Wikinews interviews Tatton Spiller, founder of political news service Simple Politics

Monday, October 23, 2023

The Palace of Westminster in 2022.
Image: Terry Ott.

On October 13, Tatton Spiller, the founder of online news service Simple Politics, answered queries from Wikinews reporter Ash Thawley. The organisation, as of today, had 829,000 followers on Instagram, 233,000 on Facebook, and 83.7 thousand on Twitter, with posts covering political news within the United Kingdom, including policy, quotes from politicians, and collations of headlines.

Interview with Spiller


What prompted the creation of Simple Politics? Have your goals for the account changed over time?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) Well, it was a feeling that we weren't doing politics very well, we weren't trying to explain it. I worked at Parliament for a bit, and Parliament couldn't do anything 'cause they were too worried about impartiality, like they couldn't say anything 'cause they were so worried about it. Um, and also, honestly, I had a total, uh, breakdown, [...] I was a teacher at the time and I couldn't really do teaching anymore and so I needed a project, and so I got stuck into this thing, um, and I didn't really know where it was gonna go. The idea was to explain bills as they went through; as each bill went through Parliament, I wanted to tell people what the changes to their lives would be, I wanted to make people aware.

So it started off as a website, and it started off straight after David Cameron won his majority in 2015, and the goal then was to...just get-I-I-I-I don't know what the goal was. Like I say, I was very very ill at the time, um. But no-one was coming, it was a website, and no-one was coming to the website, because who goes to websites, right? So someone told me I had to go onto social media, so I [...] went onto Twitter, and then I realised that I wanted people to see it on Twitter, and then I launched on Facebook, and so the goals I suppose then were growth, 'cause the more I grew, the more I could explain stuff. Um, and then Instagram came along a lot later, I didn't want to go on Instagram, my colleague Hattie said that I had to go on Instagram, and I said "fine, you have to do it and set it all up", and then obviously, well, Instagram is where [...] it's all taken off.

Um...I mean, aside from growth, [...] it's very difficult because our aim, the aim of SP, is to help people have better conversations about politics — they're more informed, more understanding of the people to whom they're talking, less abusive, all that stuff — and that's impossible to measure. Absolutely impossible to measure. Then over [the] COVID[-19 pandemic], I suppose, the goal was just to help people, because it was this awful time and we could help. We were in a fortunate position to be able to help and [...] that was an absolute privilege. And now, [...] we just trundle along each day trying to help people understand what's going on, I suppose.

 ((WN )) What do you think is the most important attribute for a journalist to have? Do you think Simple Politics displays it well?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) I think that, um...well, [...] clarity's got to be the most important part of journalism, because if you're not getting your message across, then [...] you're lost. Doesn't matter how clever or important your story is, if you're not communicating it, then [...] you know, you're not starting. I think we do clarity quite well. I think, the other thing, [...] I'm always impressed by actual-I'm not an actual journalist, um, what impresses me is their ability to listen to a whole speech, for example, and then work out exactly what the story is from it. [...] Isolating the biggest story from...well, life, I mean, it comes down to clarity again. There's so much going on all day, every day...that it's really hard to work out what the story is. [...] Simple Politics does it okay, 'cause we have to ask ourselves "what's the story for our readers", and we have quite specific demographics so [...] we're less good at that. We're very good at being clear, sometimes we don't get the story right.

 ((WN )) With your short-form style of content, it is easy to fall into sensationalism. Do you think you avoid it? What steps do you take to do that?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) Mostly. We mostly avoid sensationalism, because [...] we don't refer to speculation in the press. When the press are saying "oh, this might happen, this might", we [...] ignore it, even if the story, is, like, it would do really well on social media to say that, you know, "on Tuesday, [Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak's gonna resign" 'cause some junior civil servant said that, and there are other sites that do that. We want people to know they can trust what we say...and sometimes we have to sacrifice a bit of razzmatazz, we have to sacrifice some likes, I suppose, um, to do that. Do we do it sometimes? Well, sometimes, I just find stories exciting, and, uh, maybe I get overexcited, and maybe a little bit sensationalist — it's not really, I don't think. It depends [sic] what you mean by sensationalism.

 ((WN )) What type of news do you think works best with your content style? What can't you easily report on?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) Um...what works best is policy announcements, is when we can get ideas, [...] because that's-that's our bread and butter. One politician wants to do this, here's a problem, here's what one person says, here's what another person says. That's perfect for us, we love that. Um...I mean, in terms of UK politics, sometimes what's hard is sometimes, like, a speech will be an hour long, and we have to pull out three or four things and there's not quite space, and it's harder for us to do. And sometimes we're all like, "what are we adding", if it's about analysing [...] it's hard to know what SP adds.

We can't be, we're [...] never gonna be The Times journalism. So, what is good about our content is that we can make it pop, and we can get complicated ideas and make them simple, but it does mean that sometimes we have to miss out [sic] detail, or context, or, you know. [...] The team and I, [...] we talk a lot about what we're going to include, because you've really got a maximum space here. And if you put too much text in, nobody's going to read it anyway, even if you go "oh, do you know what, it's really important to have all of this", and you make it a small font size, no-one's going to read it anyway. So that, we struggle with that, I suppose.

 ((WN )) Is there anything you'd like to improve in regards to Simple Politics?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) I mean, everything. I think everything we can improve. Um...we often aren't doing much work [...] 'cause we're just us, we don't do much work at the weekend when some stories come out. I think that we could certainly do better at working out when not to post, 'cause we're nerds, and we often think "oh, this is really exciting", but actually it's not. So we could work out when not to post more, we can work out the optimum amount of time-time we can adverti-I mean we only advertise our own stuff, we don't just take any money from anywhere else, um...but when can we advertise without annoying people, but so we still sell things, and we also ask for donations, that's-it's really hard to get that line right, so you're not ignoring people.

 ((WN )) What do you think is in the future for [Simple Politics]?

 ((Tatton Spiller )) Well the future is the general election. Next year, we have a general election, and [...] we've never had a general election in SP's time where we've had so much of a following. And I feel the [...] responsibility, I suppose, I feel the responsibility of-of that election quite strongly, how we can be truly impartial, how we can help people have better election conversations, and whether that's going round the country talking to people, whether that's doing shows, whether that's doing videos, whether that-I mean, we need to really start thinking from the ground up [...], um...what can we do to help people look at policy and understand why people disagree with each other, why some-one policy is better, all-all that stuff. [...] That's where we go, and after the election, the May after the election, SP will have been together, I'd have been doing it for ten years, so I don't know, I need to think about the future after that, what, what, what. But for now, it's all about the election next year.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.