Sam Coates, Political Correspondent The Times.
Tony Blair yesterday revealed his despair of the British media, which he believes has corroded the relationship between politicians and voters and which regularly demolishes the reputations of public figures for commercial advantage.
In his last major speech as Prime Minister, 14 days before he leaves office, he said that the 24-hour news agenda could “literally overwhelm” the occupant of No 10, while the modern media prioritised sensationalism at the expense of accuracy.
He suggested that the rules governing the media may have to change because the internet was blurring the distinction between newspapers, which are self-regulating, and broadcasters, which are subject to stricter impartiality rules.
Breaking what he claimed was a major taboo in public life, he said that many people in the NHS or law and order professions had also become demoralised and unbalanced through media criticism, and that journalistic “excess” needed to be reined in.
“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out,” he said in a speech at the headquarters of the Reuters news agency.
He rejected suggestions that the media had become less trusting and more hostile because of the media management techniques employed by his Government, epitomised by the handling of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Instead, the media had become dangerous because of its desire for stories with “impact” that would allow it to stand apart from the rest of the media. This, he said, came second to accuracy.
“It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be, but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.
“The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.”
By contrast, he asserted that Parliament had become less important because the media no longer regularly reported what happened in the Chamber of the House of Commons, rather than because it had been side-lined by his Government.
He also defended his relationship with Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, parent company of The Times, saying that it was necessary for a politician “in the real world”, suggesting that other media owners were no better or worse. He also suggested that commentators and pressure groups were complicit with the media. “Pundits know that, unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shoul-dn’t venture out at all.”
He added: “It is my view that the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted; and that we need, at the least, a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future, in which it is in all our interests that the public is properly and accurately informed. They are the priority and they are not well served by the current state of affairs.”
Mr Blair admitted that he had paid “inordinate” attention to the media in his early years to try to turn around the “ferocious hostility” of parts of the industry towards Labour. He admitted that this may have fuelled his problems with the press later on.
He said that the media was overtly conspiratorial – an unintended consequence of the Watergate investigation that brought down President Nixon, meaning that in the media view every error must be venal rather than a misjudgment.
“Watergate was a great piece of journalism, but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up.”
He said that newspapers no longer respected the division between reporting and comment, surprising many in the audience by singling out The Independent, the left-of-centre newspaper highly critical of Mr Blair over Iraq, as a metaphor for modern journalism. “[ The Independent] 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.”
Suspicions that Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s former director of communications, helped to draft the speech were discounted last night when he denied involvement. He said that he would have urged the Prime Minister to be much tougher on journalists.
What the papers say
“ It is good that he has got into this debate because it is something that Downing Street has been concerned about for a long time. It is good that he acknowledged that new Labour has some complicity, but obviously there’s a certain amount of special pleading in the speech.
He talks about how leaders are overwhelmed by the modern media, blaming the media for that, but its an interesting question whether it is for leaders to decide how much they want to be overwhelmed. It is important that political journalists interpret what politicians say as sometimes you cannot tell exactly what they are saying and the public wouldn’t be served if they didn’t explain.
Peter Horrocks, head of BBC television news
“ In some ways I regard Blair’s attack on The Independent as something of a badge of honour . . . as a vindication of our stance on Iraq.
He was wrong, we were right, and I can understand why he has been upset by the tone and substance of our coverage.
I am completely unapologetic about our stance on the most catastrophic foreign policy mistake of our time. He seems to be suggesting greater regulation for newspapers in line with the broadcast media. How does this square with his avowed belief in a free and vibrant press? But I accept that there has been a breakdown of trust between the public and politicians, for which the press and the politicians each have to take responsibility for repairing.
Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent
“ New Labour was very happy to tango with the media until it went wrong – most spectacularly over the Iraq dossiers and Hutton. I don’t think it’s wrong for journalists to explore politicians’ motives: indeed, a proposal cannot be properly understood without a grasp of the motive that underpins it. Nor do I think that the proliferation of new media is bad for politics: quite the opposite. It may be bad for the present Government, but that’s not the same thing.
Matthew d’Ancona, Editor of The Spectator
“ In the past ten years the media agenda has been changed by the speed of the internet. The news agenda has been changed by the the net, the growth of citizen journalism and 24-hour news programmes, so now the news agenda fluctuates hour by hour. The new Labour project tried to control the agenda and sometimes the headlines were better than the stories; so the media is the first thing to blame. I think history has told us that certain people who enjoyed good PR . . . hubris inevitably sets in. There are no simple answers any more, and the media agenda demands simple answers, and postIraq and green issues are not going to be fixed by a soundbite.
Mark Borkowski, leading PR
“ While the Prime Minister bemoans the change in relationship between politicians and the press, he should recall that he has been its prime cause. It is easy to blame the press for a loss of trust in politicians; a fairer analysis would point to his own culture of spin.
Hints at the need for increased regulation of the press are deeply worrying. Politicians may not like what is sometimes written about them, but a free press is the best safeguard for accountability and against corruption and hypocrisy.
Don Foster, Liberal Democrat media spokesman
“ Blair’s analysis is not without some merit, but in his main conclusion he completely, uncharacteristically misses the point. Most of the British media performed woefully in the run-up to the Iraq war, gulping down the morsels of misinformation fed to it by Alastair Campbell and others in the Blair circle. The herd mentality that Blair criticises has more often than not led to pliant rather than overly critical journalism. Some of the more hysterical commentary that followed the Iraq War was a lame and belated attempt to make up for weaknesses beforehand.
John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman
“ Blaming the media is the modern equivalent of shooting the messenger. But sometimes the messenger deserves a good shooting.
As a former feral animal, I have witnessed politicians getting increasingly frustrated that nothing they say gets reported straight. I would scan government reports and speeches to find the one line that shows it in its worst possible light. The root cause is that Britain has the most competitive print media in the world, and the desperate hunt for readers means we can’t afford detached aloofness.
Anthony Browne, director of Policy Exchange, former chief political correspondent of The Times
“ What Blair said about the way the media had changed merits serious consideration by press and broadcasters alike. These days the broadcasters genuinely seem to believe that viewers are more interested in what political reporters have to say.
The PM went through some of the many changes that we put in place when I was at Number 10 to try to improve things. Like he said, they didn’t really change things because in truth the deeper engagement we were seeking is not what the modern media really wants.
The question at the heart of all this is whether the public get the media they deserve? In increasing numbers, the public seem to think not. The politicians almost all think not. The media seem unable to see it.
“ He’s sowed the seeds for a change in media regulation which is not government policy at the moment. That’s very worrying. The media, whatever its flaws, needs to be free. If we can’t be belligerent now and then, we aren’t doing our jobs. This is a man lashing out in a very uncharacteristic way. The prime minister, a man who always smiles in adversity, lashes out as he walks out the door.
Trevor Kavanagh, assistant editor and former political editor of the Sun
“ When I first started in PR it was all about promotion. Now its all about protection of my clients. It gets worse every year. I would have been applauding had Blair said it two or three years ago because that takes real courage. To say it now, when he’s leaving the ring, is less brave, but still a valid comment.
“ I’d happily admit to being a feral beast. There are very few things that would amuse me as much as TB lambasting the media – the same media which he courted with an enthusiasm rarely seen in modern times. It’s bit late now Tony, I would say.
Piers Morgan, former editor of The Mirror