Steve Richards interview: politics and the media

York Alumni and preeminent political journalist for The Independent, Steve Richards shares his thoughts on the interaction between media and politics.

As part of the celebration of the University’s 50th anniversary, Steve Richards, York alumni and current Chief Political Commentator at The Independent, came back to the birthplace of his journalism experience to host a political show between two other alumni Greg Dyke and Peter Hitchens.

Steve Richards is Chief Political Commentator at The Independent since 2000. ©The Independent; Image credit: The Independent.

The Yorker was lucky to have a chat with Richards a few minutes before the start of the debate. Leading political journalist, Steve Richards is at the heart of the complex interaction between the media and the political sphere. This relationship is not only crucial to modern day politics, but as Richards puts it, is also one which “catches the fire” of public interest in politics. Here is a glimpse of Richards’ thoughts and ideas on the matter and understanding of young people’s place on the political spectrum.

How important do you think impartiality is in political broadcasting?

Well, newspapers aren’t impartial and the BBC is impartial and that is a very big difference. The problem in Britain is that the majority of newspapers are on the right which makes up the main media political orthodoxy. The BBC does a fairly decent job in reporting impartially and yet, impartiality remains a subjective issue: news is an art form and not a science and so even impartiality is tested at times. However it is very important that impartiality stays journalists’ main objective, we don’t want to have Fox News here.

In 2012, the Daily Telegraph ranked you as the 34th most influential person of the British left. Do you agree that you are displaying your political views in your journalism?

I write political columns that are supposedly on the left of centre. It’s a silly thing that The Telegraph does each year to coincide with party conferences. But to some extent I do take a side, the whole idea of a column is that it comes from a set of ideas and perspectives and so mine is rather on the left. But I used to be at the BBC and it is very easy to switch from writing a column to impartiality.

Steve Richards ‘In the end, the way to develop political energy is to join a political party’ at the Festival of Ideas ©Chloé Farand; Image credit: Chloé Farand.

What do you think is the future of political journalism? Will it be a more in depth-analytical type of reporting or do you think it’s going to shift towards more comments and opinion pieces?

I think it needs to be both. Newspapers have gone down market: The TimesThe Independent, even The Guardian to some extent and I think there is the need of more upmarket information. Short,140 letter tweets and hasty blogs need to be countered: there needs to be the pay-for news, the really well-informed upmarket stuff because you can get the rest for nothing. I think that is the key to the future.

So would you completely disagree with the theory that future journalism will be mainly about opinion and comment?

No, I think that is also important. I think people will still pay for columns if they are thoughtful, well-written and well-informed. As you know, blogs are written on the whole quite quickly and they are responsive, so the paid-for column has to be considered lengthy and really thought-through. But the other important thing people will keep paying for is this analytical reporting which they will not get for free.

What do you think about the media’s perception and coverage of the current coalition government?

Although most of the newspapers are conservatives they don’t like Cameron very much, so there is a bit of a war going on. Yet, by the time of the general election they will all support him. They are giving him a bit of a bad time at the moment but they will all turn nice to him and continue to target their guns at Ed Miliband.

Do you think coalition governments are the next common form of government in Britain? Or was this a one off?

That is a key question. My feeling is that it might prove to be a one off and that we will go back to either Labour or Conservatives for the next few elections. The British electoral system makes it more likely than not that one party will win and I think that will carry on again.

In your opinion, for whom do you think the youth is going to vote at the next general elections after having been alienated by the Liberal Democrats with the rise of the tuition fees?

First of all I really hope the students will vote. I was here, in York, in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected and there was complete indifference and I remember finding that very depressing. I assume that if students vote they will vote for Labour, they won’t vote Lib Dem and are even less likely to vote Conservative; but I fear most of them won’t vote at all. And yet, the political spectrum does not at all stand for the interest of the youth. There seems to be now a total disillusion in politics and that is crazy because there is no alternative.

As you say, I feel there is a complete alienation of the youth on the political spectrum which is quite scary since we are the new constituencies, so though students have to vote in order to be included in the political sphere, shouldn’t political parties meet them half way?

The problem is that because older people still vote, politicians are obsessed with wooing people under 65, and because they clocked that a lot of young people don’t vote, they tend to disengage. And yet, although it’s true that the rise of tuition fees switched people off, they should react by saying “what do we do politically to make sure that commitments are kept in the future, to which party do we focus on to deliver what we want” – instead of saying “well, obviously they are all a bunch of bastards” and switch off. It’s a real problem.

Do you believe in a revival of a student movement?

Yes, as long as it’s focused and yet not a single-issue protest, otherwise it just ends when the battle is lost and nothing ever develops. I’ll be very precise, I think in the end the way to develop political energy is to join a political party and get that party to reflect your range of views.

And as a tip to students hoping to get into journalism would you say that having a field of expertise, like politics is an advantage?

It’s a massive advantage. Absolutely crucial! A. to get a job and B. to enjoy the job. Specialisation and focus those are the keys!

Published on The Yorker June 23, 2013
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