UK: Dumped BLair, yet to finish his sanctimonious goodbyes, a sore loser and forever a liar Print E-mail
 London ~~ Wednesday June 13 2007

Simon Kelner: Would you be saying this, Mr Blair, if we supported your war in Iraq?

  • '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. 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 this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media.'  ~~ Tony Blair, Prime Minister speaking yesterday

Most days The Independent speaks for itself. We like to think that we do our little bit to make sense of an often bewildering world. But today is different: our editorial approach, and the values that underpin it, have come under attack from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

In a wide-ranging speech on politics and the media, he singled out this newspaper as a metaphor for the corrosive relationship between the public and the body politic, and on behalf of our journalists, and more particularly our readers, we felt it would be wrong to let his assertions go unchallenged. The Independent, he said, "is absolutely entitled to print what 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 this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media."

As the only representative of the multifarious British media mentioned by name, it's hard not to be flattered. Or, indeed, vindicated - our principled opposition to his policy on Iraq (or the Middle East as he quaintly put it: note he couldn't refer to Iraq by name) has clearly exasperated him. But that misses the point. We are unabashed about the way in which The Independent has evolved, although we would point out that this newspaper was not established as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views, but as an antidote to proprietorial influence and narrow political allegiance.

Today's paper is true to those ideals. So how come we now exemplify everything that's wrong with the public discourse? We don't trawl through people's dustbins. We respect the privacy of those in public life. We strive to abide by the PCC code. But, after 10 years of the Blair administration, a decade of spin and counter-spin, of dodgy dossiers, of 45-minute warnings, of burying bad news, of manipulation and misinformation, we feel that the need to interpret and comment upon the official version of events is more important than ever. And we are confident that our readers can differentiate between news and opinion. We can also be sure that our readers will make up their own minds, and with this in mind we are printing the full text of Mr Blair's speech (there we go again, offering another viewpoint).

What clearly rankles with Mr Blair is not that we campaign vociferously on certain issues, but that he doesn't agree with our stance. What if we had backed the invasion of Iraq (like, for example, we supported the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone)? Would he then be attacking our style of journalism? Of course not. We are unapologetic about our opposition to Iraq, the biggest foreign policy folly of our age, and we shall continue to hold him and his government to account.

All that said, we welcome Mr Blair's contribution to what is an important debate. He is right to say that relations between the media and the political establishment need to be repaired. And his comments on the role of newspapers in particular in the fast-changing media landscape echo discussions that are currently taking place in this office, and in probably every other newspaper in Britain. The days when a newspaper could be simply a notice-board of the previous day's events are as outdated as black-and-white television.

Of course, news is still the backbone of our offering, but we feel our readers today want more: a diverse range of commentary, colourful debate, provocative front pages and, yes, the views behind the news. It is difficult to imagine what kind of newspaper Mr Blair envisages in his platonic heaven, but it's probably safe to say that this isn't it.

Simon Kelner is editor of The Independent

 London ~~ Wednesday June 13 2007

First he conquered the press. Then it rebelled

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
"Never again". Those were the words which marked the birth of the culture of spin that became the hallmark of New Labour. It happened after Labour blamed the party's defeat at the 1992 general election on the character assassination of Neil Kinnock by much of the press.

Even before he became leader in 1994, Tony Blair was courting the party's traditional enemies in Rupert Murdoch's empire and at the Daily Mail. "It is better to ride the tiger's back than let it rip your throat out," he explained.

Under his leadership, Labour's media operation was transformed. Round-the-clock media monitoring, rapid rebuttal, pre-emptive strikes against the party's opponents and ruthless advance spinning of Labour's own announcements were imported from the US Democrats. Journalists were handled with a combination of flattery and bullying, given stories if they played ball and frozen out if they did not.

It worked brilliantly in opposition and, for a while, it worked well in government. But as Mr Blair's long honeymoon came to an end, the limitations of spin were becoming apparent. The media was tiring of double or triple counting money pumped into public services and the constant re-announcements of the same policies. Headlines became a substitute for policy.

By 2001, Blair aides felt that spin was becoming counter-productive. Journalists were sounded out about whether the Government and media could forge a more grown-up relationship. But the two sides were already on a collision course. Blair's inner circle could not give up their addiction to trying to control the media. They believed that if they stopped riding, they would be eaten alive by the tiger.

The collision came as they tried to spin a war. Two dossiers were published as Mr Blair sought to win public support for his private pledge to George Bush to back a US invasion of Iraq. The first drew selectively on intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destructionand claimed he was planning to be able to deploy them within 45 minutes. The second, or "dodgy" dossier, relied on huge chunks of a student's thesis culled from the internet.

Alastair Campbell, the communications director, declared war on the BBC when it doubted the veracity of the claims. The hunt for the mole closed in on David Kelly, a government weapons expert, who committed suicide. Although No 10 won its battle at the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly's death, it was a pyrrhic victory. BBC heads rolled but the evidence revealed during the inquiry damaged the Government. Mr Blair recognised that Mr Campbell had to go.

There were genuine attempts by a new media regime to give up spin but the failure to find WMD haunted the Prime Minister, causing a lack of trust which he could never rebuild. The tactic which had worked so well for Mr Blair in opposition ultimately became a permanent stain on, and epitaph for, his Government.

 London ~~ Wednesday June 13 2007

Blair still doesn't get it

The prime minister grossly underestimates the role of politicians in changing media coverage

Peter Wilby

If Tony Blair needs a new career, he could possibly cut it as a media columnist. His speech to the Reuters Institute yesterday, in which he analysed how the media now cover politics, echoes points frequently made by myself and other commentators. It is indeed true, as Blair says, that the media face intense competitive pressures; that commentary trumps facts; that a politician's error always becomes part of a venal conspiracy; and that hidden meanings matter more to the media than what a politician actually says.

But despite his brief mea culpa - "we paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media" - he still doesn't get it. For a start, he shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of the now highly opinionated Independent, which, he says, began "as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views not news". The early Independent was the first broadsheet to mix views and news on a large scale. When I was its education correspondent (1986-9), I was given a front-page slot to denounce Kenneth Baker, then the Tory education secretary. Baker got the same slot next day to denounce me. The point was to air a variety of views, not expel them.

More widely, Blair grossly underestimates the role of politicians in changing political coverage. His speech yesterday was a rarity: it wasn't trailed in advance. But consider how often you see stories saying that a minister "is expected to say today". This is a recent development, alongside the trailing of white and green papers, inquiry reports and every kind of announcement. The Hutton report - given by Blair "as an example of being held to account", although the judge conducting the inquiry was appointed by the government - was leaked to the Sun. The paper never revealed where the story came from, but it is hard to believe No 10 was wholly unaware that someone was giving its favourite paper a scoop.

Once important announcements had to be presented first to parliament (or at least the cabinet) and were jealously guarded until then. Leaking gives ministers substantial advantages. They can leak partially. They can leak to selected journalists, who may be deemed trustworthy or just grateful for a story. They can leak at a moment of their choosing, dovetailing the story with a "grid" of ministerial "initiatives" or burying embarrassing news. They can leak before potential critics have a chance to give a more informed verdict. They can even "leak" something that has already been announced so as to milk positive angles again. All these tricks are now used by companies, pressure groups, voluntary bodies and opposition politicians. They started in Whitehall.

Blair argues that "lines of accountability between parliament and the executive" haven't changed. This is untrue. MPs were once (at least in principle) first to know of government proposals. Now journalists are first. If parliament is no longer reported, as Blair complains, this is largely because it deals with old news.

The difficulty with Blair's speech is one of chicken and egg. Did the pressures of 24-hour news come first, or the politicians' more manipulative approach to supplying news? Probably they developed together, but the politicians - who face real competitive pressure once in four years - were surely in a better position to go back to the more measured habits of old. Why didn't Blair? The answer is that he survived a decade in office and, until the end, hardly suffered from, for example, taking the country to war on a patently false prospectus and entering dubious relationships with wealthy business people. The relationship between public life and the media might, as he says, "be damaged in a manner that requires repair". But the media didn't do him so badly, did they?

· Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman and Independent on Sunday

 London ~~ Wednesday June 13 2007

Fix yourself first

Tony Blair doesn't get the web - and he doesn't understand the British media either

OR Take your pick: The dumped BLiar a "Sour Puss" or a "Sore Loser"?

By Emily Bell
The counter-cultural view of Tony Blair's lecture (pdf) painting the picture of a degenerate media needing urgent fixing, would be to say he has a point. Indeed, my colleagues Martin Kettle and Michael White think he has. But whilst Blair talks about "life's greys" not being represented in the black and white media world, he seems to be veering into a universe where the collective noun for anecdote is "data".

Let's leave aside the fact that the only three people who have directly lost their jobs as a result of untruths over the Iraq war are the director general of the BBC, the chairman of the BBC and the editor of the Daily Mirror (I can imagine Messers Dyke, Davies and Morgan would have preferred the luxury of naming their own departure date and delivering valedictories). There are still some areas where accountability in public life and the media are strangely at odds.

Let's leave aside the fact that a great deal of the criticism of the UK press, in the run-up to war, is that it was not strident enough in restraining a government which, to many who had voted for it, seemed to be acting without mandate. Let's leave aside the assiduous courting which Blair admits to of press and media groups, which seemed to preoccupy the administration not just in the early days but throughout his tenure.

As a partial "web head" I was less interested in Tony Blair's curious victimisation of the Independent, and more taken by his assertions of partial truths or what seem like misconceptions around new ways of communicating (that would be the internet, I guess).

Blair laments that there is a failure in political reporting, preferring, as we do, Paris Hilton's penetential hokey cokey to a well-delivered maiden speech. Yes, there is some truth in that. But there is grey in it too. Parliament is one of the most impossible institutions to report in Britain - to go there as an accredited lobby correspondent, you must have a pass. For many years I jousted with the sergeant-at-arms's assistant over why our web reporter couldn't have a pass whilst newspaper colleagues could.

It is fusty, obscure and exclusive - something which the politicians and correspondents actually rather like. There is no application which allows us to cut and paste feeds from parliamentary debates from TV, as the rights don't allow for it. Why are there even rights for parliamentary TV? If ever there was an application for a creative commons licence this was it. Hansard would still be a closed book if it were not for the work of - a largely voluntary group of concerned developers who are interested in the web and democracy - opening it up through theyworkforyou. It was an exercise no mainstream media organisatoion could have pursued, because it would have meant breaching copyright and, potentially, facing the consequences.

Blair will cross an ocean, in the middle of a term in office, to address Rupert Murdoch's head of departments' away day. The fact is that new Labour decided it had to combat a venal and difficult press environment with a journalist (Alastair Campbell) and a highly centralised way of dealing with messages from government. Completely understandable, but utterly wrong in terms of where the rest of the communications landscape was developing. As the grassroots democratised with their experimentation and mastering of blogs and peer-to-peer communication, old media and politics both seemed inextricably linked in a pact of mutual self-destruction - in denial of the clamour for authenticity and direct access.

The web, Tony seems to be implying, can be an exaggerated version of the worst aspects of the media - well, it can, but it can also be a million other things. Balanced reporting, I would argue, is more prevalent on the web than in linear media - one story can be viewed from a dozen angles in five minutes. Response can be instant and overwhelming, as Blair bemoans, but it has reintroduced the idea that news, reporting, analysis and comment is conversational rather than finite. The people who are, in my limited experience, most hostile to the idea of the democratising effect of the web are journalists and politicians, both sets much keener on central contol and power than they would care to admit.

Tony Blair's least recognisable assertion was that the British media had sapped the country's self-belief and energy. Really? Is that measurable? Are we less confident because of what the papers say? Or is Tony talking about himself? Michael White and Martin Kettle don't agree with me, but then, in media, amongst our multiple failings, there are plenty of views, whereas in politics, disagreement amongst colleagues, like many other things is much more black and white.


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