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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5 Responses to 'Tony Blair and the media – "not bovvered"'

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  1. Two things -The PM’s ePetitions site has come from nowhere as an example of Government directly talking to the people without journalists intermediating.See for example “Read a wide range of views on road pricing” on the right of this page, sent out to the 1.7 million people who signed the road pricing petition.http://www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page10961.aspThe other thing – there is a definite noise in the air to look for an Internet based system of policy development much better than consultation. This would be a collaborative, deliberative, thoughtful process involving citizens, with some kind of forum/wiki hybrid that bubbles up good policies.

    Francis Irving

    22 Feb 08 at 12:26 am

  2. Yes! the end of my blog was deliberately less fatalistic than I thought David Hill had been in his talk. There are positive things that can be done – as e-petitions has shown – and that show the govt’s negativity isn’t warranted. And I think the mainstream media do – and should – play an important role in the process (only again, with less of the negativity)

    Martin Moore

    22 Feb 08 at 8:39 am

  3. Dear Martin,I think the contradition is perhaps yours not Blair’s. Do you want politicians obsessed by the media or not? You say he is sulking by not listening to the Today programme but I can only think that is a sign of a serious and independent mind who has something better to do between 6-9am every morning.As you say they have their professional media teams to wage war on the journalists and David Hill is obviously a particularly battle-scarred veteran. I suspect that he, like Blair, never got over the way that a news media that feted Blair for his first five years then turned on him when politics got real.I am not sure that e-democracy initiatives such as e-petitions are the answer to this stalemate. Although, as you know, I am a big advocate of opening up journalism through new media techniques and platforms which promote a more networked, transparent news media.But there are some simple old-fashioned things that government could do.Open up government more. Extend FOI, not make it harder. Be honest with the public about difficult issues. Devolve real decision-making power to more local levels.Meanwhile – please come to our debate on Monday at the LSE about celebrity poltics with Lembit Opik, Kevin McGuire and Derek Draper! Details, as they say on the Today Programme, on our website..cheersCharlie, Polis, LSE

    POLIS

    22 Feb 08 at 9:28 am

  4. @ Charlie – my intention isn’t to advocate obsession or ignorance but something in between. It’s fashionable to be very down on big media and that’s fine – big media could do with some reflection and reform – but without some constructive engagement it seems to me the loser in all this is the public. Seeing politicians and journalists fighting is not v appealing or helpful, but then again neither is it helpful for them to ignore one another.Practical solutions – by all means – of which more anon…

    Martin Moore

    22 Feb 08 at 10:08 am

  5. Oddly, the government sometimes seems reticent to promote its agenda directly to citizens. For example, did you know that the MoD produces a daily bulletin setting out its responses to media coverage?Across government they have interesting material; rebuttals, lines to take etc. But often a great hesitancy to disseminate it.

    Matthew

    22 Feb 08 at 10:25 am

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