The claim that the accusatory, contemptuous culture of the modern media is undermining politics is itself now being dismissed. Can the downward spiral of media abuse and political evasion be reversed? Do we need a new journalism?by John Lloyd / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Since writing an essay on the media for Prospect less than two years ago (“Media manifesto,” October 2002), the ideas set out there have become the subject of a wider debate. As I wrote there, and repeated at greater length in a new book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics (Constable), many of these ideas came from American writers such as James Fallows, Deborah Tannen and Neil Postman who have argued that the media are losing public trust by their own extremism. Though they differ in many of their views, a common trope is – in the words of Orville Schell, a former New Yorker writer – that “much of what gets written nowadays… is very flip, even savage, and often contemptuous. This creates a climate where everyone feels… insecure.”
A movement to revive good journalism has grown in the US from within the media themselves. The Committee of Concerned Journalists, launched, with others, by Bill Kovach – a former New York Times reporter and curator of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard University – has established groups in some 40 US cities. The committee and its members publish, hold meetings and arrange seminars within newsrooms, management suites and even boardrooms to argue for a journalism which lives up to its democratic duties: holding power to account, informing the citizenry, acting as a medium for competing opinions and seeking a complex understanding of a complex world.
There has been little of this kind of debate-cum-movement in Britain. There is, it is true, a long tradition of media criticism from left and right, from media departments in universities and from politicians. But much of it is self-interested or focused on political bias. The new critique is about a journalistic style of contempt, especially for politics and politicians, which infects journalists and broadcasters of left, right and centre. And the remedy it proposes lies not so much in passing laws, or changing media ownership but in reforming our journalistic culture.
A range of initiatives based on this new critique is now being discussed – all aimed at establishing centres which would evaluate and challenge the current practice of journalism. A number of journalists have written critically of the culture of contempt; most magisterially, a figure from the academy, Onora O’Neill, head of Newnham College, Cambridge, has taken up the issue. O’Neill first framed it in one of her 2002 Reith lectures, on the subject of trust, where she argued that “we are now perilously close to a world in which media conglomerates act as if they… had unrestricted rights of free expression, and therefore a licence to subject positions for which they don’t care to caricature and derision, misrepresentation or silence.” She has since deepened her critique of the media: a lecture she gave late last year focused more closely on the damage to democracy and citizenship inherent in media which cannot be trusted. She asked whether the unfettered freedom of expression championed by local papers and small publishers in the 18th century against the might of the church and state should continue to hold for powerful media institutions in the 21st century.
“Where the media systematically exclude, marginalise or mock certain voices or topics, they replicate some of the effects of state censorship. Where they casually depict office-holders in public, commercial and professional life as self-interested and corrupt, citizens cannot judge for themselves which accusations are true, so are disabled. Such activities are more likely to damage than to foster democracy.”
Her charges point up the three central issues with which this debate is concerned. First, that media, which must be free for democracy to flourish, can in the exercise of their freedom damage democracy. Second, that media, which base their democratic function on their right to call power (of all kinds) to account, are themselves a huge power, and have little accountability. Third, that media challenge elected and other powers directly, and seek to displace them in their own favour, so that they have control over the narratives which explain public (and some private) life; these strategies being part of a complex, and little understood, series of changes in the nature of politics.
These views are contentious and are, quite properly, contested – most recently in response to my book and to others’ articles. It is worth examining some of the counter-arguments, and seeing whether they can help to sharpen up the original case.
But first of all an issue of “Blairite” bias must be dealt with. Many of those in the media who share the concerns outlined in this and the previous article, and in my book, are – like me – broadly supporters of the government. These include Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle of the Guardian, Steve Richards and Johann Hari of the Independent and Peter Riddell of the Times. Thus the view is sometimes dismissed – as it was in a debate on Sky TV between columnist Peter Oborne and myself – as a whinge against the media attacks on this government.
Sympathy for a government or a cause can make one more sensitive to the fairness or unfairness of attacks on it. But I do not believe myself or the others to be incapable of discriminating between well-founded and ill-founded hostility. In my book, I make the case that the man most sinned against in modern political life by the media was probably Iain Duncan Smith. When Tory leader, he was quickly dismissed as a no-hoper and could barely get his policies discussed, even in the Conservative-leaning media. This is not a partisan cause. Indeed, one journalist of the right, Melanie Phillips, said recently that she agreed with much of the case, and Oborne’s description of the new media class in his biography of Alastair Campbell makes some of the same points.
The media are “aggressive, inaccurate and unfair – but they sometimes force governments to rethink bad projects and rarely stop them doing what they really want to do.”
This argument has been put by, among others, Prospect editor David Goodhart (as part of his contrarian style of arguing for and against propositions put in this magazine). His argument, rehearsed at a conference on the media organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation in Sweden earlier this year, is that the new media culture bears some responsibility for the growth in political cynicism but that there is little evidence for the stronger thesis that it is making it harder to govern well. The combination of an aggressively adversarial media plus well organised lobby groups can, as Goodhart put it, “raise the pain threshold for politicians doing unpopular things” but in most policy areas a determined government can get its own way and remain reasonably popular. And it is true that Labour has raised taxes, albeit stealthily, seen off various shrill campaigns (on the MMR vaccine for example) and taken the country into a controversial war in Iraq. It is also true that media battering on immigration from eastern Europe did uncover muddle, inefficiency and evasiveness in government. The BBC broadcast by Andrew Gilligan on 29th May last year, which has been both backdrop and stimulus to much of the present British discussion on the media, was about a serious issue: the nature of the information presented to the government by the secret services, and the way in which that information was used. Arguably, the effect of the broadcast (if not its content) was to increase the amount of information available on the subject, alert the public to the dangers of bad information and collusion between the secret services and the government, and prompt citizens to greater activity in a contentious cause – effects which a more considered, balanced and accurate report might not have had.
This line segues into another – put by a number of journalists, especially from the tabloid press. They argue that the popular media – press and broadcasting – play a Shakespearean jester role: rude, unillusioned to the point of cynicism, pointing out that beauty farts and wisdom lusts, showing (as Feste does to Malvolio in Twelfth Night) pomp and power to be the farce it often is, the better to let virtue shine.
This defence has the self-ascribed virtue of placing the media in a British tradition; of endowing it with a function which allows rude revelation and public service to unite; of underscoring its vigorous, fun-loving but ultimately serious vocation of both cheering everyone up and tearing pretension, hypocrisy and corruption down. “It may be crude or cavalier or offensive to refined intellectual minds,” wrote Peter Preston recently in the Observer, “but it [the press] is still a better voice of freedom than any committee supervised by Gerald Kaufman.”
“The dream may be,” wrote Mary Riddell in the same paper, “of a media respectful to politicians, mindful of their democratic duties and shorn of tatty stuff about Beckham’s tattoos and Jemima’s marriage. The result would be newspapers of such turgid blandness that nobody would ever buy them… the greatest causes can hang on the tackiest cases… Britain has rarely needed its flawed, contrary, trivia-obsessed free press more than it does now.” And Andrew Neil, wrote in the same vein: “The media is the lifeblood of democracy… though the specifics of their stories (the BBC Gilligan broadcast on government lying about WMD; the Daily Mirror fake pictures of British soldiers beating Iraqis) were wrong, both drew public attention to vital matters of public concern.”
The difficulty with such defences, however, remains that they dodge central questions. Does the “voice of freedom” have no responsibility for getting stories right? Does a “flawed press” have no need to look at its flaws? Is every error to be given the generous pardon of being an understandable lapse – even a demonstration of the freedom of a country which allows such lapses? Is the press, collectively, so averse to being questioned on its practices and principles that a suggestion (from Martin Kettle) that editors and reporters be asked to defend contentious stories before parliamentarians, be seen as a matter of being “hauled before special select committees” (Preston) like members of the resistance dragged into Gestapo interrogation rooms by Vichy police?
It is hard to believe that distortions, inaccuracies, contempt and lies do not have an injurious effect on our politics. And it can’t be a defence to say that people are wise, or cynical, enough to see through the media: such a defence means that the media are of no importance, and thus can’t be the pillars of freedom which Preston, Mary Riddell and others claim.
It is true that the politicians have weapons at their disposal too, and New Labour once wielded them to great effect. But, as I argue in my book, this does not mean we have a healthy democratic clash between the sphere of politics and the sphere of media. We have instead a zero-sum game struggle for power. Politics dominated the media until sometime in the 1960s; since then the flow has been mainly the other way. It is the shift from, “Have you anything you wish to say to us, prime minister?” of Macmillan’s era, to the famous injunction of Harry Evans, Sunday Times editor from 1967-81: “Always ask yourself, when interviewing a politician: why is this bastard lying to me?”
Of course, much that was healthy and democratic was gained in that shift, but the accusatory tone of modern journalism has also helped to diminish politics and increase distrust within civil society. Yet it remains one of the myths of the media class that it is the politicians who still hold all the trump cards. As Peter Wilby wrote in the New Statesman, the magazine he edits: “It is the politicians who control the information on which the media depend, and there is almost daily evidence of information being doctored or partially leaked (if it is released at all) to put ministers in a good light.” Wilby, like many on the anti-New Labour left, does not seek to understand why politicians behave like this, preferring to heap all the blame on them instead: “The scandal is not how often ministers are called liars, but how rarely.”
There is no sense here of how the terms of trade have changed over the past two decades – of how access to the citizenry is mediated by an assumption on the media’s part of bad faith on the politicians’ part. It is hard to see how our governance gains from this. Constant blasts from media blunderbusses will hit the right targets by the laws of chance, but in general they will simply make people responsible for governing or administering duck – less inclined to explain themselves, at least not without the intervention of public relations, that famous “spin” which helps to alienate the watching public. If it is the perception from within power centres – public or private – that the media wish to seize on a piece of information in order to present it as a case for the degeneration or corruption of the individual or the corporation or the institution or the government, then those with the power will use their resources to protect themselves against such media. This is the downward spiral of the modern media war: politicians and others in authority speak evasively or not at all to protect themselves from media abuse; this evasion then stimulates the journalistic urge to uncover and accuse (sometimes even in the public interest), which in turn leads to more obsessive evasions by the political class. It may be true, as Goodhart argues, that policies – even unpopular ones – can still be implemented, but the spiral of evasion is in the meantime taking its toll on our broader political culture.
The most pockmarked ground in journalism is that of political reporting; it was that ground on which most reaction to my book was based. In his column in the Evening Standard, Andrew Neil said – and it is a common view – that “the media has become more powerful in recent years only because of the paucity of proper opposition to the government from the Tories.” What this seems to mean is that the opposition has not managed to unseat the government. Yet all of the non-governing parties have provided, in most senses, a proper opposition: indeed, in all local, regional and European elections, parties other than Labour have made substantial gains. They have all advanced policies which are more or less cogent, well presented and intelligent, but which are largely ignored by the mainstream media.
“Opposition” is increasingly defined by the media as causing the downfall of a government, the resignation of a prime minister or at least of ministers. Alan Watkins, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says that “Beverley Hughes would still be a minister if it had not been for the papers… the same pattern of events was evident in the second resignation of Peter Mandelson.” Assuming that it was right that these ministers resigned, it is a very narrow definition of successful stewardship of the political process.
It is possible, given the talent which flows into the media, that policy debates on matters that affect people intimately – on housing, pensions, military intervention or smacking children – could be presented with enough skill to make them absorbing. Were this to happen more often then we might be able to say with more justice that there was a paucity of proper opposition. But if we make sure that we block out much of what is the essential stuff of politics – the policies, the ways in which people prepared to form a government would govern – then we fulfil our own prophecies.
Many of the critics of this “reform the culture” view of the media have also criticised the BBC for excessive servility in its reaction to the Gilligan affair. That BBC reaction was contained in the June 2004 report – “The BBC’s journalism after Hutton” – of a committee chaired by Ronald Neil, former head of news and current affairs at the corporation. Mary Riddell called the reaction “astounding… corporate obedience at the BBC… needless panic.”
Neil accepted – if grudgingly – a central conclusion of the Hutton report which BBC executives had previously rejected: that the responsibility for the accuracy of a charge like that made by Gilligan could not be made dependent on the reliability of a source, but must be taken to be backed by the belief of the BBC that the source is right. “Because of the trusted place in which BBC’s journalism is held, allegations made by a third party will often be regarded by many viewers and listeners as also being made by the BBC itself.”
It seems likely that the Butler report on the use of intelligence material in the run-up to the Iraq war will say that the information which the secret services had on Iraq was promoted, under political pressure, to be more strongly threatening than these services would have normally estimated. This whole business was clearly a suitable case for the biggest sort of journalistic treatment. Where the BBC – and others – failed is not in the identification of the area of concern, but in not taking the story more seriously – both when it was done, and after. The casual way in which Gilligan made the charge – that the prime minister had lied to the country to persuade it to go to war – was a classic example of how the print media’s culture of contempt has in the past few years infiltrated the broadcast media too. If Gilligan had been more surprised by the allegation, it might have prompted him to dig deeper and to more effect, and to aerate the larger, complex picture of the relationship between politicians bent on a certain course and intelligence officials. One lesson of this is that the BBC must be independent enough, well resourced enough and competent enough to conduct such investigations into areas of crucial public interest.
The most promising part of the Neil report lies in that area. He proposes that the BBC now establishes “an industry-wide residential college of journalism.” This could help to create what is badly needed in Britain: an institution which would allow journalists to debate and reflect on the nature of their journalism; on what effects it has on the society and the world which journalism attempts to describe; how journalism interacts with, how far it has become part of, or replaces, the political process; and in what ways journalism – especially public service journalism – can and should be part of a civic movement to encourage engagement in society. Given the BBC’s resources and its centrality to the journalistic culture of this country, such a centre could play the same role as the Shorenstein Centre or the Columbia School of Journalism in the US, or the centre being developed at the Sciences Po in Paris – a place for open-ended argument and research into the vast power and huge potential of journalism.
It is on that issue of power that the largest divergence between the “reform the culture” proponents and our critics lies. To a man and woman, the latter deny that the media have much power. Preston believes that the press is too ideologically diverse to have a concentrated force, and that “its grotesqueries, such as immigration panic, tend to shrivel in the face of real experience.” But what is “real experience” for most people, outside of their locality and workplaces? Most “experience” is provided by media which – in the case of the most powerful of these, television – take up a large slice of people’s leisure time. If the media doesn’t have power over people’s perceptions, then what is it doing? Above all, what is it doing to us? We in journalism haven’t asked that question much. It is time we did, for if not us, who?