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Sunday 17 June 2007

Blair may have a point in his criticism of the media

I HAVE friends in Ireland who tell me they can't read my articles because they couldn't possibly buy the vulgar and sensational Sunday Independent. In England I get pats on the back when I write for the broadsheets, but when it comes to the Daily Mail, people say things like "Obviously, I don't see the Mail, but I happened to pick up my secretary's copy and noticed your article. How can you write for such a ghastly paper?"

I'm proud to write for the Sunday Indo, which held the line against terrorism when the so-called liberal media were bowing the knee and has never, but never, asked me to write something I didn't believe or meddled with anything I wrote (except when lawyers were panicking). As for the Mail, they ring up and ask politely what I think about a particular subject, and if we are in agreement, I write for them, and if I'm not, I don't. As for the vulgarity and sensationalism that upset my fastidious friends, they make the papers successful and widely read, so I'm not bovvered.

That hacks like me are independent might surprise Bertie Ahern who, in a post-election RTE interview grumbling about journalistic coverage of Fianna Fail, said: "If you are earning good money and you are told what you have to say and, right, you have to do it. I mean, I suppose that is what happens in the world: you don't want to lose your job and I would not expect any right-thinking journalist who has a very good salary and expenses to throw it all away." Actually, Bertie, journalists are much freer than party politicians to say what they like.

Another bruised prime minister, Tony Blair, made a speech last week going after the media on a much more ambitious scale. Journalists hunt in packs, he remarked, in a quote he knew would hit the headlines: "like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits". They have no concept of balance: everything is black or white, never grey. "It's a triumph or a disaster. A problem is 'a crisis'. A setback is a policy 'in tatters'. A criticism, 'a savage attack'."

Experienced hacks believe the speech was written by Alastair Campbell, the ruthless, obsessive head of communications under Blair who gave New Labour a reputation for bullying mendacity and will forever be associated with the dodgy dossier about weapons of mass destruction that persuaded parliament to vote for war. It was Campbell who replaced civil service press officers with commissars like Jo Moore, whose notorious response to the 9/11 attacks was to send round an email saying, "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?"

It's no surprise, therefore, that much of the press responded to Blair's criticisms with snorts of incredulous laughter and cries of outrage about the biter complaining about being bitten. Campbell's successor Tom Kelly had a bad half-hour with the lobby journalists, which was wittily described by one hack as "Tony Blair was facing a crisis last night after a savage attack on the media left his policy in tatters."

Yet Blair did admit that by "courting, assuaging, and persuading the media", New Labour had fuelled worrying trends in the ever more diverse and fragmented world of communications (24-hour rolling news, cable and satellite TV, news websites, podcasts, 70 million blogs and so on). A vast part of the job of people in public life, he said, "is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms."

Media are now "to a dangerous degree driven by 'impact'", which means that the impulse is towards sensationalism rather than accuracy. In their competitive passion to break stories, they cut corners, make instant assumptions and force politicians and commentators to make half-baked assessments to stem the flood of speculation. There were several consequences of this: first, "scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down"; second, "attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement" - errors have to represented as venal; third, fear of missing out encourages the formation of the aforementioned feral packs; fourth, the pressure is to interpret what people said rather than actually cover them saying it; fifth, there is the confusion of news and commentary; and sixth, all this led to stories being almost exclusively black and white.

The result of all this, in his view, was that "we are all being dragged down by the way media and public interact" and the relationship between public life and media is sapping the United Kingdom's "confidence and self-belief".

He's right. In Britain, politicians are terrified of the media, leak to avoid being misinterpreted, are suspected of lying before they open their mouths, expected to be available early in the morning and late at night for public interrogation, quiver lest the slightest slip during an interview be followed by evisceration, and, what's more, they have no right to a private life. Ireland isn't yet quite as bad, not least because public figures are still allowed to keep some of their dirty laundry out of view.

As a journalist, I believe the media have got above themselves and should take note of such criticisms and try to calm down and address news less frenetically and more objectively. I think politicians should have the courage to explain that they cannot do their jobs well without sleep, leisure and time to think, so they are not going to be available for interviews from 7am to midnight.

Journalists and politicians have a love-hate relationship which has become ever more fevered and adversarial with the demands of 24/7 communications. Maybe it's time they showed each other more sympathy and more respect. It would be a start if journalists admitted that most politicians go into public life hoping to do good, and politicians grasped that most journalists want to tell the truth.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards