In a formal sense, Tony Blair may have reported to parliament yesterday on last week's Brussels summit on the European constitution. But in reality, it was his less formal report to Sir David Frost on the BBC on Sunday that marked the start of the prime minister's hard sell to the nation.Comment
Who am I to tell you what to think about politics?
The media is increasingly shaping policy. It's time we were reined in
Tuesday June 22, 2004
In a formal sense, Tony Blair may have reported to parliament yesterday on last week's Brussels summit on the European constitution. But in reality, it was his less formal report to Sir David Frost on the BBC on Sunday that marked the start of the prime minister's hard sell to the nation.
For it is media politics, not parliamentary politics, that shapes Britain's existential argument about relations with Europe now. There was an exquisite symbol of this on the BBC yesterday when Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun and Simon Kelner of the Independent argued the issues of the EU constitution on the Today programme. Until recently, substantive policy debates were for politicians; journalists chipped in afterwards with a bit of commentary. Now the line between journalism and politics is more blurred and journalists have increasingly taken over the politicians' debating role.
Fear of foreigners is the theme which journalists have long taken to themselves above all others. Important though the issues are, it is inconceivable that asylum and migration would have acquired the salience they now have in the public mind without promotion by the press. But it is Europe that is the mother and father of all these fear-of-foreigner-issues, and it is on Europe that sections of the press have therefore ventured furthest in their mutilation of the previously defined rules of public debate.
Saturday's Daily Mail front page deserves some sort of place in the history of this process. If one tries to apply to that page the principle enunciated by the American writer Bill Kovach that "the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing" then the Mail's report on the Brussels constitution deal emerges as a case-study in the decline of British journalism.
The Mail's essential project is instantly made clear in the form and tone of its headline - "How about our fundamental rights, Tony?" - a minor populist masterpiece that would reward extended deconstruction. Then comes the subhead - "In the face of massive voter opposition Premier accepts the EU constitution". And then there is the text itself, the only news story on the Mail's front page that day, which speaks of defiance of British voters, Blair gambling his political life, another "hammer-blow to UK sovereignty", private deals in smoke-filled rooms and "bringing a single superstate another step closer". All this in the first two paragraphs.
In a culture that took its press obligations to democracy seriously, that's the sort of writing - and presentation - that should be shown to all aspiring journalists as an example of how not to do it. The grim truth, though, is that this is increasingly how it is done on a wide scale. If all you read is the Guardian, and if the only people you talk to are fellow Guardian readers, then you may have little idea of how relentless and widespread this kind of journalism-with-attitude has become.
And it's not just confined to the Europe-hating side of the current argument either, nor is it even confined to traditional tabloids. Kelner's appearance on the Today programme yesterday as a pro-EU protagonist is all of a piece with the partisan approach that has marked his editorship of the Independent. Under Kelner, Independent front pages have become relentlessly engaged and committed. Yesterday's consisted of a series of rebuttals of "Eurosceptic fictions". I'm not sure that this is significantly closer to Kovach's ideal than the Mail's front pages. Whatever else the Independent may be today, it is certainly not independent.
These are the conditions under which the EU referendum debate is fated to be argued out. It explains, in part, why Blair's decision to fight for a yes vote has a certain heroic quality. Until now, Blair's Labour party has taken it as given that the press is hostile. That is why it always preferred accommodation rather than confrontation with powerful media interests. But that option no longer exists, which is why most press people assume that Labour will lose the referendum.
In the longer term, however, there has to be a better alternative to an already strident and confrontational press becoming yet more strident and confrontational. And, increasingly, there are signs this alternative is being articulated. Significant voices are beginning to be heard setting out the case for a more truthful, more aware and, above all, a better British press.
One of the most recent is that of Onora O'Neill, the former Reith lecturer, whose 2003 lecture Rethinking Freedom of the Press has just been published by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. O'Neill's views will shock journalists who believe that freedom of expression is the fountain from which all press responsibility flows. Not so, she says. "That image is not only obsolete but dangerous in an era in which parts of the media have become powers unaccountable." Instead, O'Neill argues, press freedom should be justified by "its contribution to democracy and democratic politics", and to an obligation "to aim for accurate, intelligible and assessable communication with relevant audiences, which supports and does not damage intelligent forms of accountability."
Much of that approach is also echoed in John Lloyd's important new book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. Lloyd's book is a clarion call for action from those who fear that British journalism has set itself up as an alternative and unaccountable establishment, dedicated to increasing its own power and prestige at the expense of officials and politicians whom it treats with aggression and suspicion. "Can we imagine a journalism which is civic?" Lloyd asks himself in his conclusion. "If we can imagine it," he answers himself, "we should be able to create it."
But how might it be done? Part of the answer is, journalist, heal thyself, by ourselves creating a culture of greater objectivity, greater truthfulness, greater self-awareness and higher professional standards, consistently applied and enforced. Another part, though, involves some readiness in the press to submit to public scrutiny, to be publicly answerable in some way for editorial policies, methods of work and individual matters of controversy. Every other powerful group in society submits to some such form of scrutiny, or even accountability. Why not the press?
Has the time not come to devise a careful way in which parliament can take on some such scrutiny role? It might perhaps take the form of a decently staffed cross-party committee of both houses, which could, from time to time, ask editors and senior journalists to explain their coverage of public life. You can hear the howls of outrage already - but the aim would be scrutiny not regulation. Is it so inconceivable that owners, editors and journalists should have to answer questions about the way they do their job? The press increasingly shapes our politics, not only over Europe. Journalists expect politicians to answer to them. Why should the boot not occasionally be on the other foot?