Not Saussure

June 13, 2007

Blair and the feral media

Filed under: Blair, Politics, press — notsaussure @ 9:03 pm

What is one to make of Tony Blair’s reflections on the media yesterday? I’m linking, by the way, to the BBC transcript rather than the one on the Number 10 site because, for perfectly understandable but pleasingly ironic reasons, the BBC one is a more complete and accurate account of the great man’s words; the version on the Number 10 site excises the passages

We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.

and

When I fought the 1997 election – just ten years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on,

explaining the absence with the chaste comment ‘[Party Political content].’

I was puzzled by his description of the media as ‘feral,’ a metaphor that takes us into all sorts of strange places. What sort of wild beast does he have in mind, one wonders; are the media a tiger, on whose back he has taken a ride and is now he finds it difficult to dismount, or are they savage wolves, whom he would like to domesticate into pet dogs (very loyal to their masters, dogs)? Or are they like the feral children who so worried Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair a few years ago, and who need ASBOs to sort them out? Or does he just mean the press have been beastly to him recently?

Chris, at Stumbling and Mumbling, says many of the things I would have wanted to say, only he says them better than could I, so go and read him. I particularly liked his observations that Blair rather misses the point when he says,

we need at the least a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future,

though I don’t think Chris goes far enough. He says, quite rightly,

What we need is a debate about whether we manage the future.

I’d like what seems to me the logically prior debate about whether the future is something that can be managed by us, whoever we are in this context; I’m not at all sure if Blair wanted to engage his audience of journalists in debate on how best they could join with government to manage the future, or if he was telling them that Government wanted to debate about how to undertake this remarkable project, and the press had better report these accurately, or what.

I mean, a moment’s thought tells us that the government has enough difficulty managing those aspects of the present and immediate future that are under its immediate control — junior doctors’ recruitment schemes, or Working Tax Credits or what have you — so how it hopes to manage something so — by definition — unpredictable as ‘the future’ is beyond me. And I have to say that a politician discussing how to ‘manage the future’ with a group of journalists strikes an unhappy echo; after all, Winston Smith, working at The Times, had it on the best authority that

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Furthermore, I was struck by Mr Blair’s comment that we need this debate because

the relationship between politics, public life and the media is changing as a result of the changing context of communication in which we all operate; no-one is at fault – it is a fact; but it is my view that the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted.

He goes on to explain that, because of the demands of wall-to-wall 24-hour media coverage,

The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up to date news. That’s already out there.They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed. When I fought the 1997 election – just ten years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on. You have to respond to stories also in real time.

Frequently the problem is as much assembling the facts as giving them. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the 1960s the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet lasting two days.

It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.

Now, as Chris comments,

No. The heavens wouldn’t fall in – they would appear to fall in. But then Blair has always failed to recognize this distinction. It’s led him to make hasty decisions, rather than better, longer thought-out ones.

The heavens would fall in only in the sense that there would be, at least initially, ill-digested comment about why they were taking so long to reach a decision; and I, for one, would very much welcome a brief and calm explanation from Downing Street to the effect that the matter, whatever it was, required lengthy and detailed discussion, the results of which would be announced as soon as a decision had been taken.

This seems to exemplify Blair’s complete unwillingness to take responsibility for anything, despite his mea culpa about how

We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question

Well, quite possibly in the early days of New Labour, such a course of action did seem, and quite probably was, necessary. It’s by no means clear to me, though, that so diligent a courting of the media remained quite so necessary after New Labour had managed to win a landslide victory with the support, God help us, of both The Sun and, rather grudgingly, the Daily Mail. Blair speaks of his concerns that

the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted,

well, surely to God people in public life have at least some say over how they conduct their own affairs; if they’re unduly scared of what the papers might say about them the next morning, and allow these fears to determine their behaviour in a manner seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted, then surely they must bear some responsibility for this.

To digress, briefly, the subject of the media and the way people in public life conduct their affairs irresistibly reminds of the greatest living Conservative’s views on the behaviour of Mr Blair’s sometime Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Having rightly dismissed the complaints about the nanny’s visa and various rail tickets as pretty trivial, Boris Johnson turned to the real cause for complaint about the the Home Secretary:

While excusing the Home Secretary on these matters, we do have grave doubts about his conduct in certain other respects, not least the ruthless manner in which he decided to kiss and tell. That David Blunkett is responsible for broadcasting the details of his affair to the world there can be little doubt. Tabloids cannot publish kiss and tell stories without the co-operation of one of the parties involved, and any analysis of the quotes contained within the original story published in the News of the World in August must confirm that in this case it was Mr Blunkett who co-operated. The situation is this: he had an affair with a married woman and fathered her child. When she decided to remain with her husband, Mr Blunkett reacted like a teenage girl who finds the object of her desires wrapped around somebody else at the school bus shelter. He is an adult, and one of the most powerful politicians in the land, and yet he went bleating to the tabloid newspapers with the sole object of shocking and humiliating his lover’s husband, and destroying her marriage. After years of sucking up to the tabloid media, notably by introducing a series of illiberal Home Office measures, he was able to deploy them as weapons of revenge in his deluded amatory campaign. It is a contemptible way to behave.Such conduct seriously undermines the position of a Cabinet minister who is responsible for the law on privacy issues. How can he, or anyone else, call for restraint on the part of the tabloids, when he has blatantly blabbed? He has violated his own privacy, and violated the public’s right to be protected from the details of his private life. And above all this man – who swears that the state will not abuse ID cards – has violated the privacy of his former lover, her husband and her children. From now on the redtops will nose around our lives with utter impunity, confident that it will be impossible for the present Home Secretary to do anything to rein them in.

The point is, I think, a perfectly sound one; no one made Blunkett use the tabloid press a weapon in his personal campaign against the Quinns. That he thought it a proper thing to do, and that Mr Blair allowed him so to do, is a sad commentary, indeed, on the way public figures in Mr Blair’s government have thought it proper to behave.

It’s indeed ironic, to my mind, that, having correctly diagnosed part of the problem —

The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up to date news. That’s already out there.They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary.

— Mr Blair turns his attention to the one paper he criticises by name, The Independent; this was, he says,

started as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views not news. That was why it was called the Independent. Today it is avowedly a viewspaper not merely a newspaper. The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media.

This is breath-taking. First, if I — and, I think, many others — were looking for an example of a sensationalist newspaper that

not merely elides the two[opinion and fact] but does so now as a matter of course

the dear old Indy would probably not be the first one that sprang to mind. Second, the Indy, to my mind, has deliberately become an avowed ‘viewspaper’ precisely because recognises it can’t compete as a source of immediate news with the broadcast media. I think their decision is mistaken — one of the reasons I hardly ever read the Indy nowadays is that if I want wall-to-wall comment I can get it free, and it’s usually more informative and more amusing than that found in the Indy, from some of the sources on my blogroll. But the Indy is perfectly open about what it is. So, in another way, is the Telegraph, which I read not because I particularly agree with its editorial line but because it consistently gives reasonably reliable and wide-ranging news coverage from an unashamedly right-of-centre viewpoint, which I can allow for when I’m reading it.

Pace Mr Blair, there are very few people, to my mind, who reckon, ‘I read it in the paper so it must be so.’ People recognise the biases in their newspapers; possibly they read the paper precisely because it conforms to their own prejudices — as Walter Bagehot put it,

The purchaser [of a newspaper] desires an article which he can appreciate at sight; which he can lay down and, ‘An excellent article, very excellent; exactly my own sentiments

— or possibly, like me with the Telegraph, they read it because the bias is consistent and clear, but few people (other, perhaps, than some Guardian readers) are so naive as to think their paper does not have an axe to grind.

What is Mr Blair’s solution to this? Why, regulation, of course;

As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.How this is done is an open question and, of course, the distinction between balance required of broadcasters but not of papers remains valid. But at some point the system is going to change and the importance of accuracy will not diminish, whilst the freedom to comment remains.

It is sometimes said that the media is accountable daily through the choice of readers and viewers. That is true up to a point. But the reality is that the viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told. In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself.

Oh dear, oh dear. Quite apart from the chaos Mr Blair and his government have wrought with their objective yardsticks, in the form of performance indicators and what have you, in just about every sphere they’ve introduced the damn things, Mr Blair thinks that we, the readers and viewers, are too naive to be trusted to form our own judgments about the reliability, accuracy or bias of what we read and see, so, instead, we need the government to provide us with a properly objective view of events , backed up by the force of law.

Don’t think so, thanks.

 

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5 Comments »

  1. It is quite frightening that Tony Blair seeks to control the media. I thought that I detected an apology and an admission of wrongdoing in the speech and that he is seeking our forgiveness.

    In any event, I think it is a lot harder trying to control the blogosphere than it is to tame the mainstream media.

    I suppose we will just have to wait and see what kind of performance Gordon Brown will deliver.

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — June 13, 2007 @ 10:24 pm

  2. I do think that there are a great number of people out there who swallow entirely what their newspaper says, because it conforms to their prejudices, and because they have absolutley no experience of how news production works.

    I for one look forward to a state-produced record of absolute objective truth and accuracy.

    Comment by Marcin Tustin — June 15, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  3. It strikes me that rather than having to mess about with complex regulation, it would be sufficient to legislate that the version of events in the official state account of the truth should be considered to be conclusively true, and rebut any contrary evidence. We could then leave anyone aggrieved by contrary reports to sue.

    Comment by Marcin Tustin — June 15, 2007 @ 12:27 pm


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