Speech to Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London
June 21, 2007
What was so demeaning about Tony Blair's appeal to journalists to recognise the downside of the 24-hour news media was his failure to address his own relationship with the newspaper proprietors. By avoiding entirely what was so obviously a no-go area, the Prime Minister undermined his own critique on the ills of modern journalism.
There could hardly be a more opportune moment to examine the relationship between British politicians and the news media. Tony Blair is to be congratulated for encouraging a short lived but very necessary bout of soul searching. Nonetheless, despite the intervention of the outgoing Prime Minister, British journalists are hardly likely to have the kind of crisis of conscience which has gripped our colleagues on American newspapers in recent years. For example, many journalists in the USA now acknowledge their timidity in holding the Bush administration to account over the war in Iraq. They are re-examining their role, thinking through how they should respond in similar circumstances.
Here in Britain our newspapers -- some of the most sensational and also some of the best in the world -- are so competitive I don’t think there is any real chance of them ever holding the kind of ethical debate which the Prime Minister was calling for. What to me was so disappointing about Tony Blair’s speech to the Reuters Institute (12.6.2007) -- and his critique about the ills of modern journalism and the impact of 24-hour news media -- were his own no-go areas. Blair failed to make any mention of the impact of his own relationship, first as Labour party leader and then Prime Minister, with the newspapers owned by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who has an unhealthy 42 per cent share of the British national newspaper market.
Very little is known publicly about the true extent of these contacts but they get to the heart of the critical dynamic in the relationship between the newspaper proprietors of Britain and the government of the day. While the development of the press in Britain is very comparable to that of Japan, in that we both have a mass-circulation national press, our daily papers have often built up and then sustained their sales on the back of their political campaigning. Tabloid editors are proud of their record in speaking up for the ordinary citizen and in protecting the rights of the public. Recent high-profile examples include the News of the World's long-running campaign to ensure that paedophiles are "named and shamed" and more recently its drive to curb the ownership of dangerous dogs. The Daily Mail has been equally robust in standing by "middle England" in supporting calls for restrictions on 24-hour drinking. A sustained campaign against any easing of the gambling laws forced a government re-think which prompted the Daily Mail headline: "Labour retreat over super casinos".
Not only are British newspapers highly political but unlike Japan they are extremely promiscuous, not afraid to switch their support from one political party to another. For a hundred years or more British governments have often come to rely on the political support of newspaper proprietors; sometimes of course the two sides fall out and it can get very nasty. But that is what British politics are all about. We have a winner takes all electoral system which can lead to dramatic changes in government. And, regularly over the decades our newspaper publishers have themselves become formidable players on the political stage, be it the Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere of the Daily Mail group; later, Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express; Lord Thomson of The Times; and more recently Lord Black of the Daily Telegraph. Did you notice they were all honoured and appointed to the House of Lords? They have all been courted -- and sometimes feared -- by the Prime Ministers of their day. Historically most of our popular newspapers have supported governments on the right and it was successive Conservative administrations which rewarded these proprietors and editors with peerages and knighthoods.
What has been so important about the Blair decade is that we have had a Prime Minister from the Labour Party, the party of the left, who has established this very close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, a newspaper proprietor of the right. So when Blair castigates the British news media for "hunting in a pack…like a feral beast" we can only smile. We journalists know the truth. Here is a Prime Minister who has been so slavish in his dealings with Murdoch’s newspapers, that the Sun -- which regards itself as the real beast of British journalism -- has become a puppy dog, only too happy to have its tummy tickled by Mr and Mrs Blair. And it is very likely the same will happen with Gordon Brown and then possibly David Cameron. To illustrate the point, let me just take you back to the last British general election in May 2005.
First a health warning: I hope the ladies in the audience wont blush but the Sun is famous for its page three topless women. So here we are, on the very eve of the 2005 general election. This is the Sun’s front page showing a loving picture of the Blairs standing under the cherry blossom in the Downing Street garden. "We get deep down and personal with the Blairs", says the Sun, with the big, bold main headline: "Why size matters". Now I did warn this is going to be one of those "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" occasions. Inside it is clear the Sun is not just talking about "a big majority" in terms of the election and a parliamentary majority. On the inside pages, there is a picture of a tanned, topless Tony and an explanation from his wife of why "My Tony is fit…and up for it". "Yes, yes" says an eager Cherie, when she is asked if the Prime Minister is up for it "five times a night".
So here we see the British Prime Minister and his wife ready to titillate the Sun with sexual innuendo. You might say this is typical tabloid trivia, that it doesn’t matter. But what did the Sun do next day when the polling stations were open and the country voted? Its front page was blatant party political propaganda for Labour. Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown, were dressed like Manchester United footballers, in red shirts (the Labour colour) and the headline said: "Vote Labour Today -- Come On You Reds".
So here is Britain’s biggest selling daily newspaper, three million copies sold, nine million readers, devoting its first six pages to urging the British people to re-elect Blair and the Labour government. So when I am asked by foreign journalists how could the Prime Minister get re-elected after the war in Iraq, when a million British people marched in protest, I say take a look at newspapers like the Sun. When I rattled off those figures for the Sun, three million circulation, nine million readers, I did so knowing that our daily papers are dwarfed by Japan’s national press. Japan’s population is over twice that of Britain but when compared with an even larger country like America, Japanese newspapers still have vast circulations. The top five have a combined daily circulation of 27 million; the most popular, Yomiuri Shimbun, sells ten million copies a day, far more than the combined circulation of our five most popular papers. And, again historically, there has been this strong link to politics with much of Japan’s newspaper industry traditionally having supported the country’s largest political force, the Liberal Democratic Party.
My interest in the workings of the Japanese media dates back to 2003 when I went to Tokyo to speak on behalf the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, in support of their long-running campaign to force the Japanese government to relax the closed system of political and commercial briefings which are under the control of Japanese journalists through their network of kisha clubs. The exclusion of western journalists from the briefings and much of the information available to Japanese journalists has caused long-standing resentment. My visit in 2003 was triggered by the opening up to foreign journalists here in London of our lobby system at Westminster. Before that our political correspondents had also operated an exclusive club -- like a kisha club -- and they too had always refused access to other correspondents and especially to journalists from overseas.
When Tony Blair authorised his press secretary Alastair Campbell to break that closed shop and to open up lobby briefings at Westminster to other correspondents, and especially to foreign journalists, he sent out an important signal. And, later Mr Blair himself went a step further. He began holding monthly televised news conferences which are also open to correspondents from overseas. This new openness at Westminster was of great encouragement to the foreign correspondents in Tokyo: if the restrictions in Westminster were being abolished, then Japan had no excuse for continuing to exclude western journalists. In the past, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had refused to intervene on the grounds that Japanese journalists were banned from the political lobby briefings at Westminster; no longer could that be used as justification. The foreign correspondents based in Tokyo weren’t very confident of securing better access; they feared the kisha clubs would still try to exclude them.
I haven’t been back to Tokyo since so I have no further direct experience. But I did hear a year later that Hatsuhisa Takashima, the spokesman for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had been impressed by my argument that Tokyo should follow London’s example and the foreign reporters told me they had found that access in Japan had improved. However, I am an avid reader of news stories from Japan and of course the distressing murder of two British young women, first that of Lucie Blackman in the year 2000 and then earlier this year, the murder of Lindsay Hawker, have not shown Japan at its best, with many complaints in British newspapers about the ineffective way these cases have been investigated by the Japanese Police.
My impression is that British reporters in Tokyo still aren’t getting all the access and information they would like and this perhaps is contributing to some of the rather negative coverage. But crime reporting isn’t my scene, my real interest is in politics, and the relationship between politicians and the media. Perhaps I should begin my assessment of how that relationship has worked out under Tony Blair -- and might work out in the future under the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown -- by taking you on a trip down memory lane.
You might not have realised that one of Japan’s Prime Ministers, Ryutaro Hashimoto, was given a Sun-style makeover, just like the treatment of Mr and Mrs Blair at the last general election. In January 1998, soon after becoming Prime Minister, Mr Blair paid his first official visit to Japan. This was at a time when Alastair Campbell was working hand in glove with the political editor of the Sun newspaper, Trevor Kavanagh. The two went round the world leaving a trail of exclusive stories in their wake. But little did Prime Minister Hashimoto know when he welcomed Mr Blair in Tokyo, that next day he would find himself speaking in Sunspeak. This is it, the Sun’s front page world exclusive: "Japan says sorry to the Sun for World War Two". Not a bad story. It was based on an article Hashimoto had written for the Sun, that at least was what the paper claimed. In fact it was Kavanagh’s idea and the ghost writer was none other than Alastair Campbell.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, Prime Hashimoto didn’t recall saying "sorry". But that did not deter that invincible team of Campbell, Kavanagh and the Sun, because they pulled the same trick in October 2008 when Blair visited Argentina. Yes, here it is: "Historic apology to The Sun -- Argentina says: we’re sorry for Falklands". This was Argentine’s President supposedly saying sorry for the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 which ended with islands being retaken by a British task force sent to the South Atlantic by Margaret Thatcher. Again not surprisingly the Argentine President Carlos Menem, just like Prime Minister Hashimoto, didn’t recall using the word "sorry".
But that is the Sun all over: it never apologises unless really forced to and then all that is likely to happen is the publication of a one paragraph apology tucked away inside. I hope the front pages I have shown you illustrate what we mean by spin, why it was, as Blair now admits himself, that his government’s addiction to manipulating the news media, especially in his early years as Prime Minister, went too far and caused immense damage subsequently to his credibility.
Blair has always been a consummate communicator, a spin doctor’s dream, because once the line was settled, he rarely if ever deviated from the message he had agreed to deliver. And, whatever the pressure, he rarely, if ever put a foot wrong in front of the camera. There is no gallery of gaffes in the archives of television and radio stations. But inevitably the loss of respect and trust which tends to afflict most political leaders under the constant focus of the 24-hour media, started to accelerate in Blair’s case from 2001, after he signed up unquestioningly to American foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attack. Allowing himself to be portrayed as George Bush’s poodle was bad enough; the falsehoods in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction gave credence to the fatal charge that the Prime Minister had taken Britain to war on the basis of a lie, a stain on his Premiership which he has found impossible to remove.
Nonetheless Blair can claim a lasting legacy in the revolution which has taken place in the way political parties and governments have to communicate in today’s hectic 24/7 media environment. Alastair Campbell’s first act on becoming Blair’s official spokesman was to re-write the rules for government information officers instructing them to "grab the agenda" by trailing new policies and decisions even before ministers had made their announcements in Parliament. But this information was usually passed to journalists on an off-the-record basis, often being supplied as an exclusive. This was how the Blair administration fed the competitive pressures which are driving the media beast, which explains why so many of us are so cynical about what the Prime Minister said.
I fear the growth in this trade in information has made it easier for a new generation of journalists to embellish quotations and manufacture their own exclusive stories. The source for many of the celebrity stories is the anonymous onlooker. Whenever I see those three words, "An looker said…" I fear a made up quote. It is like a cancer eating away at the authority of our journalism. Take so many of our political stories where the facts and quotes are attributed to "cabinet insiders", "Whitehall contacts" and many other equally anonymous sources. I hope the change of Prime Minister will lead to a rethink and greater openness. I have written an open letter to Michael Ellam, the new Downing Street press secretary (the letter is on my archive and blog, www.nicholasjones.org.uk .
I hope Downing Street will take advantage of the dominance of the internet because it is now possible for the state to provide all journalists with the same information at the same time. That would be one way of taming the "feral beast". Ensuring equal access by websites and email would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would pressure groups, campaigners, bloggers and so on. By striving to reduce the deliberate and often unauthorised leaks and tip-offs -- by providing true equality of access -- there would be fewer hiding places for those journalists who take advantage of the anonymity of their sources to write bogus or malicious stories. So I think there are positive changes which the new Prime Minister could implement.
The rapid spread of the internet -- coupled with accelerating media convergence -- has put the traditional news media, television, radio and the press on the back foot. Next month set top boxes will be on sale in the UK which will allow viewers at a click of their remote control to choose either to watch television programme or look at a website. True convergence will have arrived and I fear Blair has failed to bequeath a regulatory regime to protect one of our key democratic safeguards which requires balanced reporting by broadcasters during British election campaigns. News coverage of elections is a classic British compromise: we have a free press and newspapers can be as unscrupulous as they like in promoting whichever party they choose.
But coverage on television and radio cannot be politically partisan; there are clear rules requiring television and radio stations to ensure a balance in air time between the political parties. Now, with rapid media convergence, I think that unregulated broadcasting on the internet by newspaper websites, political pressure groups and bloggers could become the Trojan horse which erodes a system which has protected not only the opposition of the day but also guaranteed a voice for minority parties. Six months ago the government decreed -- through the broadcasting regulator Ofcom -- that the audio-visual material on newspaper websites is to be self-regulated. Websites will have the freedom to promote whatever political line they choose without having to respect the traditional rules on party balance.
What makes this a potential threat to the future conduct of election campaigns is that television broadcasts by mass circulation newspapers like the Sun and its Sunday sister paper, the News of the World, will become yet another significant propaganda outlet for the political patronage of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch. The newspaper proprietors are buying up websites as fast as they and it is not surprising they want a share of the action now that the value of advertising on the net exceeds that of the national press and is catching up with the spend on television advertising.
Another innovation are the attack ads which are now being shown on political websites like www.18doughtystreet.com It already has daily live broadcasts and has started running attack advertisements, just like the political advertisements on American television. They have always been banned in the UK because we allow the parties access to carefully-controlled election broadcasts, depending on the number of seats they are contesting. We in Britain are at the forefront of these changes; our newspapers are showing great ingenuity with their websites; our journalists are facing a transformation in their work routines. And there is a challenge too for governments.
Can our administrations state find a way of harnessing these changes to ensure greater openness and fairness in the flow of information from the state to the public. People’s participation in public affairs could be transformed; the media is desperate to join the inter-active revolution. Let us hope our politicians are also up for the challenge.