Frank talk on the changing nature of communication
On June 12, British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered quite a frank and powerful speech to Reuters about the media, and the complex relationship that has developed between politicians and journalists. It is one in a series of speeches that Blair has been giving over the last year which he says have 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."
In his opening remarks, Blair says his speech is an argument, not a complaint. "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."
I present an excerpt of the speech below. You can read the full text here (and thanks are extended to the colleague who kindly sent me the link).
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.
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'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: 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. 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. 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.