Was Blair right about the press? Up to a point

Kevin Marsh, editor of the Today programme when Andrew Gilligan made his ‘dodgy dossier’claims in 2003

There’s a lot in Tony Blair’s Reuters speech that’s spot on about the past decade. But there’s as much that isn’t.

It’s hard to argue with the proposition that the relationship between public life and media is ‘now damaged in a manner that requires repair”.

Polls suggest that most readers share his view, that for the press of 2007, scandal beats reporting, journalists hunt in packs (though ‘feral beast’is a bit over the top), comment is fused with news, all is black or white – problems are ‘crises’and setbacks leave policy ‘in tatters”.

He could have added that trust in the press and Government have slumped together – that in the formulae of press and politics, responsibility translates as resignation not remedy, indispensable ministers cut short holidays, no problem can’t be solved with the right headline.

But his analysis of New Labour media managers’ roles could do with a bit more detail. He says they ‘paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media”, but is generous to those media managers who did so in a way that was calculated to lower both politicians and political journalism in the esteem of the public.

Calculated? I think so. The race to the bottom, in terms of trust, wasn’t the inevitable outcome of changes in the communications environment.

The press and politics that the outgoing Prime Minister describes were the consequence of choices he and his media managers began making in the mid-to-late Nineties, and carried on making until a couple of years ago.

And the outcomes of those choices really were inevitable, because one of the defining characteristics of New Labour media management was to take good press practice and tweak it – to ensure that what was in fact PR looked like journalism.

Take ‘the leak”. There isn’t a journalist alive who would turn down a good leak – the more soundly sourced the better. But it’s also a given that a briefing by a contact is the start of the story, not its sum total.

New Labour’s media managers offered something that looked and felt like connections, sources, well-placed contacts offering authoritative briefing.

But it wasn’t quite. By rewarding journalists who, effectively, took dictation from Number 10 with the offer of more and better ‘briefings”, and by punishing those more sceptical, they produced cheerleading headlines that looked like real journalism.

Except readers rumbled it. And trust in both press and politicians slumped. In most cases, the back-end of every political story was about how the story got out, whether it was just spin and, often, why MPs hadn’t been told.

In 1997, the word ‘leak’generally carried the traditional meaning – ‘something that someone doesn’t want you to know’and, by and large, it came from a whistleblower. And it got into the paper as a result of journalistic enterprise.

By 2007, it has acquired a secondary meaning that threatens to swamp the first – a Government press release by other means.

It turns out that for both press and politics, it’s been a zero sum game – every apparent PR gain has been balanced by a real loss. For every friendly headline, an equal and opposite chunk has been chipped off that thing called trust. I wonder who’ll put the chips back? 

Adam Boulton, political editor, Sky News

We end on the sour note of Blair’s speech. Courted by New Labour, perhaps the media got too close in the early years. But the affair is long over, with bitterness on both sides.

There is no trust left and that’s why the Mail has been the pre-eminent newspaper of the Blair decade. Now, as Alastair Campbell lionises himself in his diaries, Gordon Brown’s team are annulling the changes in terms of the trade Blair forced between politics and press.

Ofcom has cleared up most of the regulatory mess, even if the myth of BBC exceptionalism struggles on. And Blair did put his finger on the challenge the internet poses for all the ‘old’media. The papers have fought back with brighter, better-packaged content than ever before, yet circulations continue to drop.

I’m glad to say that 24/7 rolling news is an established force, at least enough to be slagged off by the Prime Minister. And yes, we have nearly all survived. Who knows – perhaps we’ll all soon climb out of the trough and start making real money online?

John Kampfner, editor, New Statesman

Tony Blair was the author of his own misfortune when it came to the media. Together with Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Gordon Brown, he had watched the largely pro-Tory press humiliate Neil Kinnock and vowed never to allow that to happen to him. The group regarded the press as untrained beasts – a view that seemingly has not changed. But instead of taking a vigorous, but somewhat detached view of journalism, they allowed themselves to become obsessed. Everything depended on the front-page headline, on the lead item on the TV news. This became the purpose of Government, not a by-product.

For the first few years, it worked well. The methods were amoral, but effective:?brief against journalists who had the temerity to challenge the official line and blur truth with untruth. Initially, journalists and editors were cowed. Gradually it unravelled. When this tactic was used on the domestic agenda, it caused merely aggravation. On the international arena, and in the run-up to the Iraq war, it proved disastrous.

Chris Fisher, political editor, Eastern Daily Press

Repeatedly, the Government says how much it values the regional press and how much it wants to reach out to them, but actually they don’t give a toss. I feel very unreached out to. It’s all about keeping on good terms with certain national papers – obviously The Sun.

It’s not just Number 10 – Gordon Brown has been the same. One of his spokesmen once kept the regional press waiting for hours and hours while he made his fifth visit to The Sun desk to make sure they had every semicolon. It’s been a consistent theme.

At press conferences, you can almost predict beforehand the exact order in which journalists will be invited to put questions. It’s a set script – first question to Nick Robinson, second question to Adam Boulton. So often the Prime Minister doesn’t answer the question anyway. One of the joys of being in the lobby is that it’s absolutely democratic – there is no pecking order in it, and anyone can get in with a question at any time.

Matthew Symonds, industry editor, The Economist

I found myself agreeing with much of Tony Blair’s thoughtful speech on the relationship between politics and the media. But what has struck me most during the five years I have been writing the Bagehot column was the cynicism about politics I encountered among people who had no connection with the news business.

To suggest to someone at a dinner party that Blair had not deliberately lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was to invite ridicule.

I often asked myself why so many people with only a passing interest in politics were so convinced of its rottenness. I think it is partly because they thought it made them appear sophisticated and knowledgeable, but mainly it is because they were regurgitating the attitudes of the newspapers they read and broadcasters, particularly the political interviewers, they saw or listened to. If you are told often enough that nearly all politicians are venal, lying toads, it becomes a working assumption.

Of course, the politicians are not without fault. But overall, my experience of politicians is that most are in it, at least to some extent, to improve the lives of others and that most have an almost geeky interest in the intricacies of policy that far exceeds that of the average political reporter. But that is not a story that anyone would want to read.

Jeremy Sutcliffe, assistant editor, TES

There has been a huge increase in the number of press officers at the Department for Education and Skills, various quangos and places such as Ofsted and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the various agencies that run education. Ten years ago, they only had a handful of press officers – now they have more than 100. There has been a huge growth in the information machine to get the Government’s message out there. To a large extent, they are trying to bypass the media. New technology has made that a lot more possible.

There has been a huge investment in the web and the Government has used that to get its message across. That has meant trying to bypass traditional media like the TES and other national newspapers. It means we have to be more reliant than ever on our own endeavour and ability to get information and leads from our own contacts.

Tony Collins, executive editor, Computer Weekly

Tony Blair criticised political reporting without acknowledging the change that has taken place in the standards of Government communications.

The Tories manipulated information about large, problematic IT projects. But they did so under the auspices of an ostensibly impartial civil service. Under New Labour there is no longer a pretence of neutrality.

Government reporting on the health of certain IT projects is sometimes so one-sided that such inattention to balance would fail a candidate taking a basic exam in journalism.

Blair may be right that standards in the media have fallen. That’s not the big issue, in my view. In my area of IT journalism at least, the question is whether Government communications, announcements, answers to Parliamentary questions and rebuttals to articles that criticise the management of particular IT projects in the public sector have fallen to such a low standard that truth, accuracy and balance have been routinely edged out by the amorality of political expediency.

Joy Francis, MD, The Creative Collective

When Blair was elected, I anticipated a more open media as well as open Government. I expected more ethnically diverse representation, in the print media particularly. And I was gearing up for a wider editorial commitment to investigative journalism, documentaries and Dispatches-style broadcasting. What I didn’t realise was that the ‘New’before ‘Labour’would lead to such political and editorial disappointment and kneejerkism, that the slow rush by the print media to be seen as ethnically representative would be undermined by an unhealthy obsession with ‘celebrity”, advertising revenue and price wars.

It took the Iraq war, irrational anti-Muslim sentiment and the tragic death of David Kelly to shame and/or inspire sections of the media into doing their jobs with aplomb. The Guardian was one of the national newspapers to keep the spirit of investigative reporting alive in holding the Government to account, from Mandleson to Blunkett, from WMDs to BAE.

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