Top British MPs Call London Broadsheets Slim on Substance

Minister's fedora fetish replaces serious newspaper analysis, say lawmakers

Former American Vice President Spiro Agnew once derided reporters as "nattering nabobs of negativism." Polls regularly bemoan the media's lack of objectivity. Indeed, a favorite pastime of people the world over, it seems, is slamming the press.

But Britain's Parliament has gone a step further. Led by senior members of Parliament, the House of Commons set forth a resolution last month criticizing London's most prestigious newspapers. It said serious reporting and analysis of politics in their pages are in "steep decline."

The attack on such entrenched broadsheets as The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian asserted that the papers are focusing on "personalities rather than policies, and trivia rather than substance."

The Times has hit back, arguing that its coverage of House of Commons affairs is less than it used to be because "authority has seeped elsewhere" - a point generally conceded by many observers. Furthermore, government announcements, said the paper once known as "the Thunderer," now often take the form of statements made by politicians on radio or TV "rather than in long speeches in Parliament."

But the politicians were undeterred. Leading the attack on Britain's so-called "quality press" is Tim Renton, a former Conservative chief whip, who has the backing of several former senior cabinet ministers.

Mr. Renton has accused editors of failing to provide the public with serious coverage of important issues. He says The Times editorial rejecting his complaints showed that "our dart has hit a bull's-eye."

Using the crisis over British beef as an example of "trivialization," Renton says it is easier to write, "Is Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, going to get the chop?" than to talk about the reasons why the crisis occurred in the first place.

Renton adds: "We want to put over the heartfelt message that we think the serious stuff is being crowded out in the rush for circulation."

Indeed, overcrowding of the market could explain a shift in coverage. Currently 11 nationally circulating daily newspapers are available to British readers.

And this already intense competition is further exaggerated at the "respectable" end of the market, where four papers are in a savage battle for subscribers: The Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian.

This competition can send papers searching for the most sensationally scintillating stories.

For instance, along with other British newspapers, during the beef crisis the Times made great play with Douglas Hogg's sour countenance and preference for fedora hats on his visits to Brussels. But there has been little detail about the precise reasons why British beef is being shunned by Europeans and what the European Union wants London to do about it.

The Times, under prompting from owner Rupert Murdoch, is trying to woo readers away from other papers. It has cut its price to as low as 10 pence (US$0.15), compared with 45 pence (US$0.70) for The Guardian.

In his four years as editor, Peter Stothard has cut back on verbatim reports of Parliament in the Times, preferring instead to concentrate on shorter news stories with strong emphasis on personalities and parliamentary "sketches" in which writers often mock Commons proceedings.

Other political topics, too, critics of Parliament say, are getting what Renton calls the "once-over-lightly" treatment. His colleague in Parliament Sir Tim Sainsbury says reporting of a new law that will make divorce easier was inadequate. Details of the law, he claims, were neglected, but papers had run substantial stories on "Maryland crab fishers and archaeological research at the Tower of London."

Turning his fire on The Times, Sainsbury complained that on the day after the divorce bill was debated and voted on, the paper provided scant coverage of the new law but found room for a story with a headline "Husband threw wife overboard in marital storm."

Geoffrey Goodman, editor of the respected quarterly British Journalism Review, says politicians' complaints about trivialization are "fully justified."

"Serious, detailed newspaper reporting of Parliament has fallen away over the years," Mr. Goodman says. "Editors claim that issues are adequately covered in political discussions on radio and television, but these should not be allowed to substitute for reporting and analysis of parliamentary debates."

Goodman says "circulation wars, staff cutbacks, and a general decline in journalistic standards" help to explain "the present sorry state of affairs."

Renton claims broadsheet newspapers have begun to adopt what he calls the "tabloid values" of mass-circulation papers such as Mr. Murdoch's Sun, which sells more than 4 million copies a day.

Renton asks, "What is the point of buying a broadsheet if it is merely a tabloid blown large?" and adds: "I look to the broadsheets for information and education, for both sides of the argument, for the development and process of a story, and not just its beginning, for good and bad about Britain and its people."

A writer in the Sun dismissed Renton's comments as "pompous."

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