June 12, 2007

Blair: Media is 'a feral beast'

Alastair Campbell The media is threatening politicians’ “capacity to take the right decisions for the country”. Modern media means that reports are “driven by impact”. The relationship between the media and politics has been “damaged”.

Blair’s back in cuckoo land. His first statement assumes that politicians always know what the right decisions are. The second one is a joke when you consider how the Alastair Campbells of this world have timed announcements for maximum impact. And finally, politicians are equally to blame for the damaged relationship.

Contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t a snap change overnight in May 1997. The Thatcher era expanded the divide between reporters and the reported. But 24-hour news did make a difference. It led to constant analysis of decisions, so that the cooling-down period offered by the newspapers’ life-cycle was destroyed. The new diversity of media sources also made a difference. There is now an outlet for every viewpoint, however extreme or forthright.

But the preferential treatment and spinning dealt out by New Labour put unbearable pressure on the always difficult relationship between journalists and politicians.

It’s right that journalism should ask challenging questions of the powerful. In its perfect form, journalism is the voice of the people, although in practice it only sometimes achieves that aim. But Tony Blair and co took these challenges as a personal slight.

It is the way in which modern politicians react to the modern media which has damaged the relationship between the two.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Jimmy

    Much of what you say is about right, but your conclusion, that ‘It is the way in which modern politicians react to the modern media which has damaged the relationship between the two’ is the wrong response.

    “My principal reflection is not about “blaming” anyone. It is that 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”

    I think that saying that Blair is “in cuckoo land”, is symptomatic of the temptation to blame or personalise. Both journalists and politicians can be tempted to do this.

    The press often place too much emphasis on individuals, picking out details which allow stories to be personalised, normally negatively, rather than focusing wider issues and combinations of factors when reporting on events. The press delights in poking fun at those in power, often having little understanding of what it’s like to wield it. Normally there are compound reasons for why things happen, but the easiest thing is say, to blame Reid for administrative difficulties at the Home Office or suggest that its Hewitt’s fault that the NHS isn’t in as good health as it might be.

    Despite his assertion to the contrary, Blair’s speech also comes dangerously close to playing the blame game, personalising the relationship between the media and the press by highlighting the way in which the media acts in certain instance as being “like a feral beast”. (Note that he didn’t say that the Media ‘is a Feral Beast’, as your headline leaps to suggest, but that in certain instances it is ‘like’ one in its effects). Bad form Doidge, bad form.

    The sniping goes back and forth of course, and both ‘the media’ (by which I assume we basically mean the press) and politics end up with worse reputations amongst the ordinary public.

    But actually Blair’s speech largely gets to the heart of the cultural or sociological context we’re dealing with here. I would say that this temptation to blame and personalise (for instance, by sticking up a photo of Alastair Campbell to add implicit comment to a news story) is entirely a product of cultural change driven by technology. Its about the need to grab consumer and advertiser attenion. Resist the temptation and you’re rewarded with no response. I for one think that Blair’s speech is largely a terrific ‘argument’ about what is probably an irrecoverable position we find ourselves in, rather than ‘complaint’, just as he suggests.

    The press response to this story could be seen as a case study for good journalism. Get to the detail of the speech, and what you have is a fascinating comment on cultural and sociological trends, something which Blair is himself a part of. But in the race for the headline, one thing gets picked out. And if it involves the press itself, the press – which loves talking about itself – will puff itself up and get stuck in.

    The rest of us stand by, bemused, wondering what on earth to make of it all.

    (I’m sure that there is good press comment out there on this incidentally, and would be interested to read it).

    13 Jun 2007, 12:40

  2. Play fair, Jimmy. Some of what Blair said was a good ‘state of the nation’ commentary, such as the bit you quote. Other bits were nuts.

    For instance, Blair seemed to be upset that new technology meant his words were challenged more rigorously than would have been the case in the 1980s or 1990s. He made this sound like a bad thing.

    Arguably, journalists shouldn’t have good relationships with politicians. People like Guido Fawkes think the Millbank brigade are far too cosy, and far too cautious about sticking the boot in. The former Political Editor of the Evening Standard said that your Parliamentary contacts should know – from the start – that you’ll use each other, and that ultimately the journalist will have to shop you for a good story. Perhaps because Blair is so far-removed from these day-to-day conversations that he fails to realise the rules of the game.

    Gordon Brown is clearly sleep-walking into the same mistakes. Since announcing his candidacy for PM, he’s given fewer interviews than I’ve got ears.

    Politicians and journalists aren’t destined to get on. But if they at least try and play by each other’s rules, they might stand a chance. Blair and Brown have both tried to have it all their way – and have failed, or are failing.

    13 Jun 2007, 17:06

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