Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Poison pens

Britain’s media is destructive, dogmatic and bad for democracy, warns Paul Richards

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We used to think that the media was just out to get the left. We were wrong – they’re out to get all politicians. There has never been a time when the media in Britain has been so powerful, arrogant, and unaccountable. John Lloyd’s What the Media are Doing to Our Politics makes the point that: ‘Nothing – not religious belief, not political debate and argument, not even conversation with friends and family – possesses the command over mass attention that the media have taken as their own. Their themes dominate public and private lives. Their definitions of what is right or wrong, true or false, impose themselves
on politics and on the public domain.’

The national media is undermining our democracy. You can see it in the trivialisation of political reporting, the focus on personalities, rows and scandals, and the way parliament is routinely ignored. Recently, Geoff Hoon plaintively asked for more ‘respect for parliament’ and embarked on a series of meetings with newspaper editors. I suspect it will take more than a good lunch at Shepherds.

Ever since Watergate, journalists have assumed that politicians are hiding something. If the right question is asked, the scandal can be revealed, and a Pulitzer can only be weeks away. This is the origin of the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ school of political interviewing. It is not confined to the obvious suspects, Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys. Their style is emulated, without the intelligence or humour, by scores of media wannabes who confuse aggression with persistence. It means that anyone watching a political interview is treated to a sneering, arrogant interviewer tongue-lashing a squirming, defensive, media-trained politician.

If this is all we see of politicians, no wonder turnout falls and trust is undermined.

Successful politicians learn, sometimes the hard way, how to handle a tough interview. They learn how to avoid the question, how to speak in soundbites, how to stay ‘on-message’, how to dominate the discussion, and how to side-step the landmines. So political interviews cease to be an illuminating exchange of ideas, or an opportunity for the viewing public to learn something new. They become gladiatorial contests generating plenty of sound and fury, but little edification.

Why should all politicians be treated like liars, criminals and frauds? Of course, a tiny minority of politicians are liars, criminals and frauds, largely on the Conservative side. But the vast majority are not. The hallmark of politicians, especially MPs, is that they are motivated by public service, a desire to help people, and a genuine belief in democracy. Most MPs work very long hours, make huge personal sacrifices, and earn far less than they could easily do in other fields – including journalism. Their families suffer, their friendships beyond politics wither, and their careers inevitably end in failure. By contrast, journalists are often cynical, bitter, drunk with power, and sometimes just drunk. Yet journalists are the masters, politicians the slaves.

The solutions lie in a new rapprochement between hacks and pols, less cynicism and spin on both sides, and more announcements being made in parliament rather than on Today. We need a more diverse media, with more locally owned and controlled outlets. I’d like to see the equivalent of ‘party election broadcasts’ in the newspapers, with state-funded space in the Guardian, Sun, etc for political parties to make their case at election time. And it is time that the Lobby system was ended. Journalists covering parliament should not be co-opted into a cosy club.

In the early days of the Labour movement, a ‘free press’ was seen as a key feature of democracy. But today we have to ask, ‘freedom to do what?’ As objectivity is replaced by comment, investigation by intrusion, we must tackle the questions of access, ownership and standards of our media. If we fail, we will get the media we deserve.

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Paul Richards

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