Archive for the ‘Lord Jay’ tag

Public gladiators in the media arena

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It’s rare to see thoughtful reflection about the media from senior figures in public life. It’s even rarer be able to compare four very different perspectives. But that’s what we got last night (at Media Standards Trust / Reuters Institute debate).

A lawyer, a career diplomatic, a general, and the head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace talked about their experience of interacting with the media – and whether there was any substance to Tony Blair’s claims last June that the media was having a “seriously adverse” effect on public life.

And they didn’t say what you might expect.

All agreed the media was having a serious impact on public life but believed it was simplistic and fatalistic to say it was necessarily “adverse”. Public figures have a “symbiotic relationship” with the media – to use Lord Jay’s phrase – and as such need to figure out how to make that relationship work rather than withdrawing or shying away from it.

Yet from what the four said, it was apparent that each had devised quite different ways of dealing with it.

General Sir Rupert Smith compared himself to an illusionist. “Being a commander is like being [a Master of Ceremonies] in a Roman circus”, he said. “All around you in the stands is a highly factional audience” and it is your job – as a military leader – to produce a larger narrative. This gives the journalist a “line of logic” within which individual stories fit, and and prevents the media focusing on the immediate and the controversial. The General would make sure he kept the tap of information constantly flowing since in his experience “Most journalists are idle, frightened people who will go to my tap.”

Lord (Michael) Jay was more sympathetic to journalists and saw their relationship with public life as critical yet fragile. “It is a relationship of wariness and mutual respect”, Jay said. Yet despite changes in production and technology the ex-Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office did not believe the relationship was qualitatively different from twenty years ago. Seen from within government, the biggest change was not in technology but in legislation. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act represents, Jay said, “quite a revolutionary change in the way government operates”. Civil Servants now have to assume that “everything is releasable”. This has seismic implications for those within government, and its scale and impact has still not been properly understood by the media or the public.

Tim Livesey, head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace, made a thoughtful plea for both sides to adapt. People in public life should not – as Tony Blair suggested – get better press offices. Neither should they withdraw from public engagement or communicate solely through proprietary media (official websites, podcasts, blogs). They have a responsibility to communicate and should do so as themselves, Livesey argued. Though if they do, the media should accept the corresponding responsibility to represent them honestly, and to humanise rather than dehumanise.

The danger of what happens when the media dehumanises was highlighted by Sue Stapely, the fourth member of the panel, who spoke in detail of the media’s treatment of Sally Clarke and her family. Stapely ran the campaign to free Sally Clarke after her wrongful imprisonment, and then helped her deal with the media interest (pro bono) after Clarke’s release. She described how the Clarke’s nanny was offered £10,000 for her story, and the “disgraceful” media scrum that prevented Sally Clarke’s husband and young son from getting into their own home the day after she died. Journalists are “daily required to compromise their instinctive integrity” due to their demands of their editors and proprietors, and this has to change.

Few soundbites (although Jay’s from “feral beasts” to “paper tigers” was eminently quotable), but some genuine insights into an issue that Blair and others have described as increasingly central to our democracy. A little less heat perhaps, but a lot of light.

Written by Martin Moore

November 29th, 2007 at 8:47 am