Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where the power lies

The respected chief political commentator of The Times reviews former spin doctor Lance Price’s book ‘Where the Power Lies – Prime Ministers v The Media’, and enjoys its thoughtful balance on the role of the press.

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Spin is the most over-written and tiresome cliché of the Blair and Brown years. It has become a term of abuse as freely, and misleadingly, used as sleaze was during the Major years. Journalists, particularly, those from the BBC, are fond of writing agonised books about media spin, about how they were manipulated by Alastair Campbell and his ilk. And, of course, we have the Campbell diaries, the memoirs of ex-ministers and numerous books of knife and stab revelations about these years.

At first glance, you might expect Lance Price’s book to fall into this familiar group. He has, after all, already written his own colourful account of his nearly three years as Campbell’s deputy, ‘The Spin Doctor’s Diary’, and before that he was a BBC political correspondent. But, unexpectedly and pleasurably, his lengthy new book, ‘Where Power Lies – Prime Ministers v The Media’, is more balanced and therefore much more rewarding. It also has clear lessons for what future Labour leaders, and prime ministers of whatever party should do.

Price argues that the media-by which he mainly means the press-is not nearly as influential as proprietors and editors claim, and as politicians pretend. He fully acknowledges that: ‘The media don’t merely observe the political system; they are part of it. They don’t just scrutinise the exercise of power, they are elements of the machinery through which it is exercised”. The fortunes of every recent prime minister have been closely tied to their standing in the press. Price goes back to Lloyd George who had close relations with the press barons, as they were then, and “who was built up by the press when it suited it and then discarded when it no longer had any use for him. Again, in the 1960s, Harold Wilson went from being the darling of the media to believing they were out to destroy him”.

But, as Price convincingly demonstrates, the press has not, in practice, swung any election, over the past century. The Sun neither won it for John Major in 1992, nor for Tony Blair in 1997, certainly not on the latter occasion when its readers had already shifted from the Tories to New Labour well before The Sun came out in support of Blair. And in 1992, The Sun’s influence was, at most, a reinforcing one, despite the desire of some Labour MPs and activists to seek a scapegoat for the party’s unexpected defeat then. Most press campaigns to promote a cause have failed.

“The media alone have never created a prime minister and never destroyed one. Where they have succeeded all too often is in convincing prime ministers that they, the media, are more powerful than they really are”. Their main power has been negative, helping to hound ministers from office in real or often bogus scandals (Peter Mandelson deserved to go in 1998, but not in 2001). Moreover, politicians’ fear of the media has made them risk averse, as Tony Blair was over the euro and Europe generally. He believed that he could not win a battle, especially in a referendum, against a heavily eurosceptic press.

But not only are such fears exaggerated they are, anyway, now out-of-date, as newspaper circulations fall and voters, particularly younger ones, increasingly get their information and opinions from newer media-social networking sites, other online sources and a wide variety of broadcasters.

Price makes the pertinent point that “the prime ministers of the past hundred years who had the greatest impact were those who fretted least about the media: Margaret Thatcher because she didn’t need to; Winston Churchill because he had more important things to do, and Clement Attlee because he simply wasn’t interested. Both Thatcher and Churchill had the benefit of powerful friends in Fleet Street willing to do much of their work for them. They themselves recognised the importance of a good image but had no intention of ceding to journalists one ounce of real power”.

No one disputes that the recent position is unhealthy with what Tony Blair described in his valedictory speech as the “feral beasts” of the media hunting for scandal and new political victims, and politicians trying to manipulate the media. There will always be tension, and conflict, between media and politicians. Price concludes with a series of sensible suggestions for greater openness both about the identity of those speaking on behalf of prime ministers and about what they say. However, while desirable, I doubt if they will make much difference in practice.

The real question is about the self-confidence of politicians. Of course, they need to work closely with the media. But they need to be robust, arguing for what they want to do, and willing, if necessary, to defy press criticism. They might find the process both satisfying and successful.

Photo: LSE Library 2009

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Peter Riddell

is chief political commentator of the Times and a senior
fellow of the Institute for Government. He is chair of the Hansard
Society and has written six books on British politics, including The
Unfulfilled Prime Minister – Tony Blair’s Quest for a Legacy

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