Archive for the ‘feral beasts’ tag

Tony Blair and the media – "not bovvered"

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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.

Written by Martin Moore

February 21st, 2008 at 2:16 pm

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Dog bites man; Alastair Campbell criticises the media

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“I guess I’m just one of those people around whom myths tend to develop”, Alastair Campbell said – with a straight face – to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications where I spent this morning. His use of the passive voice perfectly captures the way in which Blair’s ex-Director of Communications manages to accentuate his own influence while at the same time downplaying his significance.

But whether Campbell created the myth or the myth developed around him, the myth exists. The belief that Campbell was as much the cause of the deterioration of the relationship between the media and politics as its victim. Therefore, the theory runs, anything he now has to say about the state of the media should be dismissed as self-serving and hypocritical.

Should it? Given how long Campbell spent at the heart of government, and the supposed influence (mythical or not) that he had on relations with the media, shouldn’t we be curious to hear what he has to say? Taking, of course, everything he says with a healthy dollop of scepticism and with a keen ear to when his reflections may have been clouded by self-interest.

But, as long as you bear this very much in mind, then it’s worth listening to some of the things Campbell has said this week – first in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture and then again today at the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.

It should not surprise anyone that his views are not a million miles away from Tony Blair’s, and he acknowledges this in his frequent references to Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech last year at Reuters. Therefore he laments the decline in standards, the lack of reflection, and the pervasive cynicism. But Campbell has also not lost his ability to spit out a telling soundbite and adds some astute diagnoses of his own.

Asked by the Select Committee about the Press Complaints Commission (whose chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, had just left the room) Campbell dismissed it as “just out of date”. “The world in which it’s operating has completely moved on”. Well, yes, that pretty accurately sums it up.

Questioned on whether the press influenced voters Campbell countered that if it did, it was only “at the margins”. There was a difference, he stressed, between “what they [the public] are being fed and what they choose to digest”. Whether people can always avoid digesting some of what they are fed is debateable, but otherwise Campbell captured the difference between setting the agenda versus determining people’s opinions.

And when it comes to individual newspapers, Campbell showed none of the reticence of Tony Blair – who was accused of being ‘cowardly’ for critiquing the Independent in his speech rather than the Daily Mail. No such shyness from the ex Director of Communications: “I think the Mail is evil” he said. The Mail group, Campbell continued, bears significant responsibility for the “denigration of cultural and political life” in Britain. It is, he said, “the real poison”.

But though he called for the ‘culture of negativity’ that characterizes today’s media to be challenged, Campbell was unable to come up with any suggestions as to how we should do this. Indeed taking his lead from Rupert Murdoch, Campbell seemed to throw his hands in the air and write the future of the media off as too “chaotic” to control. This is surely too fatalistic.

But it does illustrate the paralysis affecting many of those within the media right now. What to do about the oodles of space that now needs to be filled? How to cope with the demand for speed with which the news can – and so has to – be delivered?

It is these technological and structural changes that have led to many of the problems with standards. The need to fill space makes news necessarily speculative and repetitive (and, Campbell suggested, more predictable). The need for speed militates against the journalists’ discipline of verification. ‘If true…’ Campbell pointed out, have become the most over-used two words in news. All media outlets, from the BBC through to the Mail, publish allegations without verifying them and then qualify them with the caveat ‘if true…’. For Campbell, this exemplifies the insubstantial nature of today’s media.

Of course mixed in with these perceptive comments about the media were some galling Campbell-isms which helped remind you to remain sceptical. It was difficult to accept, for example, his protestations that he had not hectored the BBC before, during and after Iraq. And his description of Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch was simultaneously frank and dissembling. Tony Blair’s “like anyone else” he said, “he just finds some people more interesting then others… and he found Rupert Murdoch more interesting”.

But Campbell’s lament about the state of the media should not simply be dismissed because of his own history, however flawed. Neither should his identification of some of the (other) culprits. The only thing we should ignore is his fatalism.

Written by Martin Moore

January 30th, 2008 at 1:46 pm