Sunday, January 15, 2006
Media under the John Lloyd Microscope
John Lloyd’s Critique of the Media- and a ‘hack’s’ Response
In his book, What the Media are Doing to our Politics (Constable, 2004), John Lloyd diagnoses a parlous condition in the strained dealings between media and politics in Britain, not to mention other western liberal democracies. He sees the relationship as one which has evolved from a fractious symbiosis to a damaging struggle for power in which the media have:
‘Claimed the right to judge and condemn; more, they have decided-without being clear about the decision- that politics is a dirty game, played by devious people who tell an essentially false narrative about the world and thus deceive the British people. This has not been the only, but it has been the increasingly dominant narrative which the media have constructed about politics over the past decade or so and, though it has suffered some knocks, remains dominant.’
We can see some support for Lloyd’s thesis perhaps in the aggressive interviewing techniques- which seem to assume ulterior dark or hidden motives- which have placed politicians on the defensive since about the mid sixties. Also, more arguably, the assumptions underlying the BBC’s stigmatizing of the government over the Gilligan interview in May 2003 which set in train the events leading to the death of Dr David Kelly and the ensuing Hutton and Butler reports. In his Reuters lecture early in 2005, Lloyd discerned a ‘parallel universe’ in which his colleagues lived and described but which bore little relation to the real world in which the real actors-politicians, corporate executives, trade union leaders, bishops, NGO heads –live and seek to do their jobs. But do these negative assumptions constitute a correct view or are these actors justified in complaining that what the media report is ‘deeply inadequate’?
Various journalist reviewers of Lloyd’s book were not impressed but back on 10th, January, 2005, The Guardian asked a number of these ‘actors’ to give their own views. Most felt the charges were justified. Tony Wright MP, academic and chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, felt the media should accept that they too had played a role in ‘the collapse of trust in politics and politicians’ which newspapers enjoy trumpeting in their pages, because they have helped to ‘….nourish a culture of contempt, engulfing the whole of public life.’ Michael Bichard, One time Permanent Secretary in the Civil service and currently Rector of the University of the Arts, supported Lloyd’s argument :
‘There is much evidence of –especially in the press- of lazy, complacent and arrogant practice and the consequence of this is the parallel universe to which Lloyd refers.’
Richard Eyre, the stage and screen director observed: ‘Journalists often regard Daniel Ellsberg’s maxim- “all leaders lie and it’s our duty to expose their lies”- as a vindication of at least, deviousness and, at worst, blackmail, while blinding themselves to the fact zealous exposure of lies isn’t always the same thing as revelation of the truth. And the motives of individual journalists are at least as venal and self-interested as those who they are indicting…’
Anthony Sampson, who reviewed all these responses to Lloyd’s critique concluded:
‘Most respondents think [that Lloyd is right], and there can be no doubt about the genuine anguish of many distinguished people who feel aggrieved or simply resigned to the misrepresentations of the press.’
David Leigh's Response
So is the press malign and determined to distort perceptions of those in power? David Leigh, also of the Guardian, writing ‘from the frontline’ as it were, contributes a powerful defence of the toiling hack. From his own experience he argues: ‘….when a journalist asks members of British institutions uncomfortable questions about what is going on, they respond with more or less polished evasions or with downright lies. They employ expensive PR teams to paint pictures that drift artistically away from reality. They try to intimidate with their lawyers. They conceal what they can and what they can’t conceal, they distort.’ He argues that all people in power are prone to this tendency: dictatorships try to suppress all dissent but democracies are not saved by elections every five years but by ‘free speech coupled with a network of civic agencies which are truculent and unfettered. It’s important that the various media behave as countervailing powers in a democracy; in fact it’s absolutely necessary.’
He goes on to say, even more controversially, that: 'In a society like ours, those who have fight their way to the top of the political heap often have unusual psychologies. Like police officers, or gynaecologists, some of them are quite deranged.’ Leigh concludes that on balance journalists do a necessary job pretty well but their performance is marred and debased by the fact that there is ‘a race to the bottom in a declining market’ and that it is true that:
‘some newspaper owners and newspaper people are venal, vain, cynical, sycophantic, low minded, partisan unscrupulous or vindictive.’ However, he excludes his own newspaper from such criticism: The Guardian he describes as ‘trying hard to raise standards.’
Both sides of the argument can be supported and justified, it would seem, but for us humble voters, the best advice is perhaps to be aware of the tendencies on both sides and to refine our own ‘falsification detectors’ when either listening to politicians’ claims and appeals or reading journalist accounts/analyses of what they have said.