Blair blasts the “feral beast press”

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Antony Jay – Antidisestablishmentarianism – and other big words

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Blair: “The Press is a Feral Beast”


Update: 1st July, 2007: Alastair Campbell says that Blair has been a bit soft on the press. Next week we can read Campbell’s account of the Blair Years, swear words omitted.


Tony Blair’s summary of his speech on the press, 12th June, 2007. Click on the arrow on video to play.

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Visit ‘You Tube’ to View Mr Blair’s summary

This ‘lame duck’ of a prime minister keeps on grabbing our attention, doesn’t he? And we all sit up and take notice. Probably because he continues to talk sense.

His speech – part of his “Our Nation’s Future” speeches – is about the power of the press. It was a wide ranging speech and was about the changes in the relationship between politics, public and the media. He believes that a debate is needed.

He touched on the media’s ability to destroy the reputations of people (politicians and others) through their ascribing of ‘motive’, correct or not. But he understood the demands of the media, its competitive nature, its search for the “exclusive” angle and the impact of the new technologies and the 24/7 media demands.

Of course THIS is all of GREAT interest to our self-obsessed press.

The Independent decided it had come under attack, because it was the only paper mentioned. Mr Blair insisted that he wasn’t actually attacking the paper. Interesting, because I’ve mentioned and dismissed The Indie and its method of reporting/campaigning/criticising on this blog on several occasions. The paper’s reaction to Blair has been ambivalent; they’re flattered in a masochistic sort of way and hurt in a “who, moi?” sort of way.

I don’t think they understand fully what the PM was getting at.

The Independent’s editor, Andreas Whittam Smith’s easy throwaway line on Newsnight the other night was an eye-opener! He said, “all politicians lie”, as though that statement was self-evident and explained something. I haven’t yet worked out what it was supposed to mean. Did it mean that he and the Indie are going to be constantly astride their white chargers because they have jobs for life! Keeping all those ‘lying’ politicians in check and accountable? Getting some uncomfortable saddle sores along the way?

Read comment from The Independent today. Their front page, and editorial proved Blair’s point with their headline “Blair vs The Independent – Your Paper. Your Say “

Wonder what Indie readers will think? Go on … surprise me! Blair wasn’t simply attacking the Independent. He said they had every right to take any stance they wanted. Criticism of his use of ‘Middle East’ instead of ‘Iraq’, proves that the Indie has NO IDEA how Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are intertwined. You can’t sort one without the other.

Part of the Independent’s ‘balanced’ and ‘fair’ comment. In parentheses, (the PM is a liar):

“As ever, Blair asserts the opposite of the truth, using passionate delivery and a whiff of martyrdom in the hope that we will overlook an obvious falsehood and accept that he believes what he is saying is the truth; or at least that he did at the time he said it.”

I ask – which ‘obvious falsehood’ is that, then?

Sarcasm becomes the Indie.

Then there’s this:

TB: “The fear of missing out means 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.”

Indie: “Could Blair be thinking of the Iraq weapons expert David Kelly, who died after the Government released his name to the media? Call me cynical, but I suspect he is more likely to be thinking of himself.”

I say – Kelly? – no, not likely. Though he COULD cite Kelly as having been ‘hounded’ to death by the press, I suppose, if he was playing the blame game like you, the great independent Indie.

Cynicism becomes the Indie.

In my humble opinion his speech was measured, as it usually is, and he DID NOT say that the papers should not criticise him or government.

INDEPENDENT POLITICS?

But The Independent has taken a clear political stand on Iraq which leaves no room for doubt; no space for good motives of a politician; no empathy for the difficulties of decision-making to be made inside the complexities of international threats and alliances; no room for error; no allowance for nuances; no space for reflection; and above all, no time for conflict resolution. The politician who has come unstuck, through whatever reason – bad luck, bad judgement, bad information is a politician dead in the water. His decision, however made and for whichever reason has already been made. The politician has to find the way out, in his own time and in his own way. Not jump to the every beck and call of a newspaper. Do we really want that kind of leader?

WHO EXACTLY DO THEY THINK THEY ARE?

I expect they have it all worked out as far as getting out of Iraq is concerned. But, I’ll admit something here – I hardly ever read the Indie. I became fed up with its front pages and its constant castigating of the PM’s motives. I may be wrong, and Blair may be the heir to Attilla The Hun, but I actually think the PM is a good man. I believe he is well intentioned and loyal to allies even to his own detriment. He seems at times to grapple inwardly to balance the competing demands of political issues and priorities. But he has one big weakness …

HE DOESN’T SHOW THIS SIDE OF HIM IN PUBLIC

This irritates the papers who want him to collapse under the strain of their onslaught. Then they can explain his Iraq decisions with the, “well, this (mental) condition has been coming on for years, about four, more or less. So, that’s it. We Brits have been led by a madman” So that’s all right then.

Two weeks to go – it won’t happen. So forget it Indie.

So who does the Indie think it is, or … they are? There seems to be an editorial position a little like the Democrats in the USA. Remember them? The critics without an alternative? The power without responsiblity? Or at least those who, when asked what THEY would do, sat down and thought for a bit, and then said … nothing. Maybe Blair should ask the Indie to provide the answer since they’re so clever. Should we come out of Iraq tomorrow or on the day Brown comes in, or when Parliament breaks for the summer, or in September or by Christmas? Oh, no that’s Lib Dem policy, isn’t it? I know next spring half term. It’s all nonsense and the papers are simply NOT UP TO IT.

RELISHING THEIR DAILY GAME OF POTTING THE LEADER

They set themselves up as the arbiter of truth and the font of all knowledge as far as Iraq is concerned. In that they have an easy task, appealing to natural sympathies over gruesome tales and pictures; they have a pliant and willing following. Their editorial staff wake each day relishing the renewed challenge of more target practice on Mr Blair, hoping that THIS time it’ll be a bull’s eye and he’ll go down never to rise again.

They blame killings by fundamentalist insurgencies within warring clans on the PM – “he has blood on his hands” – as though he’s been murdering people himself or asking the troops to do so. Or worse, as though he and Bush had made a decision that no matter how many deaths the insurgents caused, taking advantage of the situation, B & B couldn’t give a damn.

PATENT RUBBISH!

So yes, I’ll attack the Indie, for its facile intellectual opinion and conclusions dressed up as fact. And I’ll have a whinge on behalf of those of us who don’t automatically scurry around seeking out the worst of motives from politicians.

The Independent only EVER prints the bad stuff – the body counts, the leaked insider information about ‘lies’, ‘conspiracies’, ‘deals with Bush’, ‘cover-ups’ etc etc. And they take great pride in their artistic front pages made up of lists of names and reasons to hate Blair, as well as banners suggesting, no, INSISTING on duplicitous behaviour from our politicians or should I say, Blair.

IT’S CLEARLY BEEN AN AD HOMINEM ATTACK ON BLAIR

And if Mr Blair is too polite to tell them this, I’m NOT.

The end result of this is at least fourfold (and probably more … but it’s getting late):

  • We never read anything positive that is happening in Iraq, and there ARE positive things happening.
  • Papers who judge so ‘knowledgeably’ permit the same facile stand to be taken by their readers. No balance. No doubt. No accountability for muck spreading.
  • The idea is reinforced that all politicians cannot and should not be trusted.
  • And as a result – we know, yes KNOW that this PM is a liar, war criminal and megalomaniac driven by war-mongering bloodlust and evil intent! He should be hanged as a traitor or at least sent to The Hague and banged up until he dies. He’s as bad as Hitler! Maybe worse.

The Indie may not say these words, but you only have to read the comments of many of their rabid committed followers to see that such ideas have infiltrated down into their very souls. It’s always struck me as weird and demented that so many ‘peace-loving anti-war’ types seem to spend hours deliberating the most excruciating and drawn-out method to do away with a democratically elected prime minister. (I’ve banned that junk from here, so don’t even try!)

Whatever happened to “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”? This LIPpy ‘viewspaper’ needn’t moan about the loss of civil liberties while it ignores that basic tenet of British justice for our PM and government. [LIP = Liberal Intelligentsia Press]

AND WHO VOTED FOR THE BL***Y INDIE ANYWAY?

The Independent is supposed to be a newspaper. For news. It’s not a student rag for 1960′s style anti-establishment stuff. It has NOT been elected to decide, alter by pressure, or influence by campaign a deeply serious and important foreign policy. This seems to be its aim. If it was just to make a point that it disagrees with government policy, it can do that in an editorial or two. No need for a continual debilitating, terrier-like ranting campaign. Has it ever wondered WHAT it hopes to gain from this tenacity? Or does it know EXACTLY what it hopes to gain, and might it have little to do with deaths in Iraq?

So, Indie – how do you like YOUR motives being held up to the light?

Other papers have shown more balance in their reaction to Blair’s speech, although few have been delighted.

The Guardian reports the speech in the old fashioned way, without much opinion. For another journalistic viewpoint listen to Michael White’s thoughts – empathising more with Blair on his point about the new media technologies and the fact that papers go more for reporting rather than fact. He is reminded that Labour’s early approach to handling the media was with the backdrop of “the dead bodies of previous Labour leaders”. He also thinks that, “politicians are more trustworthy than journalists, because they are more accountable.”

The BBC website links to several opinions, including that of the Blair-hating Simon Jenkins.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports Blair’s speech, with little comment. If Americans can do it!


Tony Blair’s Full Speech:

tonyblair_feralspeech_12jun071.jpg“The media is a feral beast, tearing people to pieces”

On the eve of his departure, Blair makes stinging attack on ‘sensationalist’ media

Published: 13 June 2007

The purpose of the series of speeches I have given over the past year has been deliberately reflective: to get beyond the immediate headlines on issues of the day and contemplate in a broader perspective, the effect of a changing world on the issues of the future. This speech on the challenge of the changing nature of communication on politics and the media is from the same perspective.

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, I have won three 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 13 years, 10 of them as Prime Minister, my life, my work as Prime Minister, and its interaction with the world of communication has given me pretty deep experience, for better or worse.

Free Media

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. 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 – it 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 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 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 three 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 was not the one the critics wanted. But it was an example of being held to account, not avoiding it. But leave that to one side.

And incidentally in none of this, 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 through the ages” back to the often extraordinarily brutal treatment meted out to Gladstone and Disraeli through to Harold Wilson’s complaints of the Sixties, 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? I think yes. So that’s my starting point.

Why? 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 transformed by technology. The main BBC and ITN bulletins used to have audiences of eight, 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 1982, there were three TV stations broadcasting in the UK. Today there are hundreds. In 1995 225 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million. Today it is almost none.

The Market

Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market. Many are now read online, not the next day. Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads. There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, 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, 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 won’t do anything other than intensify.

These changes are obvious. But less obvious is their effect. The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 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 10 years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on.

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 lasting 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 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 is, however, that we then commit the same mistake as the media do with us: it’s the fault of bad people. My point is: it is not the people who have changed; it is the context within which they work.

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. 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.

Politics

My view 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 it is all our fault. 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 chairmen’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: 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 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 rather 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 major controversy, they aren’t.

If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second.

Pressures

My case, however is this: there’s no point either in blaming the media. We are both handling the changing nature of communication. The sooner we recognise this 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 the masters of this change but its victims.

The result 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 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 pressures 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 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: 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.

Balance

The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is The Independent newspaper. Let me state at the outset it 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 today’s reporting. It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is “a crisis”. A setback is a policy “in tatters”. A criticism, “a savage attack”.

Non-governmental organisations 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.

Opportunity

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 reassert 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 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.

Accountable

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.

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.


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4 Responses to “Blair blasts the “feral beast press””

  1. Stan Rosenthal Says:

    Great stuff on the reaction to Blair’s media speech. You deserve a medal for your dedication to the truth. I’ve tried to do my bit on the Progress site re the latest calumny by the Observer on Saturday’s Channel 4 documentary on The Rise and Fall of Blair.

  2. keeptonyblairforpm Says:

    Thanks for your kind words. I’ve just been listening to The Moral Maze on Radio 4 and it was all about the liberal stance of the BBC following a report (which, to its credit it set up itself). The report said it had a liberal leaning tendency which resulted in a lack of balance in its political reporting. I have never been as vexed by the broadcasters as by the papers, as tv and radio are regulated for balance in news reporting. But it seems that the report found that in documentaries, comment or non-news items they were quite UNbalanced.
    So Mr Blair and I have evidently let THEM off the hook!
    What was interesting is that nowhere in the programme tonight did they mention the PM’s “feral” speech, though there may just have been SOME links to be made. Hhmm…mm
    Can’t even give him the credit for having his finger on the ball. Or is that them taking a liberal stance too? In other words – “we don’t have to be told by HIM when we’re being unfair. We can work it.”
    Cue for a song:
    “Try to see it MY way
    Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong …
    We can work it out, we can work it out …”

  3. 2007, 2008 & “Britain out to Kill Putin” tales « Tony Blair Says:

    [...] WHO DO THE BL***Y PRESS THINK THEY ARE ANYWAY? God [...]

  4. Gaza: Is Robert Fisk Propagating MORE Lies about Tony Blair? « Tony Blair Says:

    [...] died at the Independent when Mr Blair picked out that “ViewsPaper” as typifying the “feral beast” press, out to destroy people’s reputations. I recall that I actually had the gall to criticise The [...]

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