Michael White: “like repainting the Forth Bridge, it is a permanent process”

Notwithstanding the sudden demise of the NOTW, as Mick noted here, at the Guardian’s Politics blog Michael White follows up yesterday’s excellent post with another considered piece.  From Michael White

The point to bear in mind is that we can fix this, too, if we have the will and the staying power. Voters with their low boredom thresholds and salacious reading habits as well as public officials can act. Politics suffered a bad scandal two years ago and is in the process of healing its worst scars though, like repainting the Forth Bridge, it is a permanent process. Now it is the turn of the media and perhaps the police.

Scotland Yard in the late 1960s was a much dirtier place than it is today. The pre-Murdoch Times did a brilliant expose of corruption in 1969 (a bent copper slipped a stick of dynamite into the hand of a thief he was pretending to greet, so as to get incriminating finger prints, as I recall) and the new broom, Robert Mark, became the first of a wave of reformers.

But we place much heavier demands on the cops nowadays, far more than in the sentimentalised 60s when the old Dixon of Dock Green image was only slowly giving way to a darker Z Cars TV perspective.

Openness and accountability are the key to healthier public institutions, always provided – a big “if” — that the media fairly report both failings and successes of those institutions and is held to account better in its turn. Murdoch is 80 and won’t last for ever; his empire will go the way of empires. Meanwhile, he too should be checked.

At the end of my busy day yesterday, I did a turn on the BBC World Service – new BBC chairman, Chris Patten, seems to be trying to rescue it from the wreckers – with a French journalist who deplored the intrusive nature of Anglo-Saxon media. Womanising is not a crime, Dominique Strauss-Khan never pretended to be what he isn’t, he argued. What good does it do?

Well, Tim Garton Ash has a pretty smart column on that subject today which I commend. As for me, I asked my French friend if the Paris press – about which I was rude yesterday – should have written up President Mitterrand’s girlfriend and their daughter, living in the Elysee on the public purse? Ah well, yes, perhaps that case, he conceded. Perhaps we are too deferential.

He’s right and we may be too destructive on our side of the Channel. We all have much to learn in London, Paris and even Athens.

And in Belfast too?  This from a Slugger post in August 2010.

The media had not just a right but a duty to make things awkward for politicians, especially those in government, according to David Gordon, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph.

In the North journalists were sometimes told to hold back on a story in case they might do damage to the delicate administration, he said. While this was not a point to ignore, you couldn’t make exceptions, he said. [added emphasis]

If the doomsayers were correct about the demise of newspapers then society would miss journalism when it was gone, he said.

Already in an attempt to gain readers there was a danger of newspapers becoming hysterical and damaging good journalism. If things are overhyped and everything is a scandal, then nothing is a scandal, he added.  [extra added emphasis]

But read the whole [Michael White] thing.

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  • Dewi

    I dunno – i just find it strange that when these pricks are hacking into dead soldiers parents phones we are discussing philosophy. Sorry – send them to clink from Murdoch downwards.

  • Dewi

    And p.s. i’m a Michael White fan…

  • Pete Baker


    If you don’t want to discuss the topic here, then keep to one of the other threads.

  • Dewi

    Pete – i am talking about the topic.
    White’s observations are pretty pathetic – and i’ve been a fan for 20 years.
    “In the North journalists were sometimes told to hold back on a story in case they might do damage to the delicate administration, he said. While this was not a point to ignore, you couldn’t make exceptions, he said”
    There might have been a point in the troubles but in Britain no-one has stood up to Murdoch – dismal crap.

  • Pete Baker

    Read it again, Dewi.

    That wasn’t one of Michael White’s observations.

    You know what, don’t read it again.

    Keep to one of the other threads.

  • Dewi

    I didn’t say it was one of White’s observations. Raise your game Pete.

  • Pete Baker

    “Raise your game Pete.”

    Stop trolling, Dewi.

  • Im sure that in the years immediately before and after 1998, journalists were told to “go easy” or whatever.
    But in a sense thats what we all wanted. Presumably the Press Pack saw the Prize.
    Surely those of us that actually lived here and saw the prospect of Peace loom large would equally have been appreciative of delicate handling by the Press.
    There were points….Shankill Bombing (1993)….Loughinisland (1994)….Omagh (1998)…to name just a few when the Future was in the balance.
    We came thru it.
    We reached the Promised Land.
    Those dissident liberals who now reject the Peace Process because it led to a place that they dont like……DUP and/or Sinn Féin ruling the roost rather than being minority and marginalised feel that they were in some way conned.
    And its natural to look for a scapegoat. So those government press people who advised them over a gin and tonic to “go easy there is much to lose” are the chosen scapegoat.
    The alternative to scapegoating individuals is to recognise the fact that liberal dissidents just got it wrong. The Peace Process led to DUP/SF in government….in part facilitated by UUP & SDLP complacency that the job was done.
    The Press happily bought into the “Sunningdale for slow learners” narrative.

    If its any consolation to liberal dissidents, I didnt think that it would work out this way either.
    But I still know my life (and the life of my sons and grandsons) is a helluva lot better than it could have been. Thats the Prize.
    If liberal dissidents and journalists dont like it…..their first reflection must be to look to themselves rather than the people wot told them to do it.

  • abucs

    Well said Fitz.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’m not really clear about what you mean there. I spoke very briefly to a once very  senior but now very retired civil servant yesterday.

    He looked me squarely in the eye when I suggested that over the next five to ten years we would see a great change in the way government was run now we have locally accountable politicians and asked what motivation did I think they had to do any such thing.

    My airy optimism disappeared with wind that wasn’t blowing outside.

    Reporting, when left entirely to insiders, however diligent, is always subject to the patronage of the powerful. And inside the CS we have seen some of that power, whilst not absolute, gets pretty damned close to it at times.

    A press bound entirely by a sense of the greater good will fall into some of the very same traps that Murdoch and his Wapping boys have done as they’ve got closer and closer to the Met. The line between insider and outsider gets blurred and the value of independent oversight is diminished.

    This is one reason why, along with the oft enumerated technological ones, the a**e-end of the newspaper business is hanging out of its trousers. It has abandoned ‘value’ and now is wondering who is going to keep on buying their product.

    You have a point about the fickleness of your ‘liberal dissidents’, but your extended use of argument is becoming tendentious. Unless you really mean to argue that the NI Press should become a fully function arm of the Press Office the local administration?

  • No Im hardly saying that. Quite the opposite.
    Perhaps Im saying that several people (including myself)were already fully signed up members to whatever narrative was going on at the time.
    As Ive made clear the narrative of Give Peace A Chance was one that in some way we all appreciated.
    Its not merely correct to say that this is something that the Press went soft on reporting because they were guided that way………although Im sure that was a factor.

    Ive gone further and said that ordinary folks like myself would have been extremely disappointed if anything the Press had done in the period immediately before and after the Good Friday Agreement had damaged our legitimate search for a bigger prize.

    Indeed we all went “soft”. Id add the security forces turning blind eyes and our old friend Creative Ambiguity (youve read enough of my stuff to know my views on the “crimes” committed in its name).
    But we ALL signed up to that.
    Those of us who entered a polling booth and voted YES are responsible. On our own. I didnt take “direction”.
    A considerable number of people voted NO. Perhaps they envisaged the scenario we have today but with different players.
    We got the Prize.
    But Id be kidding myself if this is exactly how I thought it would pan out.
    There are many like me.
    If the Good Friday Agreement required endorsement after say fifteen years in 2013, I would again vote Yes.
    I suspect that it would again be endorsed with (now DUP support).
    some people who voted NO, including the liberal (and republican and loyalist) dissidents would perhaps vote NO. Because they are perfectly entitled to say that they called it wrong (like I say……so did I).
    But I think those who called it wrong and think they/we are in a worse place than before must look to their own judgement rather than mis-direction from (government) quarters.
    There is no good those in the Press who have changed their minds either blaming themselves for in some way influencing the result. And certainly no reason to turn their ire at being misdirected or allowing themselves to be complicit in a sham.

    Its therefore not a question of becoming an arm of the Press Offices at Stormont (indeed too many journalists for my liking seem fully signed up to that).
    Its a question that we no longer have a single “Give Peace A Chance” narrative.
    We have two narratives. One says we are doing just fine, thanks very much.
    The second equally valid narrative is that WE ALL made a pact with the Devil. The latter may be aminority view but funnily enough I would say theres an element of truth in both.
    Republican and unionist dissidents dont of course accept it should have happened at all. But to some extent liberal dissidents “buy” the Pact with the Devil narrative.
    But lets not blame anyone other than ourselves.