Chutzpah seems to be a word increasingly en-vogue, but how else could you possibly describe the great obsfucator himself having the guts to stand up in front of an audience of hacks in Canary Wharf and tell them, after 10 years of leaving it variously to Alastair Campbell and Dave Hill, how to do their jobs?
To be fair to Blair, and Martin Kettle, one of his chief sycophants or sympathisers, there is a certain amount of decent analysis in his speech. I wouldn't go so far, as Kettle does, to call it pretty sobering and pretty truthful. There are elements of both in there; but that has always been the appeal and strength of Blair. His analysis, both of public opinion and his belief in being able to contain the media, alongside the help of Campbell, meant that he was never troubled by either until 2003, when he got it so horribly, disastrously wrong, and his own vanity, hubris and delusions took over.
It's no surprise therefore, that neither the words "spin" or "Campbell" appear anywhere in his whole lecture. He does at least set out at the beginning that this is part of his valedictory series of speeches, and that it's not a whinge, although it certainly looks like it in places. His best entire point is made in the opening paragraphs, and it's one which can be used against his entire thesis: that despite the media, he has won 3 elections and is still standing, able to leave office more or less on his own choosing. This is in fact the biggest indictment of it at large; the reasons why he was not brought down over Iraq are partially because of the supine nature of most Labour backbenchers, the failure of the inquiries, which he mentions, to draw blood, and probably most significantly, the support of the Murdoch press, which of course is also never mentioned.
It's far too long to fisk entirely, and others have already made some salient points, but here's some highlights, or lowlights.
In the analysis I am about to make, I first acknowledge my own complicity. We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative. But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.
This exemplifies the whole conflicting emotions I have towards this speech. Blair's right that the treatment which Neil Kinnock experienced at the hands of, you guessed it, the Murdoch press, was instrumental in destroying Labour's chances up until 1992. The Sun may not have won it, but it was certainly one of the decisive, corroding, festering boils which Kinnock couldn't lance. The solution came upon, assiduous courting, manipulation, bullying, threatening and with the Murdoch press, a Faustian pact, has though turned out to have been far worse than the status quo was, turning attitudes towards politicians as a whole, not just Labour, increasingly cynical, apathetic, dismissive and miserable. The ends, as Michael Howard identified when he confronted Alastair Campbell, have never justified the means.
I would only point out that the Hutton Inquiry (along with 3 other inquiries) was a six month investigation in which I as Prime Minister and other senior Ministers and officials faced unprecedented public questioning and scrutiny. The verdict was disparaged because it was not the one the critics wanted. But it was an example of being held to account, not avoiding it. But leave that to one side.
This is true, but the press, again, except for the Murdoch empire, looked at the evidence presented at that inquiry, and rightly came up with the verdict: guilty as hell. Only Lord Hutton, apart from Rebekah Wade, decided that the government was innocent of all charges and that the BBC was the one at fault. The passing of time has only accentuated just how egregious the government was in 2002/3, and the dire consequences both for our own forces and for the Iraqi people. Lord Butler has claimed that he was dismissed far too easily, but he again compiled a non-dodgy dossier of government making policy on the hoof, handing all power over to Blair and ignoring cabinet, only to not bother to actually criticise too heavily in his conclusion. It's only now, with Brown ascending to the throne as it were that we're again discussing accountability and ways to reinvent trust, when this should have happened 3 years ago.
Blair next goes off, enthusing like many other politicos blinded by the interweb about the changing face of media, mentioning that mythical 70 million blogs figure without bothering to point out that approximately 1% of that total are updated everyday and are about politics. He also overestimates how the new media is supposedly taking over from old, when increasingly the "old" is becoming "new". His main point, about the 24 hour news culture, is mostly sound.
We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. Actually not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear. And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing.
Apart from appropriating Geoffrey Howe's famous joke during his resignation, Blair is again probably mostly right. Most politicians do come into public life to serve: it's just when we're faced by their faces day in day out, and when all they've done for the last ten years is talk like a robot about how great everything the government's done has been, the public just might be entitled to get cynical. So many politicians seem to be irksome jobsworths, who never consider for a moment even the slightest hint of disloyalty, or as it used to be known, disagreeing with your peers, that it's quite easy to dismiss them all as more of the same. This is the reason why Hazel Blears, Oona King, Hilary Armstrong, Patricia Hewitt, David Blunkett and others are so widely loathed and ridiculed, especially online. This is most definitely Blair's fault: his demand for total loyalty from his ministers, even backbenchers, was pounced on by the media who shrieked "split!" and "rebellion!" over the slightest little squeak of independent thinking. That's why the Labour deputy leadership election, despite the presence of Blears and Hain, has been such a breath of fresh air: politicians from the same party with different opinions! Who would have thought it? And how did the Sun react? "Leftie dinosaurs hate Blair!", to paraphrase slightly.
My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault. So I introduced: first, lobby briefings on the record; then published the minutes; then gave monthly press conferences; then Freedom of Information; then became the first Prime Minister to go to the Select Committee's Chairman's session; and so on. None of it to any avail, not because these things aren't right, but because they don't deal with the central issue: how politics is reported.
This is just simply bollocks. As numerous hacks have reported, the press conferences are hopeless, mainly because Blair doesn't answer the sodding question. It's like Prime Minister's Question Time without the Punch and Judy, and unsurprisingly, no one's interested. He also tries to bore the journalists into submission: producing endless powerpoint presentations of how the latest target in the NHS has been reached, which actually explain very little to nothing at all, and if that fails, then he turns on the foreign media present who'll throw a softer ball about something of little interest to the domestic press. Freedom of Information has been brought in, and again, surprise surprise, the government has enjoyed it so much that it wants to curtail it, something which Blair curiously decides not to mention.
Blair finally gets to his point and hits the nail squarely on the head here, then instead of going after the ones actually responsible for exactly what he's described, he heads in completely the opposite direction:
The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21 Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims. The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by "impact". Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.
Who could disagree? In one of his rare moments of clarity, he's got the main problem with Britain's media dead right. Today is incidentally a perfect day for Blair to making such a point: the death of Bob Woolmer, revealed to be of natural causes after all. How did the media respond? They went straight for the jugular and smeared, accused and slurred the Pakistani cricket team. Woolmer was variously killed because of match fixing, out of a personal argument with aggrieved Pakistani players, poisoned with whichever outlandish substance you could think of, and even maybe murdered by al-Qaida. Not a single one of any of those allegations were true, and it didn't just infect the tabloids, although they were the chief culprits; Panorama was among those suggesting that Woolmer had definitely been poisoned. The BBC has at least today in its reports owned up to its acute failures, and how it got it wrong. Somehow you doubt the tabloids will be doing the same thing tomorrow. This isn't to suggest that the media were wrong to print such speculation, but rather that they should have known better, especially considering the various impacts, both on the case and those under suspicion, as well as the grieving. This isn't an exception though: this is what the tabloids do every day, day after day, and have done for years. The Scum's mea culpa about Janet Hossain was notable not so much for how badly it got it wrong, but how familiar it seemed because of how it's happened so often in the past.
Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.
Again, pretty accurate. This is more often done to celebrities and suspects in crimes than politicians, but there's little that's off otherwise.
Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So - for example - there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.
This is where it falls apart. Blair is trying to suggest that this is new: it isn't. The tabloids have again been doing this for years, completely blurring the line between news and commentary, for their own political and commercial gain.
The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is the Independent newspaper. Let me state at the outset it is a well-edited lively paper and is absolutely entitled to print what it wants, how it wants, on the Middle East or anything else. But it was started as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views not news. That was why it was called the Independent. Today it is avowedly a viewspaper not merely a newspaper.
There you are: rather than taking on the real purveyors of cynicism, sensationalism and "impact", for the obvious reason that very shortly Rupert Murdoch is likely to be offering him a vast wad of cash for his memoirs, and because of that pact we're often talking about, he's instead picked on the tiniest, smallest, lowest punching target of the lot, the Independent. Again, this clearly has nothing to do with its continued, avowed and exemplary opposition to the war in Iraq, this is instead all to do with the fact it has campaigning front pages and opinion on the cover. Completely unlike the Daily Mail, Express, Sun or Mirror then. The difference between the Independent and the tabloids is that the Independent has never insulted its readership or patronised them by suggesting the front page is now anything other than opinion rather than news: Simon Kelner was more than open in how, with the change from broadsheet to tabloid that he wanted it to become a "viewspaper", a horrible neologism. The tabloids pretend completely otherwise, even if no one's falling for it.
The rest is more or less more of the same, complete with a suggestion that the already hopeless self-regulatory framework will need revising, which won't happen because parliament won't push through a privacy law because of the tabloids' opposition. The whole speech is perhaps indicative of the Blair years: decent analysis of what the problems are, followed by hypocrisy, stagnation and then picking on the opposite of what needed fixing. Just without the bloodshed.
Sort of update: The Grauniad's leader gets it partially right, mentioning how good the British press can be, just without the necessary attack on its worst excesses as well. Simon Jenkins is also in his usual irascible form over BAe and how it's been uncovered by the muck-raking press, although I'm not sure how the BBC and Grauniad quite come under that description.
Labels: abuses by tabloids, Blair departure, feral media, fisks, hypocrisy, Independent, spin