Former Daily Mirror journalist and Number Ten spokesman Alastair Campbell tonight condemned the significant fall in basic standards, and a sameness about much media output’delivering the annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture at the London College of Communications.
Campbell said: ‘In an era of more pages, more space, more access, more talk, there is less said and done that is truly memorable.”
Campbell admitted that one of the reasons why he left his job as Number Ten spokesman was ‘that relations between media and politics had become so bad, I had become something of a symbol within that, and part of me thought maybe things would improve if I left. It wasn’t the only reason but it was in the mix. I am not sure things have improved at all.”
Referring to Tony Blair’s speech about the media last year – in which he condemned some journalists as ‘feral beasts’– Campbell said: ‘Contrary to speculation at the time, I did not write it, nor have any significant input into it, other than through the shared experience of trying to deal with this changed landscape.”
Blair singled out the Independent for special criticism during that speech, but Campbell said: ‘ I certainly wouldn’t have singled out the Independent when the Mail is the most poisonous UK newspaper, and I know that is his view too. Indeed it is one of the most interesting paradoxes of all that the paper almost universally seen as the most poisonous is the one also seen by many media professionals as the best packaged.”
Condemning what he called ‘a culture of negativity’ he said that a former colleague of his, Daily Mirror health reporter Jill Palmer, had been a victim of this.
He said she “used to fill the Mirror with stories of miracle babies, life saving operations, the heroics of NHS staff”.
‘When she was laid off a few years ago, it was made clear to her that the market for positive health stories just wasn’t there any more. Says who? I think the public are just as keen on success as on failure, but failure, it is thought, is what sells, and what people want to hear and read about.”
Referring to his visit to the British Society of Magazine Editors awards in November, he recalled an encounter with the editor of Heat, Mark Frith.
He said: ‘Over the pre-awards dinner, I was grumping away about my failed attempts to stop my teenage daughter from buying Heat and its ilk on the grounds that they are not just trivial and devoid of values, but cruel and demeaning of women in particular.
‘Janice Turner of the Times got the editor of Heat over to meet me. He seemed a reasonable enough bloke. They usually do. He had a very interesting defence. ‘We perform a useful role. What would you rather have – magazines like ours, or public executions?'”
Summing up Campbell said: ‘I can defend the changes we made to communication. I can see why some people didn’t like some of what we did. But the arguments against us were hugely exaggerated in my view, and rooted in the media’s obsession with itself, and in making themselves the sole arbiters of what is news, what is worthy of debate.
Politicians and journalists both have a job to do, and should try to do them without regarding the other as subhuman. Both have a problem with trust and turnout. Politics needs to stand up for itself better in the face of change. The media needs to face up to the need for a genuine debate about its own role, and to understand its responsibilities in a modern democracy go beyond making money and filling space.”