As one who has toiled in the vineyard of journalism for more years than I care to remember, I found the Prime Minister’s speech, in which he anathematised the media as a “feral beast”, satisfying. It worked on two paradigmatic levels, as a media lecturer at one of our stimulating new polyversities might say, brushing the skunk ash from his FCUK T-shirt.
First, Tony Blair was correct in describing the British press as pretty bloody awful, or words to that effect. Our tabloid papers are execrable. Nasty, coarse, sentimental, brutish, vindictive, intrusive, bullying and trivial, they hold up a mirror in which their readership may see itself accurately reflected. That helps to explain the paradox that although most people loathe the tabloid press they continue to buy and read it. Guilty pleasures are always uncomfortable.
It is not just the red tops that deserve criticism. Even at the better end of the tabloid world, exemplified by the Daily Mail, old and better standards of journalism have been forsaken, a decline for which the late David English was largely responsible. Accomplished editor though he was, it was under his watch, and with his encouragement, that the paper blurred the distinction between news and comment. CP Scott, the celebrated editor of what was then the Manchester Guardian, famously said that comment is free, but facts are sacred. “The primary office of a newspaper,” he wrote, “is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong.”
All very high-minded, of course, and as Scott admitted, an ideal rather than a reality. All the same, ideals should be striven for, not ignored, and it is irritating to see naked opinion paraded in the news columns. In this, our modern tabloid press has assumed the role of the 19th century pamphleteer. It has done so because the swift imparting of hard news belongs to the instant electronic media, and the old-fashioned, chip wrapper newspaper cannot compete. In carving out a new role for itself the written press has assumed the part of a town crier with bellyache.
The quality press is not much better. In fact, it may be argued with justice that Britain no longer has a single newspaper to which the adjective quality may accurately be applied. The Times and The Daily Telegraph are both too beholden to popular culture to be taken seriously.
As for television, the medium long since forgot all that idealistic stuff about a mission to explain and abandoned itself to the pleasures of doing what it does best, entertaining the masses. News as an amusing diversion is its contribution to journalism.
So, much of what the PM said was true. Our media is in many ways an unpleasant and unruly beast pockmarked with unappealing features. But all of that sin, or almost all, is expiated in the singular accomplishment of provoking Tony Blair to fury. That he leaves office after ten years nursing a pathological hatred of the press is a cause of satisfaction. Much has already been said and written about this Government’s manipulation of the media, its poisoning of the wells of communication, the lying, bullying tactics of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, and the politicisation of the Whitehall press offices. All of that is true and deplorable, but who emerges the winner? The press, thank heaven.
That most politicians, and nearly all prime ministers, grow to dislike the media intensely and would wish to see it muzzled is proof conclusive that journalists, for all their failings, are doing their job, which is to subject those in power to unrelenting scrutiny.
During the past ten years, that function has grown in importance. Not only have we had an administration determined more than any before it to exploit the media for its own purposes, we have also seen an erosion of the power of Parliament, partly because authority has ebbed to Brussels and partly because Blair’s style of government was to bypass the House of Westminster. There is no true Opposition in Parliament and the press must therefore assume that role.
Just imagine what life would be like in this country without a Fourth Estate. True, as an estate of the realm the press lacks dignity; it sits in the back row, throwing bottles, as Richard Littlejohn picturesquely put it. All the same, it’s thrilling to see the old ham actor exiting stage left in a hail of jeroboams.