Thursday, June 14, 2007

The last great act of defiance

Blair's speech on Tuesday, where he criticised the media for causing public cynicism in politics, caused a surge of responses across the media and the blogosphere. Within the speech there were interesting observations and admissions. In his early years the party paid "inordinate attention... to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media"; though he did not mention the term manipulating which may be more accurate. He also argued that a response and rebuttal machine was an imperative as "you can't let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant", and hinted that MPs now think more about their media presence than their parliamentary work: "If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second". These are admissions that are not usually made by insiders, never mind an architect of the party machine.

But it was the criticisms that was the focus of attention. Accuracy, within media coverage, was deemed as "secondary to impact", and that the media elided "opinion and fact... as a matter of course" through the process by which the media focus as much on the "interpretation of what a politician is saying as [them] actually saying it" causing politicians to focus their energies on "rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended". It is hard to deny that these happen, one often gets the sense that the serious political journalists such as Nick Robinson and Jon Snow believe their opinions to be of more value than anything said by a politician and they infer meaning constantly; this must be frustrating. Equally the focus on sensationalism, the tabloidisation of news, means that serious politics can be pushed to the fringes. However, despite the earlier admissions Blair refused to effectively link the two. Labour's spin machine's raison d'etre is to hide anything that could be construed as negative from the media, hence what politicians say may have broader meaning but that the meaning is couched in hyperbole. Therefore as soon as there is a whiff of spin, the Westminster pack begin to sniff for the story that is obscured from them: a vicious circle!

Perhaps strangely Blair only chose to lay blame at the doors firstly of the BBC to an extent, but then the Independent "a viewspaper not merely a newspaper". This devalued Blair's position even more than attempting to dominate the moral high ground. Yes the independent has an ideological bias, but so do all newspapers so levelling accusations against the one that most vehemently opposed Blair's policies across the Middle East seems to be just sour grapes: an odd move for a man skilled in judging public and media reactions. Thus it appeared to be Blair raising the defiant finger to his left-wing critics and not beginning a real debate on the future of the relationship between the media, the political sphere and the public.

Last Great Act of Defiance

So what can we take from the speech? Clearly there is a problem. Firstly that politicians are too media-obsessed and concerned about receiving positive coverage; secondly that the media can focus too much on opining and not informing, and on the trivial, soap opera-esque aspects of the political drama rather than serious debate. Both of these can make politicians and politics seem detached and irrelevant among the public. But we cannot claim, as Blair did, that this causes cynicism. Media malaise research proves a link, however Pippa Norris found that entertaining reporting actually engaged the audience; so there are questions regarding the effects of democracy. So was this just sour grapes? Hard to tell. While Blair opened claiming to wish to "contemplate in a broader perspective the effects of a changing world on the issues of the future" his argument seemed curiously personal and rooted in today. His points are useful to an extent, but it would be hard to find unequivocal support from academic work in this area; so perhaps all we can do is take his points on board but see this really as his last act of defiance against a media he has always appeared to be trying, but failing, to control.

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