Thursday, June 15, 2006


Do the Media Subvert Democratic Politics?

Belatedly I've recently read John Lloyd's broadside against the media in his What the Media are Doing to our Politics(Constable 2004) and am not sure if, in the end, his case convinces. He sees an evolution from fractious simbiosis to a damaging struggle for power in which the media have: 'Claimed the right to judge and condemn; more, they have decided 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.' Charles Clarke in The Times (12/6/02) had presaged this attack by accusing 'the hypocritical media of bringing democractic politics into disrepute' and respected Downing St insider, Geoff Mulgan reinforced, in May 2004, with his view of the media's 'systematic failure to report the truth.'

Lloyd spoke of a 'parallel universe' in which his journalist colleagues lived and described but which bore little relation to the real world in which the key actors- politicians, corporate executives, trade union leaders, NGO heads and so forth- live and seek to do their jobs. Searching through my newspaper cuttings I found the Guardian's G2 of 10th October 2005 in which the late Anthony Sampson found many of the said actors, when asked, agreed with Lloyd's analysis, including Tony Wright MP and, former Permanent Secretary, Michael Bichard: 'Most respondents think' he concluded, '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.'

But for their part, many journalists rubbished Lloyd's critique. Writing in the same issue David Leigh wrote that: '...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 for '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.' 'In a society like ours', he adds waspishly, 'those who have to fight their way to the top of the political heap often have unusual psychologies...some of them are quite deranged.'

Given the apparently inevitable tendencies for democratic governments to manage the media in order to win and keep power, I tend to conclude the weight of the argument lies on the side of a an alert and robust media which constantly puts the government and its spokespeople on the rack. I'm very aware of the abuses of this role but think that on balance it's better to absorb them than lose those benign tensions of suspicion and distrust between media and politicians. The only real safeguard, however, is for us humble voters to refine own own 'falsification detectors' when either listening to politicians trying to mystify us or journalists trying to over- demystify what they have said.

"many journalists rubbished Lloyd's critique" - well they would, wouldn't they. It's a bit like asking doctors if nurses should be allowed to do some of the routine stuff that doctors get paid so much more to do.

"British institutions ... respond with more or less polished evasions or with downright lies". Which came first, spin or media-distortions? Who is reacting to what? Or should that be which?

"an alert and robust media" is, no question, a wonderful thing and an essential counterbalance to those who would abuse power. At its best the British media fits this description but so much of it is sloppy, lazy, rushed and biased. (Don't get me going about the heyday of the Sunday newspapers, the Insight team etc.) Media people love to pump up the actions of their bravest and best to suggest this is the norm. Unfortunately too often it isn't.

There are good journalist and bad journalists, there are good politicians and evil politicians, there are good CEOs and evil CEOs. With my limited experience of meeting some, I'd place the average politician higher on the goodness and trustworthiness scale than the average CEO but both groups would score a higher average than would media folk.

I have very little time for Mr Lloyd's theses on the role of the media. Apart from anything else, they were consistently used by Alastair Campbell by way of justification for his claims that "spin" was something applied by the Lobby rather than by politicians.
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