Hurrah for the unlovable free press

Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press
By Michael Schudson
Polity Press (£16.99)

Democracy is served in curious ways: and one of these may have been the outburst last week of Michael Martin, the Speaker in the UK’s House of Commons, to a chamber struggling to frame an appropriate response as details of expense claims by members of parliament began to emerge. Ill humour bursting from his ruddy cheeks and avid to discover the source of the leak, Mr Martin was caustic with fellow MPs for “telling the media what they wanted to hear”. It was the voice of privilege challenged – but also of frustrated fury. Who are newspaper reporters to get so high and mighty about expense fiddles? What right have newspaper editors, in thrall to politically interventionist proprietors, to blame politicians for bringing democracy low?

These are good questions, although the Speaker was unwise to raise them in the middle of a moral storm in which the part of Jove the Thunderer is played by the British media. For this time the press – led by The Daily Telegraph, the receiver of the golden details – is right. Unlovable, hypocritical, slavish – it has done its job.

It has uncovered a scandal: and not just a scandal. The amounts of money are trivial and the infractions are mainly minor; but the public exposure of men and women deploying their creativity to wring every possible advantage out of their allowances is deeply unedifying. In some cases, it is shocking. These are the people who make the laws that tell us what to do on pain of fine or imprisonment. One does not have to be a hyperventilating tabloid columnist to expect better behaviour than that which has been revealed.

Revealed, we should remember, by the unlovable press. Michael Schudson, among the best of the academic writers on the media, has seen in the raucousness and hype of newspapers a pearl beyond price: the instinct to create trouble for the establishment, the panjandrums – them. In this collection of essays, the central one – which shares the book’s title – lays out four elements of necessary unlovability. These are: a love of the unplanned and the disruptive; an even greater love of conflict and dissent; a scepticism about the claims of politics; and a willingness to name names and connect the names with crimes and misdemeanours.

Schudson writes: “That is what serves democracy: the irresistible drive of journalists to focus on events, including those that powerful forces cannot anticipate and often cannot manage.” Thus when Matt Drudge began his subsequently richly rewarded career by showing, from his bedroom laptop, that President Bill Clinton was an adulterer; or when bloggers uncovered a speech made in 2002 by Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, which pointed to racist views; or, more recently, when Paul Staines, a British blogger operating under the incendiary nom de guerre of Guido Fawkes, uncovered a sleazy plan on the part of prime ministerial aides to tar leading Conservatives with sex scandals – in all of these cases, the people glorying in their ill-gotten power and tearing down the powerful did well by us.

They fulfilled one of the necessary prerequisites of the free press: that it is free. In the words of Walter Meers,a veteran AP reporter quoted in another of Schudson’s essays: “There are too many excursions into trivia,too much play for the public opinion polls, too many words about who’s ahead and who’s behind. There’s a reason. That is what people want to know.”

But here is the rub. Schudson is writing of American newspapers. In the much more overheated conditions of the British press – where populist tabloids far outsell upmarket broadsheets and where, in any case, the latter are just as liable to sink their teeth into politicians as the former – there is a larger problem. The expenses revelations come after many years in which, in diverse ways, the media have made of politics and politicians a cross between a spectacle, a reality show and a farce.

Recently playing in the cinemas has been State of Play, an Americanised version of a BBC television series that showed leading politicians to be monumentally corrupt, and In the Loop, a farcical rendering of the spin culture of the New Labour governments. A new, web-based radio station, Sun Talk, launched by the country’s most popular tabloid, fills hour after hour with political denigration. The second most popular but arguably more influential tabloid, the Daily Mail, is organising legal challenges to errant MPs.

This is part of a long struggle between the media and the political class for the allegiance of those whom the first call the audience and the second, the electorate. How far that competition is in our interests is another matter; and one for another day.

The writer is an FT columnist

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