Chuka Umunna Did the Right Thing by Walking Out on Sky News

Yesterday was a bad day for Sky News. But I've no doubt they will consider it a triumph - and I find that incredibly worrying.

First, let's get this straight: I am definitely not Chuka Umunna's biggest fan. In my view, he loves himself way too much and has an ego the size of Mars. He's a smooth political operator with his own agenda - one that doesn't coincide with the Labour Party's - and is clearly biding his time until Ed Miliband fails so he can be the first to throw his hat in the ring.

So when I read on Twitter that Chukka had stormed out of a Sky News interview my first thought was that it was an uncharacteristic lapse. Chuka is nothing if not a very consummate performer - so smooth and unruffled you'd sometimes think he practised in front of the mirror with people hurling insults at him - sort of like the way you train police horses to ignore distracting noises coming during a riot. I thought perhaps his day had come and someone had reviled a prissy, self-centred, petulant part of his character.

But then I saw the interview. You can too, here. My initial reaction was a great deal stronger than I'd expected, given that I'm not Chuka's biggest fan. I felt ashamed and disgusted. What has our media come to? Is no topic off limits when there's an artificial row to be created?

Let's look at the facts. Chuka was invited onto Sky News to talk about David Cameron's speech on the economy. He is the shadow business secretary after all, so that's great. Dermot Murnaghan then invited Chuka to say that he thought the letter written to Muslim leaders by Eric Pickles was "patronising". Not, you might note, "What do you think of the letter?" Just "It's patronising isn't it?", to which Chuka said no, he wouldn't use the word patronising. Then Dermot becomes unhinged and decides to attack because he can't generate the row he'd hoped, as Chuka is refusing to play ball. So instead of just leaving it be - or even expressing mild surprise that Chuka had not read the letter but moving on, he took a very unprofessional swipe, suggesting Chuka come back in half an hour after he'd read the letter; that Chuka needed the briefing to answer that question.

Now of course politicians must give opinions on the hoof but we must all accept that every politician, even people like Nigel Farage who is so often cited as someone who talks off the cuff, has some briefing behind them before they go on TV. The reason Farage is so natural on TV is because he's incredibly quick to manipulate the written briefing in his head so it answers the question and make his pre-written 'lines to take' sound like they're things that just occurred to him!

All politicians know that when they're invited on to TV news there will be what's called 'supplemental questions' - i.e. ones that are nothing to do with why they've been asked onto the show. Government ministers are given masses of briefing and 'lines to take', which can often backfire and make them sound like robots, but I suspect senior Labour politicians are left to their own devises a bit more. Either way, they'll be given briefing for a couple of likely questions, or at the very least have written a few notes themselves. If I'd have been writing a briefing that day I would have gone for British Gas prices falling and how that impacts their energy cap/freeze and their cost-of-living-crisis agenda, and something about the Oxfam study on the rich getting richer. I would not have plumped for the letter to Muslim leaders, which means - because I know how busy senior politicians really are - I find it entirely possible that Chuka had not read the whole letter.

And that's the key point. As we all know, a few sentences taken out of context can be dangerous. Without the full text it's not possible to make a judgement on tone - which is why Chuka did not want to elaborate. But there's a much more serious point here. Let's face it, even if he had read the whole letter and did think it was a tad patronising, would he really be stupid enough to say so on live TV? No. For the simple reason that the UK is currently in an incredibly dangerous and serious situation with regards to Islamic terrorism and the last thing we need is for politicians to start slagging each other off on live TV. Right now, just a few days after the Paris attacks, only a complete idiot would play politics or sling words around without a thought to the ramifications. And whatever you might think about Chuka Umunna, he's nobody's fool.

Rolling 24-hour news is spiralling downwards fast. It's becoming its own worst enemy. Because they've got 24 hours to fill they need to drag stories out, inflame the issue or preferable create a new story to fill their schedule. No longer do they give us the facts and some relevant, informative comment and opinion. They've got hours and hours to fill, so they overreach themselves. If there's no story - no problem - create one. And in this case, what's really sad is that a less able politician would probably have been bounced into saying that yes, the letter was patronising. And what then? Sky News has created a great new set of stories: UK political leaders at war over how to tackle terrorism in the UK. What does this mean for the future security of the UK? Is Eric Pickles helping the terrorists?

Commercial rolling news channels have got to the point where there is no thought for any ramifications. All restraint has gone. Their needs come first, above and beyond those of society. Whereas they used to accept that they had a responsibility to be even-handed and careful in their coverage, they now just don't care. They'll interview anyone, show any footage and say anything to generate a story. Where once they had a mind to the public good, an eye on society and the bigger picture, now they only have an eye on the ratings - and their own publicity. Yesterday was a bad day for Sky News. But I've no doubt they will consider it a triumph - and I find that incredibly worrying.


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