Archive for the ‘Today Programme’ 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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The myth of authenticity

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Does authentic mean true? Speaking to Sarah Montague on the Today Programme Captain Leo Docherty said videos of fighting in Afghanistan, recorded by soldiers on their mobile phones, are more authentic “because they are not manipulated by the media”. He went on to say that the fact they were “very brutal” also distinguished them from (implicitly) censored mainstream media coverage.

There is a dangerous myth developing that big media is inherently corrupting. That edited content is manipulated content and therefore less authentic than amateur content produced by ‘real people’. It is a myth inflamed by the current scandals engulfing television broadcasters, and further fuelled by self-righteous – and outrageously hypocritical – anger in the newspapers.

It is a dangerous myth because it equates unedited, raw, amateurish content with authenticity – for which read ‘true’ – and because it corrodes one of the fundamental values of journalism – objectivity.

When a soldier records an event, objectivity is unlikely to be foremost in his mind. He’s not thinking about getting multiple perspectives, or getting background or context, he’s thinking about recording his story, capturing an upcoming firefight, video-ing a daytime patrol, or just giving people an idea as to what his life is like. It’s intensely subjective – that’s the point. Plus, if he doesn’t like what he records, likelihood is he’ll delete it. Or, if there are bits that he’s embarrassed about, or don’t show him in a good light, delete them too.

Journalism is different. Journalism is not ‘objective’, but aspires to objectivity. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, The Elements of Journalism, objectivity is a process, not an end in itself. Absolute objectivity is impossible, but telling a story as objectively as possible is not. This means recording many different sources, presenting the stories fairly and in context, separating oneself (metaphorically rather than physically) from the action.

Horses mouth footage is inevitably subjective and partial. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it shouldn’t be seen as more truthful simply because it has been recorded by a so-called real person and because it has the immediacy and emotion missing from journalism.

Indeed it can, just like with big media, be stage managed. As Sarah Montague pointed out when talking to Captain Docherty and Major Parks, the soldiers filmed waited and timed their assault to coincide with the video.

But if, as Matthew Parris suggested in The Times last week, we are going through an ‘authenticity crisis’, you can be certain we’ll see lots more un-mediated, ‘authentic’ footage (broadcast on mainstream media), along with more emotion and more partiality.

Written by Martin Moore

August 2nd, 2007 at 6:38 pm

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PCC's Spurned Rescue Mission

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News that the MoD ignored the Press Complaints Commission’s help in dealing with the media almost made me slit my throat (‘MoD ignored watchdog’s offer to help captives‘). When the item came up on the Today programme this morning I was in the middle of shaving, and was so astonished that my hand slipped and I dropped the razor blade in the sink.
I was bowled over by the news because:
1) The PCC, as it repeatedly states, reacts to complaints – it does not pre-empt them. This was one of the reasons it gave last year for not taking action against the 305 journalists exposed by the Information Commission for illegally gathering personal private information (and breaking clause 10 of the code).
2) The PCC code of practice prohibits payments to witnesses in criminal trials and payments to criminals themselves but says nothing about paying government or military personnel. The PCC therefore had no remit to act against the newspapers’ offer of payments to the sailors.
The idea of the PCC riding in on its white charger to stop bidding wars by newspapers and to prevent potential harassment of the sailors and their families is so unprecedented as to be absurd.
If this indicates a radical shift in the PCC’s approach then it’s good reason to cheer, but that seems very unlikely. More probable is that the PCC saw this as an opportunity to plump its own reputation after the debacle with the News of the World and Kate Middleton. If so, it had better be prepared to offer its help and advice more liberally in the future.

Written by Martin Moore

April 13th, 2007 at 2:16 pm

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Don't disappear now the policy's been announced!

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The media spotlight has paused briefly on the issue of maternity care. It’s an issue our new, interactive, experience-led news media is wonderfully placed to deal with. Here’s a subject everyone should care about and an experience which many women have been through.
This is borne out by some decent coverage. The Today Programme’s Listener Panel came into its own with stories from women with very different experiences of maternity care.
And the combination of experience and authority is threaded together in an excellent editorial by Deborah Orr in the Independent. Orr sets her own experience of childbirth (‘absolutely appalling’) in the much larger context of the declining number of specialist birthing units (from 527 in 1973 to 341 in 1996 to 282 in 2004), low relative UK birthweights and a poor infant mortality record (compared to the rest of the EU).
Orr’s piece, combined with the many actual birth stories, exposes how misleading Patricia Hewitt’s policy promise was yesterday. Hewitt pledged that, in future, women would get more choice in how they gave birth and that as a consequence many more would have the opportunity of a home birth (Radio 4 Today Programme).
But as a growing number of reports in the last few weeks have shown (e.g. see Rowan Pelling 10 days ago), without qualified midwife care choice is pointless. And there aren’t enough qualified midwives (Royal College of Midwives calls for 10,000 more).
Unfortunately Hewitt’s focus on the issue of home births distracted many from the substantive issue (see debate on Comment is Free, and Telegraph editorial).
This is an issue that the media can and should have an impact on. My hope is that the spotlight doesn’t disappear just because an eye-catching new policy has been announced.

Written by Martin Moore

April 3rd, 2007 at 1:41 pm