it is the height of stupidity, on Blair’s part, to think that it might be an idea to start regulating the blogosphere
I would much rather have cyberspace regulated by public scorn than by Tony Blair
God save the media
Oh for heaven’s sake, can someone please tiptoe up behind our poor prating ex-Prime Minister to be and tell him that the show is over? Come on, Cherie, Alastair, Peter – whoever still composes the depleted Praetorian Guard – tell the old boy to put a sock in it before he does himself a serious embarrassment.
I think it would be fair to say that we have heard some self-serving twaddle from Tony Blair in the past 10 years, and yet his “I blame the media” speech was not only hypocritical and sinister: it was downright insulting to the intelligence of the British public.
There he goes, sobbing about his treatment at the hands of “feral beasts” of the press, with all the plangency of Earl Spencer denouncing the paparazzi, when he and his Government set out from the very inception of their rule to distort and corrupt the process by which information comes into the public domain.
Act One, Scene One, Alastair Campbell systematically purged Whitehall of its official press officers – good men and women, not paid very much, who could be relied on to tell you the facts as they understood them. Instead, he and Tony installed a cadre of trusties, mainly from the Mirror, who blatantly pushed the Labour line and gave a Blair-favouring “spin” to events.
Important announcements – the timing of elections, even the contents of the Hutton report – were leaked to certain newspapers in the hope of keeping them on side, and MPs were pathetically obliged to comment on whatever Pravda (the Sun) or Tass (the Mirror) was authorised to announce, rather than hearing the news from the Dispatch Box.
It was Blair, far more than overmighty journalists, who marginalised Parliament in the past decade. And when spin didn’t work, Blair and his team would simply lie: they would assert that black was white, and garnish their assertions with brutal Anglo-Saxon participles.
They tried to deceive the public over little things, such as the way the Prime Minister had inserted himself at the forefront of the Queen Mother’s funeral ceremony; and they deceived the public over matters of colossal international importance, such as the exact balance of probability given by British intelligence to the question of whether or not Saddam Hussein indeed possessed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.
It wasn’t the press that undermined confidence in government: it was the horror of discovering that the Prime Minister’s spokesman – Alastair Campbell – could in effect order the intelligence services to buff up the evidence, to change the mood of verbs from the conditional to the indicative, in order to make Saddam’s weaponry sound more scary and the case for war more convincing.
It is the government deceit that is resented – at least by most people – and not the “feral beasts” of the media who uncovered it.
That is why Blair’s speech to the Reuters Institute was so hypocritical; and it was insulting to the intelligence of the public because he really seems to believe that everybody reads the press in the way that politicians read the press.
We politicians can be sometimes so consumed with vanity that our very existence, our self-definition, our self-esteem depend on how we think we are portrayed in the media.
Blair complains that journalists are locked in a ghastly contest for “impact”, when his own Home Secretary had that very day announced a tabloid-grabbing plan to “castrate paedophiles”, which turned out, on inspection, to involve giving them Prozac on a voluntary basis.
Who is really addicted to “impact”? The journalists with their lust for bylines, or the politicians with their lust for bossy, interfering and often expensive initiatives which serve no other purpose but to get their mugs in the paper?
The public is equally cynical about both, and I think Blair misunderstands the way people now assess and interpret the news. It is true that people on the whole dislike tabloid excesses: the monstering, the door-stepping, the lying, the intrusions, and so on.
But we live in an amazingly media-literate age, and in my experience people can almost always see behind the hysteria and the hyperbole, and work out what is really going on.
What they want is for their politicians to be hard-working and true to their consciences, and they have by now read so much rubbish that they find it relatively easy to blow the froth off a story and get to the nub; and if the nub of it is that the Prime Minister has wittingly or unwittingly deceived the nation, and taken us to war on a false prospectus, then, yes, that will be damaging; and the wonder of the Blair premiership is not that his reputation has been torn to bits by a feral media, but that, in spite of everything he has done, he manages to leave office with his reputation as high as it is.
It would be a real disaster if he were to parlay any of his waning authority into some new restrictions on the press, and it is the height of stupidity, on Blair’s part, to think that it might be an idea to start regulating the blogosphere.
I have now been writing columns in this newspaper for almost 20 years, and in the past couple of years the game has completely changed. We fat-cat columnists face a new and terrifying threat. It is called consumerism. It is called democracy.
For the first time we must come face to face with our readers – hordes of lynx-eyed brainboxes out there in cyberspace – and no sooner do our words appear on the website than they can be abusively peer-reviewed and fact-checked.
Our judgments are mocked, our non sequiturs are skewered. Journalists – these feral characters that Blair claims to fear – are increasingly accountable, increasingly vulnerable to the pithy rejoinders of the man or woman on the net.
And this is the key point: it is not so much that politics and journalism are increasingly tawdry or despised. It is the growing media literacy of the public – the understanding of soundbites and vox pops and two-ways and blogs – that allows everyone to participate in activities once reserved for the journalistico-political complex.
That is a wonderful thing, and I would much rather have cyberspace regulated by public scorn than by Tony Blair, who should depart as soon as possible to complete his farewell tour in an open-top submarine.