The end of punditry

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Those of you who listened to the Today programme last Saturday will know I got it wrong about the election. More embarrassingly, it appears that I was still saying the odds were marginally in favour nearly a day after the Prime Minister and his advisors had decided against.

Maybe this is the end of my punditry.

If so, I know some Fellows will be relieved.

I try to tread a fine line between providing insights from my old role in Downing Street and speaking from my non-affiliated position at the RSA. But this can sometimes be a difficult balancing act, especially when  I'm pitted against someone with a more partisan perspective.

Given these pitfalls why pundit (please forgive this new verb) at all?

I realise my answer will have no credibility unless I own up to enjoying low level celebrity. No one ever stops me in the street and asks for my autograph, but I get a warm feeling when the man in the dry cleaners asks if that was me he saw on Newsnight..

But I would like to claim a higher purpose to explain being in a taxi on the Western Avenue at 1 am after the Sky News paper review.

In a world where politicians and policy makers are usually portrayed as being either venal or stupid, I hope sometimes to shed a more sympathetic light on the pressures of those at the heart of the political system. I aim for empathy with the dilemmas faced by politicians and officials even if I disagree with their conclusions.

But media profile can become addictive. It is all too easy to say 'yes' to every bid without asking what purpose the punditry will serve. Thus I found myself last Friday and Saturday on three different radio programmes commenting on whether there would be an election (and later on two more explaining why was there was not). I had gone from being an informed commentator to a racing tipster.

The reason for sharing all this is not merely to make excuses for my own promiscuity. After all my media sins are small in comparison to rigged phone polls, racist house mates, the antics of  Jeremy Kyle and his ilk, and the misrepresentation of our Monarch.

Resulting from the reputational crisis facing our broadcasters we can expect many new safeguards to be put in place. The daytime shows will keep psychiatrists on call, the phone-ins will be better labelled, and - as I found out the other day - interviewees will no longer be asked to do the silent 'noddies' that used to form the opening shot of news segments.

But I can't help thinking that all this quasi-regulation - much of which will be quietly dropped when the spotlight has moved - misses the point. Surely the question our beloved media need to ask more often is: 'Why are we doing this?'

In other words the problem is motive as much as process. The phone-in rules may have been broken but the point is that viewers thought these were genuine forms of consultation or competition when in fact they were merely ways of making money.

Similarly, the issue with the Queen 'storming out' was not just bad editing or oversight, it was the desire of the film makers to make us to think badly of someone for the sake of entertainment.

Behind the veils of 'public service', 'creativity' and 'entertainment', representatives of the broadcast media seem to offer a less credible account of their corporate responsibility than a high street coffee shop.

With a backdrop of falling audiences and proliferating channels and platforms, public service broadcasting will come under ever greater pressure to provide a rationale. My hunch is that the focus on high quality content will need to be complemented by an account of how broadcasters build relationships, both with and between audience members.

Motives matter in relationships.

At our RSA Screen events Channel 4 programme makers discuss their work with a mixed audience. It is a fascinating and often challenging exchange, with the inspirations and objectives of the film makers coming often to the fore.

Whether you are an occasional pundit or a highly rewarded TV presenter, the question 'did I do good' may be harder than the self-serving 'was I good'. But maybe it's one we should be asking more often.

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  • Its not often that I've had the opportunity to contact the media myself. My own company has quietly gone about its business for the past 17 years serving its customers (predominently mail order and web) in what we hope is a good way. That relationship was threatened by the recent postal strike which we hope is now at the point of a resolution which will see an end to the strike and the beginning of negotiations that can take the company forward for the sake of its owners (us courtesy of the Government) and in the spirit of the newly redefined Companies Act, of its employees.

    It was with this end..for this good (and I do believe that a universal postal system is a "good thing")that we contacted various media channels for the purpose of highlighting the plight of small businesses such as ours. It was slightly surprising having fired off some emails to get calls from BBC2's Working Lunch and Radio 5 Live the following morning and the following week the result was a snippet on the Today program (but how could a 10 minute interview be honed into a 10 second bite?)

    What experience did I gain from this - the negatives ...the danger of being taken out of context, edited comments resulting in a shift of emphasis and on the positive the fact that with a cause worth fighting for our voice was heard. In my view this was public broadcasting as it should be - an issue that affected the public being brought to light but I could see how easy it could be to shift the balance of an interview to draw a pre-defined conclusion. Your point is a good one. I think the interviewers I dealt with did "do good" (I may be biased!) but I also hope they ask themselves that question often.

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