MSM As A “Feral Beast”: Tony Blair’s Remonstrance
“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack,” Blair said in a speech two weeks before he steps down after a decade in office. “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.”
The purpose of the series of speeches I have given over the past year has been deliberately reflective: to get beyond the immediate headlines or issues of the day and contemplate in a broader perspective, the effect of a changing world on the issues of the future and this speech, which is on the challenge of the changing nature of communication on politics and the media is from the same perspective.[# More #]
I need to say some preliminaries at the outset. This is not my response to the latest whacking from bits of the media. It is not a whinge about how unfair it all is.
As I always say, it’s an immense privilege to do this job and if the worst that happens is harsh media coverage, it’s a small price to pay. And anyway, like it or not, and some do and some don’t, I have won 3 elections and am still standing as I leave office. This speech is not a complaint. It is an argument.
As a result of being at the top of the greasy pole for thirteen years, ten of them as Prime Minister, my life, my work as Prime Minister, and its interaction with the world of communication I think has given me pretty deep experience, again for better or worse.
Let me say categorically, a free media is a vital part of a free society. You only need to look at where such a free media is absent to know this truth. But it is also part of freedom to be able to comment on the media. It has a complete right to be free, and I, like anyone else, have a complete right to speak.
My principal reflection is not about “blaming” anyone. It is that the relationship between politics, public life and the media is changing as a result of the changing context of communication in which we all operate; no-one is at fault – this change is a fact; but it is my view that the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted; and that we need, at the least, a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future, in which it is in all our interests that the public is properly and accurately informed. They are after all the priority and they are not well served by the current state of affairs.
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.
It is also incidentally hard for the public to know the facts, even when subject to the most minute scrutiny, if those facts arise out of issues of profound controversy, as the Hutton Inquiry showed.
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 wasn’t the one the critics wanted. But it was an example of being held to account, not avoiding it. Anyway, leave that to one side.
And in none of this also do I ignore the fact that this relationship has always been fraught. From Stanley Baldwin’s statement about “power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” back to the often extraordinarily brutal treatment, if you’ve ever read it, meted out to Gladstone and Disraeli through to Harold Wilson’s complaints of the 60s, the relations between politics and the media are and are by necessity, difficult. It’s as it should be.
The question is: is it qualitatively and quantitatively different today? And I think yes. So that’s my starting point.
However, why is that? Because the objective circumstances in which the world of communications operate today are radically altered.
The media world – like everything else – is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and above all transformed by technology. The main BBC and ITN bulletins used to have audiences of 8, even 10 million. Today the average is half that. At the same time, there are rolling 24 hour news programmes that cover events as they unfold.
In the early 1980s, there were 3 TV stations broadcasting in the UK. Today there are hundreds. In 1995 over 200 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million. Today there is almost none.
Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market. Many are now read on-line, not the next day. Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads. There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, so I’m told, with around 120,000 being created every day. In particular, younger people will, less and less, get their news from traditional outlets.
But, in addition to that, the forms of communication are merging and interchanging. The BBC website is crucial to the modern BBC. Papers have Podcasts and written material on the web. News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge. Realistically, these trends aren’t going to do anything other than intensify in the years to come.
These changes are obvious. But less obvious is their effect. The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and it moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up to date news. That’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed.
When I fought the 1997 election – just ten years ago – we could take an issue a day. At the last election in 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on entirely.
You have to respond to stories also in real time. Frequently the problem is as much assembling the facts as giving them. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the 1960s the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet that would last two days. It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day.
Things also harden within minutes. I mean you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.
I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.
Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today – business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organisations and they will tell you the same. People don’t speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to. But it is true, nonetheless, and those who have been around long enough, will also say it has changed significantly in the past years.
The danger though is that we then commit the same mistake as the media do with us: it’s the fault of bad people. My point is that it is not the people who have changed; it is the context within which they work.
For example, we devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life and 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.
My reflection after ten years 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 that we are the sole source of responsibility.
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, which is how politics is reported.
There is now, again, a debate about why Parliament is not considered more important and as ever, the Government is held to blame. But actually we haven’t altered any of the lines of accountability between Parliament and the Executive. What has changed is the way Parliament is reported or not reported. Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered. Except when they generate controversy, they aren’t.
If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a good press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second. But my case, however is: there’s no point either in blaming the media. We are both handling the changing nature of communication. The sooner we recognise that it is about a change in context, the better because we can then debate a sensible way forward.
The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not actually the masters of this change, they’re in many ways the victims.
The result, however, 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 often 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.
Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressure as broadsheets. The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.
The consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.
Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.
Third, the fear of missing out means that 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.
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.
In turn, this leads to a fifth point which is the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine.
The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is the Independent newspaper, if you don’t mind me saying it.
Let me state at the outset that the Independent 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.
The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual grey is almost entirely absent. “Some good, some bad”; “some things going right, some going wrong”: these are concepts alien to much of today’s reporting. It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is “a crisis”. A setback a policy “in tatters”. A criticism, “a savage attack”.
Then in turn, the NGOs and pundits know that unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shouldn’t venture out at all. Talk to any public service leader – especially in the NHS or the field of law and order – and they will tell you not that they mind the criticism, but they become totally demoralised by the completely unbalanced nature of it.
Is it becoming worse? Again, I would say, yes. In my 10 years, I’ve noticed all these elements evolve with ever greater momentum.
It used to be thought – and I include myself in this – that help was on the horizon. New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.
But here is also the opportunity. At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact. Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing; but the thirst for the news being real news is not.
The media will fear any retreat from impact will mean diminishing sales. But the opposite is the case.
They need to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment.
And there is inevitably change on its way. The regulatory framework at some point will need revision. The PCC is for traditional newspaper publishing. OFCOM regulate broadcasting, except for the BBC, which largely has its own system of regulation. But under the new European regulations all television streamed over the internet may be covered by OFCOM.
As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.
How this is done is an open question and, of course, the distinction between balance required of broadcasters but not of papers remains valid. But at some point the system is going to change and the importance of accuracy will not diminish, whilst the freedom to comment remains.
It is sometimes said that the media is accountable daily through the choice of readers and viewers. That is true up to a point. But the reality is that the viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told. In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself. So it is true politicians are accountable through the ballot box every few years. But they are also profoundly accountable, daily, through the media, which is why a free press is so important.
I am not in a position to determine this one way or another. But a way needs to be found. I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.
So there are my thoughts. I’ve made this speech after much hesitation. I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters. But I also know this has needed to be said.