If you haven’t, you should take the opportunity to read outgoing British PM Tony Blair’s recent “lecture” (and billed as such on its cover page) on the media. The eight-page PDF is here, but below are just a few of its sharper points:
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.
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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.
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 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.
. . . .
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”.
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.
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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.