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It Used To Be Better

December 19, 2023 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Political journalism in The Netherlands is often shockingly superficial. Jan Tromp and Coen van de Ven, a seasoned and a younger journalist of De Volkskrant, explain in this book the root causes of this phenomenon. Both journalists and politicians are to blame.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the relationship between press and politics was close. Politicians and journalists spoke frequently, without the intervention of spokespersons and political assistants; these professions hardly existed in The Hague then. They often had long, substantive discussions in which pros, cons and doubts were discussed. The conversations often continued well into the night and might be drenched in alcohol. Both sides trusted each other and allowed each other space because this benefited both. Journalists knew a lot, both about politicians’ private lives and about proposed policies, that they did not always use in their reports in order to maintain good relations. The disadvantage was that politicians were sometimes given too much protection.

The relationship between press and politics has become much more transactional over the years. There is little mutual understanding anymore, in fact, there is an arms race of distance and distrust. There is hardly any direct contact between journalists and politicians anymore; media mainly interact with spokespersons and spindoctors; when direct contact does exist, it is short and business-like. Spin doctors try to control what appears in the media and journalists keep an eye out for slip-ups of and (alleged) contradictions between politicians. The fuss of the day has become more important than the state of the country.

The change in the relationship is related to changes in politics itself. Building an image has become more important for politicians than designing a policy. The medium no longer supports the message, but has become the message. Parliamentary debates have become shouting matches, where representatives mainly serve their own supporters in repetitive monologues instead of engaging in substantive debates about the content of proposed laws.

Parliamentarians have become merchants who focus on what gets them the most votes rather than what they believe in. They are more concerned about their profile and their image than about their ideals. The intellectual debate with room for doubt has all but disappeared. Campaigns have become flat, even clownish. Intellectual exploration and honestly searching for the truth have become virtually impossible.

In my opinion, the close relationship between politicians and press of the past definitely had pitfalls, but it produced journalism of higher quality than the mutual alienation of today. The tv talk shows in particular, which politicians consider as the highest in the media hierarchy, are no longer interested in content, but merely in barely relevant personal motives, arguments and fights. Press and politicians have brought it upon themselves that trust in politics is waning and that is a major social problem.

Jan Tromp en Coen van de Ven. Wantrouwen in de wandelgangen. Hoe pers en politiek van elkaar vervreemd raakten. Balans, 2023