The Coalition Agreement offered few aspirations for media reform, just like the Conservative and Liberal Democrat election manifestos that preceded it. A mere forty-two words in its founding document vaguely promise to set up TV stations in co-operation with local newspapers and to let the dogs of the National Audit Office loose on the BBC in order to strengthen the corporation's ‘independence’. Apart from a standard genuflection to the wonders of high-speed broadband, the agenda ends there. No vision thing; no stretching menu for change. David Cameron and Nick Clegg pledged very little in this area, and fulfilled their modest ambitions. Which, of course, does not mean that what the media said and did during the years of combined government wasn't important – indeed, at times, an obsession that consumed politicians and editors alike. Passions rise when the spotlight shines.
Normally, political journalism – in print, in broadcasting, in the lobbies of Parliament – operates to a settled, almost stately routine. Parties prepare manifestos, polls are watched, pundits and editorial writers deliver their verdicts. Then a government is elected and the game begins. Who's up? Who's down? Comment develops a sharper edge as the years roll away. Allegiances, mostly already clear, become fervent. And then it happens all over again. More Blair, more Thatcher, more Whoever or Whatever, more clichés portraying despair or joy. The circle of political life turns. Except in 2010, when coalition altered the whole context, nature and point of the story – and, oddly, the media seemed to find it more difficult to cope with than the politicians themselves.
Three potent factors changed the nature of media coverage and relationships after May 2010. One was the simple arithmetic of the general election itself, decided against a background of global economic crisis. Another was the need to discover a narrative that could survive in such constrained circumstances.