Perhaps the moment has passed, but I have been reflecting on Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech. He tries to play the dignified statesman, the ‘pretty straight’ guy, having to do battle with the feral beasts.
It seems to be though that it is difficult to think simply in terms of a relationship between politicians and the media, because there is so much overlap between the two. It isn’t just that many journalists seek an alternative career in politics, as MPs or spin-doctors, and politicians moonlight on the op. ed. pages of newspapers and magazines.
It’s also that both are to a great extent in the same business – purveying information, news and opinion that we hope will be of interest to a particular audience. For journalists this is their core business – done to sell newspapers or attract viewers and listeners. For politicians it is a means to an end – that of winning elections and carrying out the business of public administration. But it is a great and increasing part of the job. The skills required to produce newsletters (whether Focus, Rose or In Touch) MP’s reports, tabloids and election addresses, websites and blogs are essentially journalistic skills.
They share the same sins too – sensationalism, oversimplifying issues in order to make them seem exciting or interesting, presenting shades of opinion as clear-cut contrasts, as well as making factual errors or writing something in the heat of the moment that doesn’t stand up to later scrutiny. But if we are all to some extend guilty, I can’t help feeling, however biased my view, that Blair and New Labour are that bit more guilty than others. It’s not a question of the Iraq dossiers – the whole message has been to reduce debate to near absurdity – Labour are against crime so everyone else is in favour of it; Labour are against Saddam so everyone who disagrees favours him. (More examples at Millennium Dome Elephant). These have not arisen, as Blair claims, in the early years of New Labour when they were in opposition and struggling to deal with a hostile press, but well into the Blair project when they were in power.
So while some of Blair’s arguments may have some validity, he is in no position to take the moral high ground with the media.