Blair slams media's 'ferocious hostility'

Tony Blair acknowledged today that New Labour spent too much time in its early years trying to influence media coverage.

The Prime Minister suggested that the Government’s approach had appeared necessary due to the “ferocious hostility” towards Labour.

But he accepted that the “inordinate attention” paid to courting and persuading the media had fuelled cynicism.

Mr Blair accepted that the relationship between politicians and the press had always been fraught, but said that it had intensified in recent years.

While insisting that he was not complaining about the coverage he gets as Premier, Mr Blair claimed there was less balance in journalism now than 10 years ago.

But he admitted his own “complicity” in the present state of affairs.

“We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media,” Mr Blair said in a speech about public life to Reuters.

“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.”

The Prime Minister said there was no point blaming the media, arguing that the decline was largely due to the new 24-hour news agenda and the fragmentation of the market.

But he said that “impact” was now often more important than balance in a way that was harming the public’s view of public life.

Fierce competition for stories meant that the modern media now hunted “in a pack,” Mr Blair said.

“In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits,” he said. “But no-one dares miss out.”

He also singled out the elision of commentary and reporting, citing The Independent newspaper as an example of this trend.

Mr Blair said it was entitled to say whatever it wanted about him, but added: “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.”

Mr Blair said that the evolution of non-traditional media outlets was making matters worse, rather than better, as he had originally thought.

“Is it becoming worse? Again, I would say, yes,” he said.

“In my 10 years, I’ve noticed all these elements evolve with ever greater momentum.

“It used to be thought – and I include myself in this – that help was on the horizon.

“New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media.

“In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.”

But he insisted that there was still a genuine desire for impartial news coverage among the public.

“At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact,” Mr Blair said.

“Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news.

“There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing; but the thirst for the news being real news is not.”

The Prime Minister, who will step down in two weeks, said he was not in a position to determine how the situation was improved.

He said: “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.”

Mr Blair said he had hesitated about making the speech but insisted that it need to be said.

He added: “I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters.”

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