much Ado About Nothing (Act V), Claudio says Hero has been "done to death by slanderous tongue."    The Government must sell its strategy and (already considerable) achievements, or journalists will disseminate their own versions of events.   Leave it too late, for the hoped-for freebie frenzy in 2013-14, and the chance of electoral resurrection might have already gone.  Get the message right now - and it has to be now, before the cuts really bite - and you might just be able to take the country with you.


  1. It truly is a shame to see how much some of the "better" quality news outlets have degraded themselves in the quest for more readership. On a related subject you know what else is a shame? The BBC World Service faces major cuts. One of the last bastions of brilliant journalism is being reduced now the BBC are taking control of it's budget.

  2. If we had a decent caring society, would there be a need for such units at all? Most exist or are needed because of the indecency of human nature. For the press to politicise, esp incorrectly such things is the same as the indecency that exists in society. Simply indecent.