Speech to political and parliamentary correspondents, Bakhu, Azerbaijan. 20.9.2006
British political journalism is livelier, more sensational -- and potentially more dangerous for politicians and governments -- than in most other European countries. The main reason is that the British newspapers are very political in what they say and extremely powerful when it comes to deciding what is news and influencing their readers. The press does often dictate the political agenda and there is no doubt that if the Prime Minister of the day is unpopular and has lost the support of the main newspapers, then that can sometimes be enough to ensure that the government of the day is defeated.
Unlike much of Europe, Britain does not tend to have coalition governments; our elections tend to be clear cut, either the party in power is defeated or re-elected. Only very rarely do we have what we call a hung Parliament where no party has an overall majority. Our newspapers thrive in this volatile environment and the newspapers often change sides: one year they might support the government, the next the Opposition and this can be very significant because our newspapers have far larger circulations than comparable newspapers in the rest of Europe. We have seven newspapers which sell more than a million copies a day. Our nearest neighbouring country is France which like Britain has a population of around 60 million people, but it does not have a single newspaper selling a million copies, the biggest sale is only half a million.
When I arrived at Bakhu with my plastic bag everyone thought I was perhaps a bag lady, one of those unhappy old ladies who walks around all day with her possessions in a plastic bag. My bag is full of just one day’s newspapers from the United Kingdom. Let me introduce you to the British press:
First the biggest seller -- the Sun -- which sells 3.3 million copies a day and claims nine million readers. For the last ten years it has been a firm supporter of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and most importantly for the British government, it has backed the use of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of US President George Bush.
The next largest sale is the Daily Mail, 2.3 million copies a day. This is the newspaper which the Prime Minister -- and his wife -- hate most of all. The Daily Mail -- which sells more even than USA Today -- campaigns against the policies of Mr Blair’s Labour Party government and it is always very unpleasant about Mrs. Blair, always choosing the most unflattering pictures of her that it can find.
Then we have the Daily Mirror selling 1.6 million copies a day. This paper is to the left and has been uneasy and sometimes very critical of the way Mr Blair has backed George Bush.
Already you get an indication of the political nature of the British press. But there are another seven national newspapers on sale each day throughout the country. Each one has a distinct political agenda. At election times they usually say which political party they think their readers should support.
Even more newspapers are sold on Sundays. The biggest selling paper is the News of the World, selling 3.5 million copies, the Sunday Mirror selling 1.4 million, the Mail of Sunday selling 2.2 million, and the Sunday Times 1.3 million. Again there are another seven national Sunday newspapers together selling millions more copies. Again the Sunday newspapers are very political and specialise in exposing politicians in their private lives. These papers know that their readers enjoy finding out about political scandals. Successive British governments have been very critical of the behaviour of our newspapers. Tony Blair’s famous press secretary Alastair Campbell says he believes Britain’s newspapers are the most sensational and irresponsible in the world.
But no British government would dare try to control the newspapers; we believe as a country in a free press and although the newspapers are sensational and intrusive, although they are disliked by the politicians, we as a people tend to be hungry for news and the politicians need the newspapers because their support can be important at election time. This leads on to another very significant factor in the British press. Some of our most important -- and most political newspapers -- are owned by extremely wealthy people. The world’s richest media magnate Rupert Murdoch controls over forty per cent of Britain’s newspapers sales. He owns the biggest selling papers, the Sun and the News of the World and also The Times and Sunday Times.
In our last general election in May 2005 -- which Tony Blair won comfortably with a majority of sixty five -- all four of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper recommended their readers to vote Labour. You begin to see the influence of Murdoch. He owns Fox News in the United States which supports George Bush; Murdoch’s British newspapers have all supported Tony Blair and the war in Iraq. But we sense that might change.
Tony Blair is unpopular at the moment, he has already indicated he will stand down as Prime Minister within the next twelve months, it might be more quickly than that, and who knows Rupert Murdoch might switch sides and start supporting the main opposition party the Conservatives who have a new young leader and are ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Murdoch supported the Conservatives throughout the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. He only switched to Tony Blair in 1994. So you can sense the volatility. Already the two other big proprietors, Lord Rothermere who owns the Daily Mail and Sunday Mail and Richard Desmond, owner of the Express newspapers, have made it abundantly clear they will go on opposing the government and back the main opposition party.
So the influence of the proprietors through their newspapers has a significant impact on political reporting. My brother George Jones is political editor of the Daily Telegraph. That is a Conservative newspaper, against the government, and you can tell this immediately when you read stories in his newspaper.
Journalists who work on the Sun write their stories in a way which fits the political thinking of Rupert Murdoch. It is only the more serious newspapers like The Times, the Guardian -- on which my son is a financial reporter -- the Independent and the Financial Times which are more balanced in their reporting. As readers we tend to buy the newspaper which suits our political thinking, so this diversity is quite healthy.
Although our press reporting is very political, there is a great difference when it comes to television and radio. Broadcasters cannot express a political opinion and our radio and television stations cannot endorse or support a political party. They have to be impartial in what goes out on air and their coverage of politics has to be fair and balanced.
In the case of the BBC, we have a charter from the government which requires the BBC to be fair and impartial. I was a radio and television correspondent for thirty years and I would have lost my job immediately if I had expressed support for one party or another. I had to be fair and impartial. At election times there are very strict rules requiring radio and television to give equal air time to the main political parties. We don’t have political advertising on radio and television but the parties are allowed to transmit election broadcasts, explaining their polices. I have some examples which I can show you.
So in the view of most people in the country Britain has the kind of balance that works. We have a free press which is not regulated or controlled in any way by the government. But all radio and television stations, whether operated by the BBC or privately owned, have to be licensed and meet agreed standards: we must be impartial politically, we must respect racial differences and support religious tolerance. There is also protection for small political parties and parties in regions of the country like Scotland and Wales. They too must be treated fairly.
And this arrangement seems to work: we know that our newspapers are politically motivated, we can see that they are urging us to vote for this party or that party, but when it comes to broadcasting there are strict rules to ensure fairness between the political parties. And that has great significance for the electorate. We know that what we see and hear on television and radio has a decisive influence on the way we vote, whether we like and respect the individual politician, whether or not we believe them and can support them.
Now to some practical points about political journalism. Because of the development of the 24 hour news environment and the televising of Parliament, political reporting has changed considerably in my working life. In the late 1960s when I was a parliamentary reporter on The Times we used to fill two pages with detailed stories of who had said what in Parliament. We filled column after column with reports of the parliamentary debates. But once you could see and hear live what the politicians were saying, press reporting began to change.
Now much of the political coverage in the newspapers is about the background to what has happened, speculation perhaps about the government and its policies and also lots of personal stories about the politicians, their wives and families. So there is quite a difference in style between a broadcaster and a newspaper journalist. But we all share the same facilities at the House of Commons. When it comes to getting political information, British journalists are not as open as in the United States. The briefings for journalists at the White House are televised, you can see the reporters asking questions. Indeed much of what American politicians and their aides have to say to the media is on the record.
In London political journalists get much of our information from politicians off the record; our briefings are not televised and we maintain a lobby system where journalists can meet politicians out of the public eye and where we don’t reveal who our sources are. Personally I am against this. I have written and campaigned for a more open system. I think we in Britain should have the televised briefings that take place in America. But most newspaper reporters are against such a change, they do not want openness. They believe they can get more information out of politicians if they can have their conversations out of sight, away from the television cameras.
As I explained our newspapers are very political, the proprietors want to keep it that way and therefore there is a hidden trade in information between ministers and the journalists they favour. So because the Sun supports the Prime Minister Tony Blair it gets in return many exclusive stories from the government and also exceptional access to the Prime Minister himself.
This is the front page of the Sun on election day last year. It is saying vote Red, the Labour Party colour, vote Labour to keep the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the finance minister Gordon Brown in office. That sort of blatant political promotion can only be seen in the newspapers, not on radio or television which cannot express political opinions.
So how does our political journalism in Britain compare with other European countries. There is no doubt our newspapers are fearless when it comes to politics. They constantly challenge and criticise the government and the press do often set the agenda despite what government say and do.
If the Prime Minister of the day has the support of the press, then it is far easier to take bold decisions. That was certainly the case when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997. He was much more powerful then than he is now when many of the newspapers are opposed to him. The newspapers are so widely read, and have so much influence, that often our radio and television stations follow what the press are reporting. But what is important is that we broadcasters have to follow up newspaper stories in a fair and balanced was.
As I explained, if anyone had been able to demonstrate that I was secret supporter of a political party I would immediately have lost my job as a BBC correspondent. That is seen as a very important safeguard and there is no doubt that the British people have far greater trust in the news reporting of the BBC and the other broadcasting organisations than they do in the newspapers.
Finally let me talk about what I think should be the response of the state. A cause of concern in Britain is the close relationship between the government and the press proprietors. Information is given exclusively to some newspapers and not to other journalists. This is often done by the political advisers whom we call the spin doctors. They do it in the hope of obtaining positive and favourable coverage. This trend has accelerated in recent years and I believe it is undermining the standards and ethics of political journalism.
Quite often there are important political stories in the newspapers based entirely on anonymous quotes. Yes the story might be true, perhaps not true, but no one has been identified as the source. This can lead to a loss of trust in media reporting and it adds to a sense of cynicism among the public. So I believe that it is important that those in the state who control the flow of information from the state to the public should make the information available to all journalists at the same. This is possible in view of the rapid advances there have been in electronic communication. Information can be made available instantly on web sites and it can be accessed simultaneously by all journalists who need the information.
If I could make just one change in the way politics is reported in Britain it would be that. It is so important that information from the state is freely available to all journalists, not just to those favoured by the politicians in power. I know this is a problem around the world. London is famous as a financial centre, it handles financial business from around the world and the rules on having to declare information are very strict, to stop people profiting from inside information. London is a media market place too. How British newspapers, television and radio respond can have an impact in the way stories are reported in other countries because of the power of the British media. Just think of the influence of the BBC.
Therefore we journalists have to look at our consciences. Are some of us too close to the politicians? Are we being honest? When writing or broadcasting our stories are we telling readers and viewers all we know? Are we more anxious about getting an exclusive story and making the headlines, than giving a fair and balanced report? These are the sorts of questions which trouble some journalists in Britain. There is no doubt that the competition between the different sections of the media is so great in Britain that our standards are under pressure, especially in the way we report politics. So freedom for the press and broadcasting can be abused and misused and we must do what we can to maintain our editorial standards.