This is our truth, tell us yours
Processology is a term I learned from Alistair Campbell. It describes perfectly the sort of stories that dog governments, when the process says they did everything right, but the outcomes described by the media say it’s all wrong. Trying to put that impression right involves processology, and no-one likes it, no-one reads it, and, all too often, no-one believes it.
Processology is hated by modern British journalists. They shy away from complicated stories that need research and careful explanation. They don’t want to explain to you why the Secretary of State should have declared his trip to Amsterdam for the MTV awards. They want you to be shocked and tittilated by the presence of a dominatrix, by the illicit thrill of sex work.
Except,of course, that Nick Mutch, who wrote that story, couldn’t find a taker for it. The mainstream press weren’t up for it, and it ended up on byline.com, a site that is one step up from blogging. All the innuendo inthe world, and all the old staples of a News of the World front page (good time girl, shadowy underworld connections and so on) couldn’t make this story fly.
This week my timeline on Twitter has also featured Hopi Sen,and others, wondering why James Lyons stories about Ian Lavery MP aren’t getting more traction. Now, bearing in mind what I said about processology, James Lyons has done a good job of putting together the story of Ian Lavery’ rise to Labour’s front bench, and the rather unattractive mess he left behind at the NUM in Northumberland. The stories have been littered with documentary evidence, but have failed to get off the ground in terms of undermining Lavery.
There are two possibilities about this. One is the suspicion, built on Hopi Sen’s involvement in promoting the story, is that it’s an internal Labour spat being acted out in public. As an unreconstructed Blairite Hopi is no fan of Corbynistas, although Lavery’s claim to be a dyed in the wool Corbynista is tenuous at best; like many trade union leaders Lavery is an ideological nomad, of no political fixed abode. Actually, trade union leader is an odd description for Lavery too; by the time he was general secretary of the Northumberland NUM it was just a shadow of its former self, amounting to one lodge based in Ashington and a huge history. The extent to which the NUM had declined might be the basis for Ronnie Campbell’s contemptuous references to the Wansbeck mafia* – the NUM had run out of reasons for fraternal niceties once the only pit left in Northumberland was Ellington, and even more so once it had closed.
Now it’s important not to misjudge the Lavery story; despite the MPs threats of legal actions over the stories about his mortgage (which he refuses to clarify or explain) journalists are still knocking on doors in Ashington, seeking further details. The story may well blow up, especially if Cameron uses it as a stick to beat Corbyn with at Prime Minister’s Questions, but questions remain about the reticence of the once big beasts of Fleet Street to rush to press over either this or the Culture Secretary’s discomfort.
A dislike of processology is part of the explanation about both the Lavery story and the Whittingdale story. Celebrity culture is another part though. How can a sketchy story about the Culture secretary compete for its place in the tabloids when each one has its own version of the sidebar of shame, guaranteeing sleaze and tittilation in equal measure? The style of the tabloids may vary (celeb culture in the Mail, more supermarkettabloid stories in the Sun and Mirror) but the message is clear; it’s cheaper to put up stories provided by publicists and screen scraped from the internet than it is to stand up original stories with any degree of complexity. This represents a paradigm shift in the press, a change in the way they work to such an extent that we may all need to re-calibrate our sense of what will make a huge front page splash. The way in which the stories about Tory election expenses problems have sunk without trace is another example.
There is one further element that may be saving Ian Lavery’s bacon for the time being. Simply put, the amount of money he’s alleged to have received from the NUM is small beer compared to the Panama files,and the morality of the story is more complex than, say, the cut and dried dishonesty involved in using shell corporations in Panama to ensure your children get their inheritance without the taxman getting involved. Whether he can survive all the investigations that are likely to follow is a tougher question, but for now, he’s not the biggest story around.
*South East Northumberland is shaped by two rivers; the Blyth and the Wansbeck. Campbell represents the Blyth Valley, (which comprises Blyth and Cramlington, and their hinterland) Lavery represents Wansbeck (which comprises Ashington, Bedlington and Morpeth). Once Blyth lost its pit in 1985, where Campbell was the union chair, Blyth Valley lost any influence on the NUM.