February 20, 2010 12:33 am

Power and the press

Three new books show the relationship between politicians and journalists is now more fraught than ever, writes John Lloyd
 
Margaret Thatcher enjoys a cup of tea while being watched by the press©Getty

Margaret Thatcher at the opening of the South Mimms service station on the M25 London orbital motorway, 6 June 1987

Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v the Media
By Lance Price
Simon & Schuster £20, 528 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement
By Jeffrey P Jones
AltaMira Press $29.95, 328 pages

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John Lloyd

When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent
By Anthony DiMaggio
Monthly Review Press £14.95, 288 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.96

A vast change has happened in politics in the past half-century. The media have become crucial to the business of governing. Though they do not rule the country, the media sometimes rule the rulers, forcing them to spend long hours wooing, refuting, dodging and complaining.

The lowly aide who once handed out press releases or phoned correspondents to tell them what the prime minister thought they should know has been replaced by hundreds, at times thousands, of professional communicators, advertising executives, public relations experts, image consultants, voice and deportment coaches and directors of communications.

There’s a conventional view, beloved of journalists, as to why this happened: politicians became devious and shifty, at best controlled by “spin doctors”, at worst downright mendacious. But that is unlikely to be true. Governments everywhere in the democratic world – and even, to a limited degree, in authoritarian countries such as China – have put more and more information in the public arena. They have made their ministers more available for questioning, have introduced freedom of information legislation, and have brought television into parliaments and parliamentary committees – and, by doing so, they have rendered them uninteresting to the media, except to specialists. Vast amounts of this information can be accessed in seconds via the internet. Inevitably, the internet has further battered down the once all but unbreachable walls of privacy that surround prominent public figures.

Coverage of the coverage of politics was, until the 1970s, a recondite specialism. Now, the books pour out, and rightly so. Politicians depend on the media in a more direct, even desperate fashion than ever before. Political leaders, who cannot take a settled constitutional order nor a strong party structure for granted, need to make their case daily, even hourly.

Lance Price, a former BBC political reporter and between 1998 and 2001 a Labour media adviser, has written an elegant and well-grounded survey of relations between premiers and press in the UK over the past century. In Where Power Lies, he shows a succession of figures who saw the news media as crucial to their governance and were able to charm many of them into support, at least for a time. These included David Lloyd George – the first true media prime minister – Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

By contrast, others – Anthony Eden, Edward Heath, John Major and Gordon Brown – were rotten at these relations. A few, such as Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee and James Callaghan, seemed not to care, though only Baldwin was largely unscathed by his insouciance. Attlee famously called the Press Association tape which ran outside of his office his “cricket machine” (he used it only to check cricket scores) and fired his chancellor, Hugh Dalton, for inadvertently leaking details of the Budget to a reporter, saying, “Behaved like a fool. Can’t see why anyone would want to talk to the press.”

Sixty years later, no British prime minister would see why they shouldn’t speak to the press – and to radio, television, the internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Price’s narrative, clear, detailed and uncluttered, charts the growing thickness of the tangled webs woven about heads of government by an increasing number of different media.

Lloyd George’s closeness to the newspapers, his courtships, tantrums and bribes, were a large departure for his time and remained so for decades after. As Price notes, having deposed his leader and split his (Liberal) party so that only a rump supported him, “he became a prime minister without a party”. In this, he prefigured his late 20th- and early 21st-century successors, and mapped both their dilemma – political loneliness – and its treacherous antidote, media support.

Since the 1970s, both parties and political affiliation have declined. Leaders need to perform constantly, to use media events and calculated displays of emotion, and to associate with celebrities. They must submit to displays of popular criticism, even rage, and be willing to look foolish, even ridiculous, and take it in good part.

Margaret Thatcher was the pioneer, bringing in, for the 1979 election, a battery of the savviest public relations professionals. She flattered Fleet Street’s right-wing editors and writers and utilised their talents. She employed a press secretary, Bernard Ingham, whose histrionic and aggressive loyalty made him a celebrated figure. As Price makes clear, she did so not because she was obsessed by the media – she would often show an Attlee-like indifference to it – but because she accepted the advice of her PR advisers. They counselled that images, quotes and “Maggie-isms” would make even more secure the strong backing she got from most of Fleet Street, including the most powerful of the tabloids.

Tony Blair, for whom Price briefly worked as a press aide, believed that if the papers ran against a prime minister, she or he was finished. His successor appears likely to prove his point.

Blair and New Labour have been seen as the “party of spin”. To be sure, Alistair Campbell saw his job as feeding ravenous press-beasts with daily fodder, striving continually to capture the headline or the bulletin’s top story. But “spin” is largely the necessary performance of fragile governance. Even the most famous instance, the dossier on Iraq, was an effort at open government gone wrong because of faulty intelligence allied to over-enthusiastic promotion of the need for intervention. This fact is apparently too obvious for general acceptance.

Media can be a big help to governance, and a huge hindrance. Gordon Brown came in with a fair wind, promising open, straight and principled government and media relations. But he lost support after changing his mind on holding an election in 2007, then claiming not to have done so. And he has carried on losing it to the point where, as Price writes, “after two years [of his premiership] almost no journalist can say a good word about him”. Brown can be a very effective politician – see his swift and sure reactions to the recession, and command of the G20 meeting – but he is a poor media performer, obsessive about slights, leaks and criticisms and wasting his time and capital in feuds.

Price’s description of the man and the circle who rule us is dark, fevered and sad. He quotes one anonymous Brown aide as saying: “What Gordon lacks most is any sense of what a normal person might think in any given situation.” Unlike his predecessor, he cannot act normal.

One media torture to which Brown has not been much subjected is trial by satire. Blair was lampooned continually, most harshly in stage and TV dramas. Satire is now engrained in the political media’s repertoire, and Jeffrey Jones’s Entertaining Politics is a fascinating account of its rise in the US. A large and distinguished school of political science holds that “serious political analysis” is now being cut from the news media in favour of entertainment and the rendering of politics and politicians into figures of ridicule or mere diversion. Jones is critical of this view, and enters a contest with such heavyweight figures as Robert Putnam of Harvard and Michael Schudson of Columbia, whose model of the “informed citizen” draws a thick and disapproving line between serious information and entertainment programming. They see the latter as responsible for a weakening of the American civic mind. Jones argues that this does not “accurately represent the ways in which people attend to politics – in passing, cursorily, mixed in with other activities, from various media and across numerous subjects”.

Jones celebrates the end of “top-down political communication as traditionally established by elite gatekeepers (journalists, politicians, experts)”. He is a starry-eyed fan both of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and of Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report, where the comedian adopts the persona of a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”.

For Jones, these and other satirists and comics, such as Michael Moore and Al Franken (now a senator), have done two things, both positive. First, by broadening the frame of reference used for politics from “serious” journalism to entertainment, they have enlarged the audience and refreshed its content. Second, they have, through wit and confrontation, given politicians and others a harder time than conventional journalism has done.

A year ago, Stewart did a savage, eight-minute monologue about the financial channel CNBC and its main presenter Rick Santelli, who had blamed poor homeowners for their irresponsibility, having advised them for many months to borrow. His quip, “if I had only followed CNBC’s advice, I’d have a million dollars today, provided I started out with $100m dollars”, has become a classic summation of the effect of boosterist financial journalism.

TV satire shows are now a large part of political coverage in many states: the UK, France, Italy and even, surprisingly, Kenya, where The XYZ Show, a puppet show, lampooning local politicians, began late last year. They’re often wonderfully funny and cathartic, but Jones overreaches himself in his anxiety to have them replace what he sees as devalued “straight” news media. The effort of establishing and maintaining freely inquiring journalism is under huge strain because its financial model is failing. But in every one of its main modes – investigative, analytical and routine reporting – its value has not diminished and is not replaced by either comedy or civic journalism. I concede Jones’s point that Stewart, Colbert and some others bring in a new audience to public affairs; but if they are the limit of their exposure, then their understanding will not go far.

Anthony DiMaggio is an academic radical, whose many articles for web publications, such as Counterpunch and Znet, chart an unrelenting reactionary turn in US society and media. Where Price is an in-system critic and Jones an enthusiast for deconstructing “straight” political journalism, DiMaggio sees the latter as unreformably corrupt. The text against which When Media Goes to War measures itself is Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, which presents a picture of a degraded US media slavishly in the service of an imperial government. Infamously, they see no difference between the New York Times and Pravda, formerly the organ of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The inability to distinguish a publication that employs reporters to use their judgment and one which instructs propagandists to transmit and embellish a party line limited the usefulness of that work, and his agreement with it severely limits DiMaggio.

War correspondents can act as mere cheerleaders for “their side”; they can present conflicts framed as black hats versus white hats; and embedding journalists with the military can lead to a narrowed frame of reference. But war reporting is now better than it has ever been, in part because journalists now report, when they can, from the side of those fighting the US or Nato.

Journalists in free societies often, consciously or lazily, reproduce official tropes they do not examine. When their proprietors tell them how to shape their reporting and comment, they either obey or go. But the struggle for free journalism – going on most clearly in China, where it takes the Anglo-American approach as its model – is founded upon the search to represent what is happening visibly, and to grasp what forces are shaping the world less visibly. Free societies, and even biased press barons, allow that journalism to exist.

Yet journalism is at a critical point. Political journalism in particular must cope with a fragmenting political sphere, the rise of fleet-footed competition from blogs and websites and the decline of an audience. Journalism and politics have, for two centuries, depended on, fought with, supported and tried to destroy each other. Now they sigh for the good old days when they were both certain enough of their respective institutions to engage in combat.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor.

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