Politicians and the Press
John Reid: taking the press to task.Earlier this week a survey showed 78 per cent of the public do not think Ministers tell the truth. But the same survey also found that 75 per cent of people don’t believe what they read in the tabloid press.
Incidentally, journalists and bookies ranked slightly lower than politicians! A recent survey shows the trust factor of the UK press – not, interestingly enough, of broadcasters – is the lowest in Europe by a long way. Indeed, with a trust factor of 20 per cent, it is half the level of the next least trusted national press, which is in Italy, and a third of the level, for instance, that Spaniards and Germans have in their press.
But that is not the point, for the fact that neither politicians nor journalists are entirely trusted is hardly novel. But it is nevertheless disturbing. Because it should be a concern for both politicians and the media.
We have said before that, in the end, substance will determine the course of politics. That should not stop us discussing the relationship between politics and the press, and trying to do so in a mature fashion, to the benefit of both, and – of paramount importance – to the benefit of our democracy.
A symbiotic relationship
Politics is essentially the means by which we allocate scarce resources towards potentially infinite demands. It requires choices, sometimes very difficult choices, to be made by society as a whole.
Politicians and the media are essential pillars of that democratic system. Both are essential elements in placing those choices fairly and squarely before the third, and most important, pillar of that system, the electorate themselves. The people of this country.
Of course, the objectives of the media and political parties do not completely coincide. In a democracy it is the job of politicians to lead and to persuade. It is the job of the media to inform and to scrutinise.
But there is a symbiotic relationship between us. And we also have a common responsibility. A responsibility much wider than just a self-serving interest in communicating – either to garner support or to boost sales. We also have the responsibility for laying the alternative values, policies and programmes on offer before the electorate in as intelligible and objective a fashion as possible.
When that relationship fails, therefore, or when it malfunctions, we do not only fail ourselves, we fail the most important people, those who are ultimately our masters and our consumers.
So we need a mature discussion about the complex nature of that relationship precisely because, if it doesn’t work properly, then the real losers will be the electorate, the people who really matter.
If we are to mutually benefit from the discussion then we require a greater degree of honesty with each other. Let’s start with the simple - but the often unstated – truths.
First of all, let’s accept that in a democracy it is the job of political parties to persuade and to convince. Since that is the case it is self-evident that all political parties will attempt to present their own policies and arguments in the most persuasive terms. To do otherwise would make an absurdity of politics. If that is “spin” - and I’m never quite sure what that term is meant to imply -then it’s been around since politics first began.
It amazes me how often this simple truth is disregarded. The same is true of the term “sound bite”. People speak as though this is a new phenomenon. But just because a sociologist or political scientist gives something a new descriptive label doesn’t mean that it’s new. Otherwise, we would presumably regard Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” as a mere trite superficiality – dreamt up by A. Cambellus for the Roman Record rather than the masterful piece of concise complexity that it has hitherto been viewed as.
Secondly, let’s stop pretending that, in undertaking their job of scrutiny, newspapers approach that task unburdened by their own set of values, preconceptions and opinions. They may not be as overt as those of political parties (although in some cases even that is questionable) but they are nevertheless there.
The fact is that journalists know the editorial parameters and policy within which they work and reflect them both in their choice of stories and in their presentation of stories. In this there is nothing intrinsically wrong, for human beings and organisations do – by nature of their humanity – bring preconceptions that shape their perception and their presentation. There is no more dangerous prejudice than that of he who doesn’t recognise his prejudice. In any case, it is the variety of those differing opinions that lies at the heart of the advantages of a free press, not the objectivity of any particular publication, since we assume that the generality of opinion over time will be informed by the factual substance.
So it is important for us politicians not to engage in blanket complaint against the media. We try to distinguish between legitimate criticism and the mere parading of prejudice by those sections of the press who are less likely in historical terms to allow the facts or the weight of argument to change their opinions or prejudices. Not an easy task. Not perhaps one that we always get right. But one that we should at least try to undertake.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in the modern world, let’s recognise the enormous impact which technological change has had – on politics, on the media and press, and in the relationship between the two. The circumstances under which today’s politicians and press work create huge pressures which were absent even a quarter of a century ago.
Modern, instant, satellite communication itself puts new and huge pressures on decision makers in all fields. This is no less true of politicians – quite apart from any media considerations. Even 20 years ago it took considerably longer between an event, sometimes on the other side of the world, and the requirement for a politician to respond. Now, an event anywhere in the world will be on our screens within minutes, on the Minister’s desk shortly thereafter, and debated in our own parliament that afternoon.
This same technological revolution has brought with it huge new pressures on politicians and press alike. The demand for news, information, stories and facts is now almost insatiable.
We live in an era of 24-hour-a-day media. The sheer demand for news has accelerated at an exponential rate to keep pace with technological developments – satellite reporting, instant communication, internet news, mobile phones, all-day news channels. There is a constant pressure on journalists, lobby journalists in particular, to obtain stories at greater speed and volume than ever before. Nowadays, by the time they go to print their story may well have already been covered by other news media.
There is considerable pressure, therefore, not only to anticipate news – tomorrow’s rather than today’s stories – but also to substitute opinion for reporting. Therefore, there is huge and increasing pressure on parties and on government to provide information and stories.
The Government does its best to put information out, but we are now in a position where, having demanded that we supply the information and stories, certain elements of the press are trying to run an agenda that says that this is in itself wrong.
This is a function any party or government, of any political hue, in the modern age, has to deal with.
The empty field
But at present there is a fifth factor in play. The absence of the Conservative Party from policy debate at Westminster.
Politics is the battle of ideas and values. Although the Conservative Party can choose to lick their wounds, not to take policy positions and absent themselves from the frontline of political debate for months on end, this does not stop, nor should it stop, the media reporting real politics.
Why is politics reported as it is now?
And this in part leads to the lopsided coverage we get now.
Because the Conservative Party know their policies are unpopular they are happy to see their cheerleaders in certain newspapers replace policy debate with character assassination.
The attempts to smear Tony Blair are political attack, plain and simple. Some editors would prefer to see a Conservative administration. That is, of course, their right.
But I believe readers can see through that agenda and make up their own minds. Papers are bought as often for their features and sports coverage as for their politics - a point well understood by marketing departments.
The important thing is for all parts of the media reporting politics to remain independent in deciding what is important in politics, and what stories to run or not run, and allow their readers to make up their own minds on the facts. It can be lonely not to run with the herd but hindsight shows time and time again it’s often the right decision.
For broadcasters this task is particularly important – with their constitutional duty of impartiality. Most papers scrutinise and attack certain Government policies - we expect nothing less. Perhaps some have taken on a greater role as policy analysts because of the absence of an effective opposition – and this too is an honourable role. But I believe politics needs to be reported as the serious business that it is, because if it isn’t we all lose. In the end, it is the public who lose out if every time a Government Minister tries to communicate it is spin, if every factual rebuttal is “smear”, if every time someone donates to a political party it is sleaze.
Why New Labour will survive
New Labour is strong enough to stand the buffets of these media squalls, not because it has a first-class media machine, not because it has Alastair Campbell, but because it has the right politics.
Traditional values of society and fairness for all placed in a modern understanding of how the world is today.
Because we face up to the hard issues like asylum and immigration and have policies to deal with them.
Because we understand the impact antisocial neighbours can have on an estate and the importance of having a job that pays. Because we understand how difficult it can be to raise a family and the help needed with young kids.
A strong economy and social justice together. Rights matched with responsibilities. New Labour remains confident that it is rooted in the values of modern Britain and has the policies to make our country a better, richer and fairer society.
It is why our opponents so often choose to concentrate on the transient and the trivial, because they know that on substance we have the right case and the only alternative they offer – massive cuts in public services - is massively unpopular.
Rebuild the relationship for the public’s sake
We need to rebuild the relationship between all politicians and the media because, at the end of the day, both government and the press are absolutely essential for a good functioning democracy. If that relationship isn't working well, the people who lose out are actually the electorate, the ordinary members of the public, who are interested in their health, in their education and the peace process in Northern Ireland.
We need that relationship to be both mature and responsible. The government must govern and communicate. The media must scrutinise and communicate. If we fail, then the people who will ultimately lose out are the people of this country.
Have your say. Does such a fragmented relationship between politicians and the press really mean the end of democracy now? Is journalism biased and lazy? Does the publisher’s political affiliation really come into play when writing a story?
Write to The Editor, The Drum, 3 Park Street South, Glasgow G3 6BG.