The media and politics…

Looks like there was an excellent event at Demos last night with a panel discussion John Lloyd’s increasingly influential thesis on What the media is doing to our politics.My own review of the book was published last October:

John Lloyd, editor of the Financial Times Magazine has recently published a refreshing and revealing analysis of the nature of the media and its on-going power relationship with politicians. The main argument hangs around the politics of perhaps the frostiest moment in relations between the UK government and the BBC, the Andrew Gilligan Affair. But it also has some resonance in Ireland.

In general terms, Lloyd suggests there are three ways in which the press contributes to the health of any democracy: telling the truth; rigorous investigation; and the provision of context in which to read the salient facts. However, a recent study of media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians from the University of Glasgow concluded that audiences in Britain have developed an events-driven view of what is happening there with little understanding of the underlying issue. In other words there are plenty of whats and hows but few whys.

The Watergate scandal saw the rise of the journalist as celebrity. Journalist Richard Reeves, describes it as “the signal point in the self-destructive journalistic hubris of the seventies and afterwards”, arguing that the journalist took on a priest-like role, and simply presumed the axiomatic sinfulness of politicians: “Our message was simple: They’re all bums! Don’t believe them! Don’t listen to them!”

In addition Watergate instituted a cynicism, which in marked contrast to the sceptical approach essential for all journalists, has deepened this contempt. The basic premise is that you know that the politician is lying because, or so the assumption runs, they all do; it’s simply a matter of getting him or her to admit as much in public.

The epitome of that cagey relationship is the modern political interview in which the journalist takes on the politician on issues, which he knows his ‘opponent’ to be most neuralgic. The aim is to score points or even a knock out blow. Content and information take second place to contest and spectacle. The resulting growing distrust and even paranoia amongst politicians does nothing to help journalists disrupt the cycle of spin and evasion that has become so much a part of modern journalism.

Indeed Lloyd quotes Phillip Gould’s admonition that if political parties don’t feed the voracious appetite of the press with lots of stories, they will simply ‘gobble you up’. It’s a situation that political columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards regrets, “to be a politician now means never to be unguarded when talking to journalists, which can have the consequence of ultimately forcing otherwise honourable men or women into telling untruths”.

Serially focusing on the politician’s stumble also means that the point scored can be entirely trivial. For instance, the unauthorised use of Fianna Fail party letterheads in Gorey, Co Wexford during June’s local council election dominated national news programmes for three whole days.

Falling advertising revenues, twenty-four hour news, and low editorial budgets mean the compelling drama is more affordable than quality coverage and meaningful context. However Harry Browne, a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, believes that serious journalism has subsided because much of the argument over the larger issues has been won and the historic definitions, particularly in Ireland, between political parties have become extremely fluid, “We’re now arguing over who can govern in the most efficient way, which often comes down to boring technocratic adjustments.”

But Vincent Browne believes that the media’s failure to provide cogent analysis of policies has had serious consequences for democracy. He cites government spending plans that often go substantially unquestioned. He points to the extraordinary inflation of the original Luas budget from an initial estimate of E165 million to a final total of E800 million, which was not the subject of public controversy until the week it launched.

Ultimately this is an argument for a journalism of detachment. It calls for a re-engagement with the search for truth and objectivity. Even if the revelation of unassailable truth is impossible, abandoning the search can simply leave journalism “at odds with the world it is attempting to describe”. It leaves an increasingly inquiring public dissatisfied with politics and the media itself, and al the more ready to seek alternative sources of information and analysis.

Most of all, it argues the need to go back to harder news values and move decisively away from endemic cynicism, which has resulted in a situation where politicians have all but stopped talking seriously to journalists about how they do, or plan to do, the business of politics. It reminds us that journalists are here to probe, investigate and ask difficult questions but they do not represent the people. For better or worse, only politicians can legitimately claim that privilege.

For their part, Lloyd argues, politicians need to remember they have “the power of representing the electorate, and they must pit it directly against those who draw their power from a less solid base”.

A version of this piece was first published in the Sunday Independent, in October 2004.