Archive for February, 2008
I looked at the headline, then up at the name of the paper. Then at the headline again. Yes, it was The Daily Mail. Yes, they had devoted their whole front page to an environmental campaign. ‘Banish the Bag’, the Mail tells its readers today. And it’s not just the front page lead but fills pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, plus an editorial by John Humphrys on page 14, and a leader column.
Wow. That’s not doing things by halves. If I hadn’t checked it three times I could’ve sworn I was holding The Independent.
Does this represent a major editorial shift? Has the Daily Mail decided to go green? What next, how to combat climate change?
Well, if the editorial stance has shifted, then the paper will have a job on its hands convincing its highly paid columnists, almost all of whom seem to believe that this whole global warming thing is some sort of massive cultish conspiracy.
It is, wrote John MacLeod in the Mail back on January 5th, “frankly, a religion; as arrogant and as bonkers as the most COMFORT doom-laden of the Armageddon sects, with its own priests, its own mysticism, its own intolerance, its own bigotry and its own lies”.
Climate change dissidents have, Melanie Phillips believes, been censored. The Mail columnist laments “the successful attempt to suppress debate over man-made global warming, with sceptical scientists deprived of grant funding and subjected to venomous smears”.
One of those dissidents, Martin Durkin, who made the (much criticised) Channel 4 film ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, is applauded by Richard Littlejohn for making a film which “outs the scientific case against man-made global warming”. It should, Littlejohn believes, be screened in schools alongside Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’”.
Peter Hitchens, writing in the Mail on Sunday, poo-poos environmental concerns and proudly reports that “LAST week I began to stockpile old-fashioned high-energy light bulbs. I suspect that it will not be long before they begin to disappear from the shops, and I have no intention of being forced to use the horrible, feeble, glaring low-energy bulbs that we are being ordered to employ. I don’t believe in man-made global warming”.
Christopher Booker argues, in both the Mail and the Sunday Telegraph, that “the latest evidence shows that, while CO2 levels are still rising, global temperatures are lower than they were ten years ago and may soon even fall” (this from a journalist with no scientific credentials – see previous blog).
And David Jones went as far as Churchill, Manitoba, in the Arctic Circle to find plentiful polar bears and locals who were convinced that “the world’s being conned by green scaremongers”. “Doomed?” asked Jones, “don’t you believe it”.
So does the campaign against plastic bags augur a sea change in the editorial direction of the UK’s best-selling mid market tabloid?
Or is it perhaps more likely that this is the fruit borne of the the close ties between Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre? Could it be that there is some link between the Daily Mail’s new campaign and a little reported speech by Gordon Brown last November in which the Prime Minister called for an end to the “single-use disposable” plastic bag? (reported here by Benedict Brogan in… the Mail).
The science of climate change, complicated even for those who make a career of studying it, is made more complicated still by the way our newspapers cover it.
Depending on their political persuasion, the papers seem quite happy to wade in on one side or the other with the latest ‘proof’ of global warming or countervailing ‘proof’ that global warming isn’t happening.
Read yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph and you’d have seen Christopher Booker trumpeting the sceptical argument (in ‘Even the warmists can feel this chill’). Based on a number of freak snow showers in Greece, Crete and Turkey, and on ‘scientific data showing just how abnormal this winter’s cooling has been’, Booker casts his own serious doubt on whether CO2 is causing global warming. “[S]uch drastic cooling hardly accords with the classic global warming theory”, Booker posits.
Given that Booker is neither a scientist, nor even a science journalist (he studied history at Cambridge according to Wikipedia), it seems odd that he should be so determinedly sceptical of the science of climate change.
But choose another paper – this time the Independent on Sunday – and you get a similarly tenuous assertion, just in the other direction. Page 3 of the paper records the arrival of the Red Admiral butterfly to a Dorset churchyard. It quotes Dr Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, as saying that this is “real proof that the climate is changing”.
Snowstorms in Turkey or Red Admirals in Dorset. It doesn’t seem like either is a particularly firm foundation on which to base scientific proof.
The Speaker Michael Martin is the latest public figure Melanie Phillips has called on to resign (see previous post “Do the press’ calls for people to resign have any effect?“).
Under the headline “Until the Speaker goes, our faith in Parliament can’t be restored“, Phillips gets even crosser than usual:
“He [Martin] is simply the worst Speaker in living memory. It is a disgrace that he is still in office. But then, this dreary catalogue of abuse of office is all of a piece with the tragic decline of that great institution of which he is the custodian”.
Still, based on previous form there’s now every chance Martin will stay in it for the long haul.
I suppose it’s the equivalent of a teenage sulk. After the Labour government’s brutal battle with the BBC, and following the infamous 6.07am Andrew Gilligan two-way on the Today Programme, how did Tony Blair react? He turned it off. He ignored it. “In the four years I worked at Downing Street”, David Hill, Alastair Campbell’s successor as Head of No.10 Communications said last night, “Tony Blair never once listened to the Today programme”.
But like any self-respecting teenage sulk, Blair’s did not end with the Today programme. According to Hill, between 2003 and 2007, the Prime Minister never consciously listened to or watched a news bulletin – not on the BBC, not on ITV, nor on Channel 4 nor Sky. “He flicked through the papers occasionally”.
If he needed to know what the media were saying, Hill said, “he had techniques” and he had his communications team. A team that Hill led after Campbell’s resignation in 2003 until Tony Blair stepped down in June 2007. Hill was speaking publicly for the first time last night since leaving Number 10: about his time at Downing Street, about dealing with the press post Hutton and Campbell, and on the future of the relationship between the government and the media. I introduced him to an audience of journalism and PR students at Westminster University.
There is a strange contradiction here. On the one hand we had a government supposedly obsessed by the media and addicted to spin. A Prime Minister who railed against the ‘feral beasts’ of the press and lamented the way the media “saps the country’s confidence and self-belief… undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, …reduces our capacity to take the right decisions”. Yet on the other we had a PM who we’re told utterly ignored the news and filtered all headlines through his press office.
Nor did the rest of Hill’s talk resolve the contradiction. Like Blair and Campbell, Hill lamented the culture of negativity that characterises the British press, particularly the national newspapers. “National papers believe the only interesting news is negative news”. The Sunday papers are, Hill said, the worst; “they have only one hit a week [so] each paper is desperate for… the most effective political splash”. These tend to be “more about character assassination than general politics”. And since they all want their splash to be about something different it is almost impossible to prepare for them.
This constant negativity damages public life, Hill argued. Media criticism has become so personal, he said, that it is driving people away from public office for fear of vilification and humiliation. Plus the flood of bad news headlines have generated a “perceptions gap”, where the public believe public services are much worse than their own experience tells them. Talk to people about their own treatment by the NHS, for example, and the majority will say it was very good (65% approval according to Hill). But ask them about the NHS nationally and they’ll shake their heads and say it’s a mess (comparable approval ratings at around 25%). This, Hill believes, is a direct consequence of what people see on TV and read in the papers.
And, if anything, Hill thinks things are likely to get worse. “Political comment and news will become ever more personal” since “it is easier to play the man than the ball”. Negative stories will continue to trump positive ones. Stories with no identifiable source will spread virally via the internet and be virtually impossible to stop.
When asked why the government does not try to do anything to change this Hill became more defensive. It is, he complained, “an unfair relationship”, a “very very unequal relationship”, “in which the journalists hold all the cards”. They decide on the tone, the content, the angle and the emphasis. The government has to work within their rules, their agendas, and their deadlines. The only way around this is to try to reach above media constraints and appeal directly to the public. This is what Tony Blair tried to do with his series of speeches on ‘major themes’ in the closing months of his premiership, with varying degrees of success.
Yet, from the outside at least, it looks like the government’s overall response to the media post Hutton was slightly less mature. Perhaps Tony Blair’s memorable performance with Catherine Tate on Comic Relief in 2007 was even more apposite than it seemed at the time. Perhaps he really was “not bovvered”. But the answer to the continuing deterioration of relations between government and the media is surely not disengagement – by either side. There must be a more positive approach to the problem than just switching off.