10 OCTOBER 1970, Page 16


Reporting the conferences


The first thing that hits your eye, when you look down at a party conference from the Tv commentary position, is a row of long white tables just below the platform. These are for the Gentlemen of the Press whose cohorts, definitely not golden, though perhaps a touch purple, have certainly swept down on the fold in the traditional Assyrian man- ner.

A second glance reveals cameras to the right of them, cameras to the left of them, each labelled Granada or BBC, and each dutifully duplicating the other.

Then take a stroll along the balcony of the Winter Gardens Blackpool to where there are rows of seats labelled 'Foreign Press', filled with fellows whose languages range from Russian to Hindi, and whose com- plexions can be any colour you can think of.

It all adds up to an immense coverage of an assembly whose deliberations, though perhaps important in the long run for some people, are totally uninteresting to most peo- ple in the short run.

The question • immediately suggests itself—is it all worth it? In other words, are conferences covered in accordance with their newsworthiness or because they've always been done this way? To take just one ex- ample, surely the Liberal Party Assembly, with its almost complete political irrelevance, isn't worth anything like the space, time and money expended on it?

There are several ways of looking at the problem. First, as a piece of political educa- tion essential to the proper working of a parliamentary democracy. I do not know how many people read the splendidly written pieces of Messrs Boyd, Hutchinson, Aitken, Wood, Lochhead and others. But I do know, as far as television is concerned, that though the audiences, compared with, say Corona- tion Street, are derisory, if not actually in- visible, more people watched any single day of the broadcasts from the 100th Trades Union Congress than had been to, ie seen, all the previous ninety-nine Congresses added together. Now that sounds a pretty im- pressive statistic, and it is. But extracts in the evening bulletins get far larger audiences. Apart from the problems of editorial selec- tion and the inevitable accusations of partiality—for we all know that politicians are notoriously prickly persons—is this therefore a better way of doing it? Remember that the selection of highlights may give an entirely false impression of what the day has been like. Is it better to show people these or to show them that con- ferences, like Parliament and war, are made

up of long periods of intense boredom with only occasional bursts of excitement?

The same questions arise with newspapers. Are fullish reports, which relatively few peo- ple read, better than the considered, and sometimes coloured, interpretative pieces the specialists provide? (Note that these two

metho( are not mutually exclusive. At present newspapers and television use both together.) Doing selections or summaries is certainly cheaper. Covering a conference live on TV

costs at least £11,000 a week, and you could

almost do a couple of Coronation Streets or Forsyte episodes for that, which is a point worth considering when you remember that the commercial companies and the BBC are both pleading comparative poverty at the moment. But the really important question is which is the better way of doing things.

Next look at the question of bias. Live Tv coverage can hardly be accused of this, although it sometimes is (the BBC has been getting a most unfair bashing in this respect lately). But you can't really accuse live coverage of being biased because all you're

doing is showing things as they happen. And full reports in newspapers can similarly be

excused. But extracts and summaries and interpretative reports, especially in news- papers, can be accused of bias, and often are. In fact a speaker from the Labour Party platform did just that last week, wondering how Socialism had survived in face of a hostile Tory press. One's immediate reaction was astonishment, since the Mirror is almost always pro-Labour, the in

dependent Sun very often is, and the Guar- dian has over the last four General Elections advised its readers to vote Labour (quite

apart from the fact that if more Socialists had been prepared to buy the Daily Herald and Reynolds News when they were alise they wouldn't be dead today).

There is however something in the ac- cusation. Nobody could accuse the Dail) Mail of being anti-Conservative (see Mon- day's lead story on page one, headlined 'Is 6d cut in income tax plan'); the Daily Express has been known to be biased in its time; the Daily Telegraph; despite Andrew Alex- ander's sprays of vitriolic impartiality, can only be described as Tory; and though it is hard to tell where the Times stands today, no one could possibly mistake it for the Morn- ing Star.

But if all these papers carried very full reports of what has been said at conferences

(some do, of course) readers would be free to make up their own minds, if they so wished, as to the implications of what had been said. Always assuming, as I said earlier, that they would bother or have the time to read all that this would entail.

A further but much less important point is whether the people involved in covering con-

ferences would benefit by shorter coverage Would they be better off if they were engaged on something less frustrating or more demanding of them professionally?

Doing something you've been doing for so long you can do it standing on your head does sometimes lead to your doing it stand- ing on your head. Which may be good for you physically but can't be good for your point of view. I raise these points because this week well be going through the whole rigmarole again at the Tory Conference. Same hotel, same conference hall, same VIP suite, as the Mir- ror pointed out on Monday. I do not know the answers to any of the questions I have asked. I merely thought them worth ask. ing.