Newspapers and Democracy or Riding the Feral Beast

Argus title : Spinning to the end – Blair insults us all

I’ve never enjoyed seeing people make fools of themselves.

I hate watching incompetent or pompous politicians on television and, to my husband’s amusement, will leave the room rather than witness their humiliation.

By far the worst were US Vice President Dan Quayle and former leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock. The general idiocy of the first and the verbose pomposity of the second used to propel me from my seat like a rocket. I’d leave the minute they appeared on television and stay in the kitchen until they’d finished. “Is it over yet?” I’d shout and my husband would reply opportunistically “No, there’s time to make a cup of tea”

When Tony Blair became Labour Party leader, I was grateful for his competence and self confidence in front of the cameras. Though I strongly disagreed with his policies, I was pleased to be able to remain seated when he appeared on the news. I felt I could relax.

However, over the years this has begun to change, particularly since the invasion of Iraq. Blair was caught out in lies about the “dodgy dossier” and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. His right hand man Alastair Campbell had to resign in the wake of the scientist Dr Kelly’s death and, in a sense, this spelled the beginning of the end of the Blair project.

Blair visibly began to age, and to develop small giveaway signs that all was not well. He was hesitant, sweating and biting his lip, his eyes flickering back and forth like a wide-boy caught out in a lie.

In the first years of the Labour government, Campbell and Blair worked the media without mercy and to their shame journalists complied. Before the war in Iraq it was possible to read the same story in almost the same words in different major newspapers – clearly spun by number 10’s formidable public relations team and lifted whole from a briefing sheet.

Blair charmed and flattered the press while Campbell bullied and swore at them. As Andrew Grice of the Independent said, “Journalists were…, given stories if they played ball and frozen out if they did not”. Though it was a humiliating process, there was a pay-off for the press.

Journalists were fed information and stories before elected members of parliament had been apprised of them. There were juicy bits of “negative spin” about Blair’s enemies and rivals. It was all good copy and not much work needed to be done to get it.

But after the lies about Iraq had been exposed and Campbell had gone, the pay offs just weren’t big enough. Or perhaps the price exacted from newspapers was just too great.

One after another, editors and journalists re-examined the way they had been working and did not like what they discovered. None of them actually admitted they had been taken for patsies, but that was the truth.

Rupert Murdoch’s titles stayed loyal to Blair, but others began to expose the lies and sleaze of the Blair government, with varying degrees of honesty and principle.

Now, in the final days of his government, Blair has appeared before the press and has lectured them on standards. He has called for controls on a “feral media that tears reputations to bits”. In a speech replete with irony, the man whose supporters ruthlessly spun against rivals such as Gordon Brown and Mo Mowlem, now calls for a curb – because the press have turned on him.

With breathtaking hypocrisy, he demanded a review of regulation of the media, holding it largely responsible for increasing public “cynicism” about politicians and public life. But as many people have already pointed out, politicians have managed to achieve that all on their own.

Blair singled out the Independent newspaper for criticism, accusing it of expressing opinion rather than facts. It didn’t escape the notice of his audience that The Independent was the only broadsheet newspaper to consistently oppose the illegal invasion of Iraq. Despite professional rivalries, fellow editors and journalists were outraged.

Blair blundered and patronised without constraint, saying “Let me state at the outset it is a well-edited, lively paper and is absolutely entitled to print what it wants, how it wants, on the Middle East or anything else. But it was 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.”

If I’d been watching the speech on television this would certainly have sent me rushing to the kitchen.

Blair’s attack was a serious own-goal. Most of his audience will have known that The Independent was in fact set up to counter the power of newspapers controlled by wealthy owners and linked to political parties. The audience certainly noted Blair’s failure to mention his unhealthily close political relationship with Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers.

The response was predictable. The day after his speech The Guardian published a cartoon of a huge head of Rupert Murdoch with a tiny figure of Tony Blair in his mouth. Dressed as a vicar, he is using Murdoch’s lower lip as a pulpit from which to berate the Independent.

The Independent understandably lapped up the free publicity and published a front page response from its editor and a pullout of letters from its readers. Simon Kelner, the editor, said
“after 10 years of the Blair administration, a decade of spin and counter-spin, of dodgy dossiers, of 45 minute warnings, of burying bad news, of manipulation and misinformation, we feel that the need to interpret and comment upon the official version of events is more important than ever.”

He added “What clearly rankles with Mr Blair is not that we campaign vociferously on certain issues, but that he doesn’t agree with our stance.”

In the days when Tony Blair was in a position of strength his call for greater regulation would have been interpreted as a real threat. After all, Greg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC lost his job when the BBC had the temerity to challenge the government’s version of events in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. But this was a pyrrhic victory, which unseated Alastair Campbell and ultimately destroyed Blair. As a consequence, this speech has provoked resistance not compliance.

Journalists have watched the BBC’s recent attempts to placate, rather than challenge, the government and many do not like what they see.

Blair’s sabre-rattling has had some positive benefit. It has engendered fierce debate about the independence of the press and this is all to the good. However, it has also highlighted a need to examine both the way the press conducts itself and its relationship with government. It is very appropriate to start that discussion with a new, relatively “unspun” prime minister.

Central to that discussion should be agreement that journalists avoid gratuitous cruelty or intrusion into the private lives of politicians or public servants. At the same time, governments should not abuse the power they hold to threaten or intimidate journalists and editors carrying out their legitimate and essential task of holding politicians accountable.

A debate also needs to take place at a local level. After all, this newspaper is, as Blair would say, a “viewspaper” as well as a newspaper. It has stuck its neck out in support of various campaigns, not least the campaign to bring Omar Deghayes home to trial or freedom and the drive to ban violent internet pornography.

At a local level there are reasonably good relations between politicians and journalists and I am not aware of serious attempts by politicians to bludgeon or manipulate the press.

However, there is a danger to the health of the local press – and this is the indifference of some local people. Far too many people (rarely locally born) are snobbish about local newspapers and even boast “I never read the Argus” as if this is a matter of pride.

They are, I think, wrong and perhaps even foolish not to read the local press. The Argus provides commentary and analysis of local government policies and actions. It permits opinonated columnists a platform to develop ideas and challenge attitudes and provides a forum for readers to respond.

Above all, it provides a means whereby there can be legitimate scrutiny of the way in which the local state and the local economy operate. As such The Argus is an essential tool in the maintenance of democracy and we should be as fierce in its defence as we are on behalf of the great national newspapers like the Independent.

I have to acknowledge, I’m proud to write for it.

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