27 June 2007

A remarkable day

Reflecting on the departure of Tony Blair as PM is extraordinary – it’s one of those days which I‘ve known is coming, which I thought I had adjusted to … and yet now it has happened, it seems so strange!

I remember how strange it was, back in May 1997, to hear him referred to as “the Prime Minister”, after 17 years during which that had inevitably meant a Tory, and usually Margaret Thatcher. And now “the Prime Minister” is Gordon Brown, or as Nick Robinson of the BBC called him this afternoon – even after he had gone into Number 10 to begin forming his government – “the Chancellor”! It’s not just me who will have difficulty adjusting!

A strange day, too, in that – as happens all too rarely – it revealed the human side of our political life. You can’t help but reflect what it must be like for Tony Blair and his family, leaving the pressurised and surreal world they have inhabited for so long. You can’t help but wonder at Gordon Brown’s feelings, as the moment he must have thought about for so long finally arrived. And those remarkable scenes in Parliament!

Were those indeed heartfelt and generous tributes? Did they – just for a few moments – put aside the pantomime roles and recognise the service Mr Blair has rendered to the country, and what it has cost him and his family? I think so. It certainly seemed like it!

If only our public life would continue in that vein! But probably not ...[!] Days like today are rare exceptions. But they are just a glimpse, a mere suggestion, that behind it all, there are genuine people, struggling to do their best in public service. Didn’t the (former) Prime Minister say as much, as he left the despatch box for the last time?

Labels: ,

13 June 2007

Michael White on the media beast

Some quotes from Michael White of The Guardian, responding to Tony Blair's analysis of the modern media and their effect on public life. (The emphases are mine).

"The consequences [of the modern media being driven by instant technologies and 24/7 global markets] are hard to dispute. ... The tricky bit is how society responds to the problems thereby created, notably the fast-declining levels of public trust in public institutions, by no means confined to politics and politicians in an information-rich age where the boundaries between facts and comment - and between both and entertainment - have all but collapsed."

"But as a political reporter for 30 years, I believe [Tony Blair] is more right than wrong, as John Major often was.

Margaret Thatcher was luckier with the media - until the very end.

A high proportion of allegations routinely made against governments, Labour and Tory, in the media are untrue - though they are widely accepted as true.

Dealing with that fact of life was what led Blair and Alastair Campbell into the jungles of spin after 1997 - an error, he admitted today."

"As for the tired claim that newspapers are accountable to their readers, TV to the viewers - well, that's humbug, although you will read a lot of it in tomorrow's papers.

The media has little of the external accountability which other walks of life now face.

It's a major player in the triangle between government and governed, but rarely acknowledges its own role."

Read the whole article here.

Labels: ,

Biting back

Tony Blair's characterisation of today's media as "like a feral beast" - a phrase they seem to have siezed upon with a greater or lesser amount of glee - has provoked the response he predicted. The BBC sums up the press biting back here.

It's interesting though that some of them seem to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that the PM has a point.

BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson is gracious enough to concede at least some of Mr Blair's argument [here], and indeed to link to an article by Michael White (for a long time one of the very best political observers) which both supports the PM and snipes at Mr Robinson.

Of course the real test will be whether Mr Blair manages to kick-start a much needed debate leading to a real improvement in the quality of the media reporting of our public life.

Initial indications are that the contributions from much of our media will not be gracious or constructive. They have no interest in dialogue with their prey, nor in the public interest they claim to represent.

Labels: , ,

12 June 2007

Parting shots

Prime Minister Tony Blair has given a remarkable speech analysing the effect of today’s media culture on modern public life. It is thoughtful and reasoned: the sort of thing a politician can only say nowadays when he is on the point of retirement! As he himself says, “I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters. But I also know this has needed to be said.”

The speech really repays reading in full [here]. But these are just a few of the things that particularly struck me.

[Blair quotes, my emphases]

“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; 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; and that we need, at the least, a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future, in which it is in all our interests that the public is properly and accurately informed.”

“We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. …

And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing.

My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault.”

“They [the media] are not the masters of this change but its victims. The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by ‘impact’ Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed.

Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.”

“The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. The consequences of this are acute.

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. …

Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself.

So - for example - there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. …

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. ...

The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life's usual grey is almost entirely absent.

‘Some good, some bad’; ‘some things going right, some going wrong’: these are concepts alien to today's reporting.
It's a triumph or a disaster. A problem is ‘a crisis’.

A setback is a policy ‘in tatters’. A criticism, ‘a savage attack’
. NGOs and pundits know that unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shouldn't venture out at all.”

“I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.”

[Quotes end - do read the speech!]

As you will probably know, I tend to go on a bit about the media - and here I go again:

In my view, the media are making public life an arena into which fewer and fewer people will wish to venture – at least for the motives we would all hope our public figures would hold. The all-pervading, sneering cynicism which is the “default setting" in our media is warping our society beyond recognition.

It used to be said that we get the government we deserve. Nowadays, increasingly, we get the government our media allows us. The standard of political thought and debate, and essentially the level of engagement by most people with politics and public life is now so low that I'm afraid our disease of cynicism may be terminal.

Labels: , , ,