View from the top: Westminster’s Mr Straight

The Guardian’s political editor Michael White talks to Adam Hill about New Labour’s media machine and his love-hate relationship with PROs

Michael White, The Guardian's political editor since 1990, is the man Alastair Campbell punched in his pre-Number 10 days. Less widely reported was the fact that White hit him back. 'Someone told me I cut his lip,' he says, almost proudly.

White is 60 this month but looks fit, despite now thinking of doing something 'less taxing'. His bearing could perhaps be described as relaxed military – although only if the army tolerated backchat from someone with ironic wit. There is a fair bit of the raised eyebrow about White's sense of humour: he rarely smiles, but is often funny. There is a steely morality there, too. He is not joking when he calls former Blair aide Lance Price's memoir, The Spin Doctor's Diary, 'distastefully disloyal'.

He has been a Guardian man for 34 years. Perhaps this is why, as party conference season finishes, he is not going to miss his annual trips to the seaside. The plasma-screened plushness of today's conferences is a far cry from Scarborough in 1975 (his first) and the dungareed revolts against the Labour leadership. 'I don't look forward to any of them anymore,' White says. 'I'm fond of Brighton but the venue has no atmosphere. Not even Hitler could have got his career started there. And the Labour conference is much blander and duller now.'

White is aware of the problems of engaging the public in politics, but he is an old-school operator, a firm believer in playing political reporting straight. Looking back at the days when conferences were 'organised riots', he recognises that they were 'never great at communicating to the wider electorate'.

His comments echo those of former BBC political editor Andrew Marr, who recently said journalists must take more responsibility for the decline in people's interest in politics by writing more about the 'boring stuff'.

Guardian sketch writer Simon Hoggart says of his colleague: 'Michael despises the kind of journalism that comprises taking a kernel of fact, blowing it up with air and sugar-coating it for the breakfast table. Sometimes that gets him in trouble with the paper, which would like more ersatz excitement.'

White explains this dilemma as symptomatic of his profession. 'Journalism sits in an inverted moral values system. A newspaper's idea of a really good car crash is one where no one survives,' he says, before returning to his argument that media have
a responsibility to be 'more thoughtful'.

White says The Guardian's Berliner revamp has been all about 'trying to adopt a more neutral tone, to try and be calmer'. However, he fudges the issue of whether the redesign will means less room for political coverage.

More fool the paper if there is less. Katie Perrior, former media adviser to prospective Conservative leader David Davis, says MPs are well aware of the potential of the 'White effect'. 'The fear of God goes into a politician about to be addressed by Michael,' she says. 'His brain is extraordinary.'

Part of the process
White is not exactly a PRO's dream come true, either. He is aware of his place in the world of 'spin': 'Political writers are part of the PR process and are always in danger of what social scientists might call "producer capture" [in which prevailing opinions become the only ones offered and discussed].' If good journalism involves swimming against the tide, he says this is what  he does. 'Your ambition should be to get struck off politicians' Christmas card lists,' he quips.

White believes that a non-professional relationship between hack and the PR machine will usually 'end in tears', for the simple reason that providing sympathetic copy is not always going to be in the media's interest. 'Neil Kinnock expected journalists to be sympathetic, even matey,' he says. 'But we're not there to do what they want.'
Indeed, this often fractious relationship between politicians and journalists is a major factor in the way the PR machine now operates. 'Because of what the press did to Kinnock, New Labour is obsessed with headlines,' says White.

This obsession has led to the reining in of the Westminster village. 'The morning lobby briefing, "the 11 o'clock", used to take place in the first window on the right at Number 10. Then it moved to the basement, where we could have been tortured without anyone being the wiser – a sort of romper room where we sat on a sofa. That was where the great dramas of the Campbell era took place.' Eventually, White believes, Campbell's style wasn't doing either side any favours. 'Alistair was much too well informed, dangerous and confrontational, so he gave it up.'

As for Campbell's successors in the lobby briefing process – Godric Smith and Tom Kelly –  White is unimpressed. 'They are nowhere near as close to Blair. Nice chaps, but their function is to be the opposite of Alastair. As a source of information they are deliberately much less useful.'

He bemoans the way that today's briefing at Number 10 has become an agenda-checking device. 'I still attend, as much to hear the questions as the answers. In the interest of openness it's all on the record, but that makes it less useful. It'll probably be televised live one day, which will make it even less useful.' He quotes the late writer Anthony Sampson: 'Openness is the new secrecy.'

White says his main story sources are still politicians, off-record and on. 'I much prefer frankness to attribution, but that's not fashionable,' he says. 'The Government information service is sometimes brilliant, but patchy.' His inbox is full of messages from think-tanks, political parties, City and industry PROs (and the Royal College of Psychologists, 'for some reason'), and unions. 'Journalism is an "opportunity crime". Sometimes you're so glad to hear from PROs you'd kiss them. But mostly not.'

The Guardian's criticism of New Labour has not always gone down well with the leadership. Its long-standing status as a 'Labour' paper was called into question by Campbell, whom White says advised people to read the (Murdoch-owned) Times. Blair surprised some party supporters by saying of The Guardian, 'I prefer to read a Labour paper'. 

The fisticuffs with Campbell back in 1991 do not seem to have affected White's access to top people when the former took up his political role, but he says it is unfortunate that politicians refuse to engage in meaningful conversation. 'Neither Blair nor Gordon Brown are good interviewees, they're too guarded. Brown is intellectually more interesting than Blair, who can be quite slow and opaque on policy.' White says that even a question as basic as 'why should 50 per cent of young people go to university?' gets a puzzled 'because it's the right thing to do' from Blair. 'But he is a formidable politician,' White concedes.

Changing of the guard
Formidable politicians are clearly not enough to interest potential voters – or even large parts of the media – in politics. White suggests greater use of the internet, more frequent elections, citizens' juries and plebiscites as solutions, but acknowledges the inherent problems with these. 'The trouble with the internet is that the people who need to engage most are the least likely to be using it. The [economically] poor are also information poor. Either they don't vote or they go to the BNP or its Islamic equivalents, and that's a real worry.'

It probably does not help that politics is going through one of its less colourful periods. 'Hopefully we are about to hit lively times again with the changing of the guard,' says White. What he calls the 'normal forces' of the media have reasserted themselves over the Government, 'except the Murdoch press, with whom Labour is locked in a Faustian pact'.

White is amused by what he sees as the Daily Mail's misjudgment of the Chancellor: '[Editor-in-chief] Paul Dacre appears to believe that Brown is not a modernising, New Labour socialist.' But White predicts Dacre will be disappointed with the heir-apparent. He is also scathing about the way the Mail denigrates British institutions – as opposed to criticising them. 'An obvious example would be the Daily Mail talking about a "Third World health service"... "Labour gives you cancer" would be the ultimate Mail headline. Better still, "Blair stole your pension".'

As it happens, pensions were indirectly responsible for White's punch-up with Campbell after the aquatic death of Campbell's then boss – and pension fund ransacker – Robert Maxwell. 'I made a couple of tasteless jokes,' admits White. 'I thought Mirror journalists would join the general merriment.' Instead he got a right hook from the paper's enraged political editor – proof, if it were required, that politics can be a rough business, however straight you want to play it.

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