by Atul Hatwal
So he’s still got a job. Jeremy Hunt hangs on, defying political gravity. His performance yesterday at Leveson was woeful. Between the further revelations of his simpering texts to James Murdoch and near tearful demeanour, it was by any standards, a dreadful day for the Tory.
But despite all of this, thanks to some catastrophic media management choices made at the top of the government, Jeremy Hunt is still standing.
It’s almost possible to see the meeting: Craig Oliver, Gabby Bertin, George Osborne, all sat round the table at their morning huddle. Yes, it is going to be tough. Yes the evidence is damning. But the public don’t get the detail of Leveson. They just think all politicians are in hock to Murdoch and besides, as long as Hunt stays in post, he remains the story.
Which means David Cameron is not.
This was the rationale behind the PM’s decision to continue backing his critically compromised secretary of state for culture, media and sport: a whole-hearted vote of confidence in his personal, human shield.
In one sense the government media panjandrums are right. David Cameron is nowhere to be found in today’s headlines. It’s all Hunt. But everything has a price to pay, and in this case it is the collective confidence of the lobby journalists.
Although individual newspapers are no longer as influential as in the past – it’s unlikely that the Sun will ever again be the one wot won it– the club of parliamentary journalists still wields massive power when they form a common view.
On these occasions, this shared perspective becomes the lens through which all news, print, broadcast and online, is projected.
For the government, after just two years in office, such a view has formed. The leitmotif in the lobby narrative on the government’s media strategy is now incompetence.
It colours all reporting and increasingly undermines the government’s ability to run the news cycle. Positive stories are treated with suspicion, negative stories with credibility. For Labour, it took over a decade to reach this nadir.
Even given the number of U-turns, economic turbulence and toxicity of hacking, it is remarkable that the collective media swoon in the rose garden in May 2010 has turned so decisively to a unanimous sneer by May 2012.
There are a range of reasons for such a dramatic reversal, but two in particular have driven the pace and depth of change in the lobby’s position: twitter, which has fundamentally changed the nature of the lobby journalist’s role; and Leveson which has been a catalyst for shifting their opinion.
Tweeting is now part of the standard lobby journalist job description. As individuals, these journalists each have several thousand followers, eager to read the latest 140 character update on what’s happening. This has had two results.
First, journalists’ immediate reactions are often more honest and even-handed than articles that have passed through the filter of a loaded newsroom. Once the instant judgement is out there in twitter-land, it becomes harder for the journalist to walk it back in a piece that takes a more dogmatic, partisan line.
Having a personal fanbase of thousands is addictive. Journalists are only human. The reaction of twitter followers to inconsistencies between what is tweeted and what appears in the paper is a powerful new influence on journalists.
Second, while twitter generates pressures that make the lobby more politically independent of their employers, paradoxically, it makes the individual journalists much more alike. The tenor and judgement of tweets reacting to events are remarkably similar across the lobby.
One thing you will never see: two lobby journalists tearing into each other on twitter. Bloggers, yes. Lobby, no.
The net impact of twitter has been to embed an even higher level of groupthink amongst the political journalists, and most important of all, to make this hive-mind view public, on a minute by minute basis.
If twitter has driven new levels of transparent consensus among the lobby, then the Leveson inquiry has given them unprecedented detail on government incompetence, around which they can unite.
The journalists have been physically sat together for days on end, watching the political equivalent of Wimbledon. Jay versus a series of government politicians and advisers, with all of it analysed, evaluated and tweeted in real time.
Unlike the public, the lobby has pored over the detail of testimony and evidence. They have sifted the mountains of e-mails and texts, never before revealed to their profession. And they have fully grasped each and every point where Jeremy Hunt has said one thing in public to the House of Commons and then done something very different in private.
The journalists have seen David Cameron not even attempt to directly address issues such as the breach of the ministerial code or whether Hunt misled the House.
These are clear points of right or wrong. Unlike policy issues, such as the measures in the budget where there are always pros and cons to be weighed, Leveson has revealed binary cases where the government has been wrong and no one from their side has even tried to substantively defend those points.
Leveson through the twitter looking glass has destroyed lobby trust in the government.
The one measure that Cameron could have taken to change the media consensus would have been to sack Hunt. He could have faced into the truth, acknowledged what the journalists can all see and responded.
By opting to ignore political reality, and hang onto Hunt, Cameron might have kept the fire from his door for a few days more, but only at the cost of his entire media strategy.
That no one in Downing street seems to understand what it means to lose the lobby like this will ultimately be far more lethal to the government’s political prospects than any of Hunt’s dissembling.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut