In a lecture to students at the University of East London (13.3.2008) Nicholas Jones had to consider some difficult questions. Is Britain governed more effectively because of the power and patronage exercised by the news media? And, more to the point, does the British press, despite the trivialisation and sensationalism of much of its coverage, serve the democratic process and help deliver better government?
Any attempt to try to understand what is so different -- dare I say unique -- about the relationship between British politicians and the news media, has to begin by acknowledging the impact of campaigning journalism. Unlike the press in so much of the world, British newspapers are quite prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to expose wrongdoing and to promote what they believe are popular causes. Once a newspaper puts its full weight behind a chosen campaign, the news of the day can take second place to the propaganda. Over the years, the popular newspapers have claimed many a scalp: they can -- and quite regularly they do -- force policy changes to be made by the government of the day.
Editors of mass-circulation tabloids like to stress the importance of their role. They believe they are on the side of the public, against the might of the state, and they use their power and influence in ways which we don’t often see in the press of other leading countries. British politicians do acknowledge the significance of campaigning journalism and although they are often ridiculed and damaged in the process, they do grudgingly defend the freedom of the press. This leads on to other important questions: Does the British news media, despite its trivialisation and sensationalism, serve the democratic process? Is Britain governed more effectively because the media -- and especially the newspapers -- exercise the power of political patronage and support, especially during general election campaigns?
There is nothing new in the way the newspaper owners -- the press Barons as they were once described -- have used their papers for propaganda purposes. It has been happening for years. Nor is there anything new about the close relationships which have developed -- and sometimes foundered -- between Prime Ministers and media proprietors. Rupert Murdoch is the latest in a long line of media bosses who have chopped and changed in their political allegiances in order to protect their commercial interests. But we should not under-estimate the power of the press in the British context. I have long argued that a Prime Minister with a large Parliamentary majority and the support of the press can be all-powerful.
In the 1980s, the then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had an overwhelming majority at Westminster. But it was the near-unanimous support of the press which made her nigh on invincible in the early years of her Premiership when she succeeded in virtually smashing the power of the trade unions; when she pushed ahead with privatisation by breaking up the state-owned industries and selling them off; and when she introduced the flexible employment laws which gave the British economy such a boost in comparison with European neighbours such as France, Italy and Germany. Equally powerful was the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who went ahead in 2003 in committing British troops to support the American invasion of Iraq despite widespread public opposition.
What has to be remembered was that despite the unpopularity of the war against Iraq, Blair still retained widespread support in the press for military action, especially in the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch. So here we see a clear illustration of my belief that for good or for ill, the newspapers of Britain do play a significant role, they do exercise considerable influence when governments seek to act decisively. We do not see the same degree of interaction in many other European democracies, where the press is not so powerful and where there are weak, coalition governments. So a strong British government, working hand in hand with a sympathetic press, can bring about significant change within the country.
The question that has to be answered is whether you think this constitutes a democratic safeguard, whether you think it leads to better government. The power of the press explains why Britain is one of those countries -- again for good or for ill - which is at the cutting edge in the development of media manipulation, most recently through the use of spin doctors like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Britain has always been strong on advertising and public relations and that is why the communication techniques used here -- especially when it comes to the government trying to influence, even dictate the news agenda -- attract so much interest.
The point which we have reached is that the state -- and especially the opposing political parties -- believe they have to compete in the media market place if they are to stand any chance of securing public attention. No wonder that in 1997, once he was installed in Downing Street as Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell’s first task was to re-write the rule book for government information officers, instructing them to "grab the agenda" by leaking new policies and decisions even before ministers had made their announcements to Parliament. But first let me put the work of the spin doctors in context, to explain why they are considered so necessary.
If there is one characteristic which marks out British newspapers from their counterparts around the world it is their ability to command the news agenda. Indeed the British press is by far the most inventive and perhaps the most sensational when it comes to the art of manufacturing exclusive stories which are often very effective in grabbing the headlines. And, more often than not it is the news media which has the upper hand. Editors of mass circulation newspapers and producers of popular television programmes believe they are serving the democratic interest by exposing the inadequacies of government administration.
It is in this way, by forcing British politicians to answer the questions posed by the news media, that journalists believe they help make the government of the day more accountable to the public. British newspapers are quite prepared to manufacture their own news: no investigation or publicity stunt is off limits; and such is the lack of respect and deference for the national institutions of the country that nothing is sacred when it comes to challenging authority. Officials working for the state, whether at a central or local level, are always a favourite target. Indeed anyone in British officialdom is well aware that exposure in the media for wrong doing can be extremely embarrassing and can often result in their dismissal from employment.
If journalistic endeavour fails to deliver a story there is always what is known as cheque-book journalism to fall back on. British media companies are among the most profitable in the world and certainly have some of the deepest pockets when it comes to buying up sensational information, pictures or interviews. Such is the strength of the competition between media outlets, that it is exclusive stories which command the highest price. While the popular papers delight in printing dramatic and often intrusive disclosures, especially about the private lives of footballers or celebrities, the serious press have their own distinct preferences.
Stories based on campaigns and investigations; exclusive interviews with politicians and prominent public figures; and the findings of opinion polls and surveys provide a regular supply of editorial material for what is known as the quality press. British newspapers are often outrageous and irresponsible but they do have the knack of treating important issues in popular ways and because the daily readership of the press is far higher in the United Kingdon than in many comparable countries there is a high level of public awareness on topical issues. Because of the impact they can achieve, newspapers in the United Kingdom exercise a considerable degree of influence over the way stories are covered on radio and television.
Indeed the front pages of next morning's papers are often news items in themselves and the varied press coverage is discussed regularly in late-night and early-morning current affairs programmes. But the desperate desire of the media to try to dictate the news agenda has become such an overpowering addiction that it has opened the door to all sorts of influences which are not always understood by readers, viewers and listeners. Perhaps not surprisingly British journalists are not at all keen to discuss the behaviour of the hidden information pushers who have become so successful in feeding their habit by supplying exclusive stories. It is difficult to know where to start in the hit parade of "world exclusives" which have filled the front pages of the popular press.
Perhaps I should begin at the top with the Queen and Buckingham Palace. Under the red banner headline "Intruder" over the picture of a palace flunkey, the Daily Mirror published its scoop about the "biggest royal security scandal ever". It was the story of how a Mirrorman, reporter Ryan Parry, had been working as "a palace footman for two months….and was able to prepare the Queen’s breakfast and take pictures of the bed which President George Bush slept in" the previous night. ( Daily Mirror 19.11.2003) The aim of the story was to expose the lack of security at Buckingham Palace but using a reporter to invade the Queen's privacy was not a tactic which would have been permitted in many other countries.
For example, such is the respect for the office of the American President and the sanctity of the White House that such an escapade would have been unthinkable in the USA. But the trick of asking a reporter to fool the authorities so as to expose weaknesses in security and highlight potential dangers to the public is hardy perennial for British newspapers. The Sun used the same technique two years later in another world exclusive on the eve of Prince Charles’ wedding to Camilla: "Gatecrasher in the Castle: 72 hours before the wedding…Sun man drives fake bomb up to the Queen’s apartment" (Sun 7.4.2005).
We see the same ploy again in the aftermath of the row about whether Muslim women should be asked to remove their veils and the news report that a terrorist suspect had left the country disguised as a woman in Islamic dress. "Wearing a burka and carrying a handbag, bomber at bus station" was the Sun's headline. The temptation was irresistible: "Hidden Danger" was the subsequent headline on an exclusive story about the "veiled Sun girl waved through UK airport" in a security shambles which revealed that airport staff had failed to ask her to lift her veil. (Sun 9.10.2006). What was so troublesome about this particular stunt was that the Sun knew full well that it was not only being alarmist but was also perhaps making life uncomfortable for Muslim women who choose to wear veils.
Whenever the popular papers are challenged about the ethics of their reporting the editors insist their job is to reflect public opinion. Some British people do fear that Muslim extremists might be terrorists and no doubt the Sun would claim vindication with its headline the following year "Bomber in a Burka" reporting precisely what it had claimed. (Sun 16.1.2007) The issue of veiled women excites the tabloids. One picture used again and again is of a group of young Muslim mothers in Birmingham, all veiled and one of whom gives the V sign when they were stopped in their tracks by a newspaper photographer. The headline says it all: "Raging against decadent Britain. And hungry for the harshness of Sharia law." (Daily Mail 3.2.2007).
But the tabloids do make a stand against racism, especially in sport. "Lewis in Racism Storm" was the Sun’s front-page headline (4.2.2008) when it broke the story about racists at the Barcelona circuit blacking their faces to taunt the Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton. No expense is spared when it comes to some of the imaginative stunts which take place. "The End: Moment justice caught up with Ronnie Biggs thanks to the Sun" (8.5.2001) was the headline over the exclusive story about how Sun tracked down the Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs at his hideaway in Rio de Janeiro, hired a private plane and flew him back to Britain where reporters handed Biggs over to the Police.
The News of the World was equally enterprising when one of its reporters was told to get a job as a warder at Woodhill Prison. Using the access he gained, he took photographs of the Soham School murderer Ian Huntley languishing in his cell. (15.6.2003). This behaviour would not be tolerated in most countries. More likely than not a deception like this would result in a journalist going to jail. But the British newspapers are so powerful and so strong is the belief that Britain needs a free press, that the authorities dare not retaliate. This gets to the heart of campaigning journalism: politicians who find themselves in the firing line often have no alternative but to give way or at least appear to do so. It explains why Prime Minister Gordon Brown is often only too keen to dance to the tune of the tabloids.
Let us look at the example of the humble plastic carrier bag and a campaign by the Daily Mail which had the Prime Minister falling over himself to give his support. "Banish the Bags" was the front-page headline (27.2.2008) and the following nine pages told the ecological damage that plastic bags were inflicting on nature. On day two of the campaign, the Daily Mail claimed its first victory: "M&S banish the free bag" (28.2.2008) and on day three the Prime Minister was rushed in to give his support: "Brown: the bags will be banished" (29.2.2008). Day after day the campaign continued culminating in the pre-Budget exclusive and one word banner headline: "BANISHED". The storyline was triumphant: "Budget will introduce a law compelling every supermarket to end the scourge of free plastic bags." (Daily Mail 11.3.2008)
However much we might be amused that the country’s second largest daily paper can devote so much space to plastic bags, what one cannot deny is the brilliance of the campaign and the dramatic effect it had on government thinking. Some campaigns take years rather than days to affect government thinking. And when it comes to awarding the accolades, I suppose the News of the World has to be the newspaper that remains head and shoulders above its competitors. "Named, Shamed" was the front-page headline eight years ago when it published the photographs of fifty "highly dangerous paedophiles". (23.7.2000). It was this edition of the News of the World which itself became headline news. It triggered a political storm by provoking a witch hunt for paedophiles, although in one case protestors mistook a paediatrician for a paedophile.
The newspaper justified its campaign for what it called "Sarah’s Law" on the grounds that Britain needed an equivalent of the American legislation known as "Megan’s Law" which provides parents in the United States with access to information on sex offenders living in their locality. It took a long time but in the face of continued pressure the government gave ground. In December 2006 the Home Office finally agreed that parents would be allowed access to some limited information about sex offenders residing in their neighbourhoods. It was the police who finally made the first move. They agreed to publish on the Internet the names of known sex offenders who were not obeying compliance orders. The Sun's headline could not have been more explicit: "PERV HUNT.COM" (17.12.2006). Several of the paedophiles identified on the Most Wanted Website have now been caught. No wonder civil liberty groups are so concerned about possible witch hunts. Just look at the Daily Mirror headline "The Paedo Hate Mob" (12.12.2006). But a couple of months ago the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith finally accepted the News of the World’s argument and agreed -- that at least in certain parts of the country -- parents can be told whether there are paedophiles living in their neighbourhood. "It’s a victory for Sara" was the inevitable headline. (17.2.2008).
There is, it seems, no limit to the ingenuity of the British press when it comes to whipping up pressure for instant action by the authorities. We saw again in October 2006 how the News of the World demonstrated that same flair for exploiting public fears by launching its "Devil Dogs Campaign" (1.10.2006). It demanded that dog owners should be made criminally liable for attacks by dogs like Rottweilers. That campaign was just a foretaste of the tabloid fury unleashed a couple of months later after a pitbull terrier savaged five year old Ellie Lawrenson on New Year’s Day. Merseyside Police have now rounded up dozens of pit bulls amid demands that the Dangerous Dogs Act should be strengthened and properly enforced.
Another government scalp for the Daily Mail has been the campaign it waged against government plans for a whole series of Las Vegas style casinos. One memorable front page said: "Gambling with out Futures" (15.10.2004). Ten days later the government backed down -- there would not be a gambling free-for-all: "Labour retreat over Super Casinos" (25.10.2004). Only one Las Vegas style casino was approved -- for Manchester -- and the story continued to cause ministers grief. Finally, after Tony Blair resigned and Gordon Brown became the new British Prime Minister in July 2007, one of his first acts was to abandon the plan for a Las Vegas style casino in Manchester. "A very moral victory" said the Daily Mail (12.7.2007). Another successful media campaign, helping force a U turn by the government.
While it is the mass-circulation papers which can force ministers to dance to their tune, we must not forget the power of the serious, quality papers. National and local elections, party conferences and other fixtures in the political calendar provide a peg for one of the sure-fire ways for political journalists to create news. Opinion polls are a regular feature in most newspapers and as the date of their publication is entirely at the discretion of the editor, they can be timed to cause maximum embarrassment for the political parties. What always infuriates the politicians is that it is the journalists who pose the question and they do it in a way that allows the newspaper to keep control of the story.
Opinion surveys provide a rich harvest for the press because for an outlay of a few thousand pounds the questions -- and results -- can be tailored to address the burning issues of the day. "Stand up to US, voters tell Blair" was the Guardian's front-page lead (25.7.2006) over a survey which showed that 63 per cent of the electorate believed Blair had tied Britain too close to the White House. "Ten million want to quit ‘over-taxed’ UK" was the finding of a poll for the Sunday Times (27.8.2006) which revealed that one in five Britons was considering leaving the country. The pro-Conservative Sunday Telegraph pre-empted a clutch of polls about the need for a separate English Parliament. Scotland has its own Parliament and it is the Scottish Nationalists who are in government. Talk about breaking up the UK so that Scotland achieves full independence is a regular issue for the opinion pollsters. One poll was decisive: "End of the Union? England wants its independence" (Sunday Telegraph 26.11.2006).
Religion is not sacred as far as the newspapers are concerned and in a pre Christmas jibe at the churches, an opinion poll in the Guardian showed that 82 per cent of people think faith causes tension: "Religion does more harm than good" (23.12.2006).
Another illustration of how the newspapers can create talking points for the people was a poll for the Independent last December which showed that 80 per cent of us plan to cut our carbon footprint in 2008. "Britain demands a greener Christmas" was the seasonal front-page headline. (Independent 23.12.2007). So the newspapers believe that by commissioning these opinion polls they can influence government policy. The Times had a poll a month ago indicating that 76 per cent of us want the surgeries of family doctors to be open for longer (23.2.2008)…and that is precisely what the government announced a couple of weeks later.
Consequently with so many weapons in their armoury you can understand how difficult it can be for the state to compete in such a crowded media market place. The competition is so great that governments have been forced to employ the smartest communicators -- the political spin doctors of today -- to put across their message. Sometimes unpopular governments are fighting a losing battle. In the long run-up to the 1997 British general election -- which ended in defeat for the Conservatives after 18 years in power -- there was no doubt that many journalists were doing all they could to excite the public interest in the prospect of a change of power. The journalists were in effect voting for change. They knew that if the Conservatives were defeated and Tony Blair became Prime Minister it would be in the journalists self interest. It would be good news for the news industry as a Labour government would seek to bring in new and perhaps controversial policies.
You can see this same process underway in the US Presidential elections. Long before Super Tuesday when Barak Obama came from behind and closed the gap between himself and Hilary Clinton, the British newspapers were already right behind him and castigating the Clintons. "The dangers for Britain if this poisonous pair triumph" (Daily Mail 2.2.2008) was in sharp contrast to the page after page of favourable coverage for her opponent. "My America: By Barak Obama" was the front page of the Independent Extra (4.2.2008). Much of the coverage in the states for Obama has been so positive that the Clinton campaign has complained that he has been given an easy ride.
But it is because managing the media is a such a fickle business that Tony Blair went to great lengths to ensure that he had the best possible team around him. Alastair Campbell, a former Daily Mirror journalist, was appointed Blair’s press secretary and the new Prime Minister doubled and then trebled the number of what are known as special advisers. These are largely politically-appointed spin doctors. They are committed Labour Party supporters and many were formerly journalists who were sympathetic to Blair. The first thing Campbell did was change the rules for the civil servants who work as information officers. They were told that they had to "grab the agenda" by trailing announcements. That is the art of official leaking: supplying information exclusively to certain journalists in the hope they will give the government favourable coverage.
Trailing is important: it helps the government set the agenda, it creates a favourable impression, that something is being done, and as with the Budget yesterday, it helps calm the financial markets. So over the weekend there were plenty of official leaks: Yes, there would be more on alcoholic drinks, the tax would be increased on 4x4s and other gas-guzzling cars. But on the eve of the Budget the Treasury confirmed that the 2p a litre increase in the duty on petrol would be postponed. That provided a good news headline for the Sun on Budget morning: "2p petrol hike is frozen…for now" (12.3.2008). Obviously the Chancellor Alistair Darling wanted to sweeten up the public ahead of the bad news that was to come: "Tax Hikes of booze and 4x4s" (thelondonpaper 12.3.2008).
The art of trailing announcements is all too apparent in the Sunday newspapers. They thrive on speculation, on stories which look ahead to what the government is proposing which explains why Tony Blair’s spin doctors were so determined to seize the agenda.
The biggest selling quality Sunday paper, The Sunday Times was the favourite, hence a string of exclusive previews, all dominating the front page:
"Blair to toughen rape laws" (15.10.2006)
"Blair wants super-Asbos for violent thugs" (14.1.2007)
"Blair crisis summit on teen gangs". (18.2.2007)
Gordon Brown and his ministers have been equally assiduous in supplying exclusive agenda-setting stories to the newspapers. The government’s campaign to stop binge drinking among young people produced a front-page exclusive for the Daily Mirror:
"Blitz on shops peddling booze to kids" (3.3.2008). The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith floated a similar initiative on gun crime with the News of the World: "War on Guns - government launch amnesty" (26.8.2007).
These are calculated attempts to influence the news agenda and in what is now a mirror image of Labour’s strategy, we see the Conservative Party promoting its new leader David Cameron in precisely the same way. Soon after his election as leader, Cameron moved to distance himself from the legacy of the Thatcher years and he has often used The Observer as the platform to signal that his party is changing. Here we see a typical trick in media manipulation. By giving the story exclusively to a newspaper that traditionally might be hostile to the Conservatives, Cameron has achieved the maximum possible prominence.
The Observer was the Sunday paper which protested the loudest about the Conservatives’ support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. So when the moment came to dump the Thatcher legacy, that paper was the ideal vehicle and its front-page lead story demonstrates the point: "Cameron: We got it wrong on apartheid" (The Observer 27.8.2006)
Here was Cameron securing the front-page splash for his declaration of support for the ANC leader Nelson Mandela, whom Margaret Thatcher had denounced as a terrorist leader. Another objective of Cameron is to persuade voters that a future Conservative government could be trusted to support the National Health Service. It helps explain why The Observer was the chosen recipient for another exclusive: "Tories plan nurses at home for all new babies" (3.2.2008)
The biggest prize of all for the Conservatives would be to win back the support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers which deserted the Tories under John Major and switched Tony Blair in the lead-up to the 1997 general election. Two months before polling day, New Labour was celebrating: " The Sun backs Blair -- give change a chance." (18.3.1997). The importance of the support of the Murdoch press should not be underestimated. Despite the unpopularity in Britain of Blair’s support for George Bush in the war against Iraq, The Sun remained steadfast and in fact all four of the Murdoch’s newspapers urged readers to vote Labour in the 2005 general election.
Two front pages illustrate the closeness of that relationship. On the eve of the general election The Sun declared that it had got "deep down and personal with the Blairs" and the front-page headline, "Why Size Matters" (4.5.2005) led on to an inside spread which showed a tanned Prime Minister in his torso alongside some intimate quotes from his wife Cherie. In return for granting this titillating interview, The Sun repaid the compliment on polling day with a front page that urged readers to "Vote Labour Today"(5.5.2005). It showed the Prime Minister and the Chancellor dressed in red strips like Manchester United footballers and the headline said it all: "Come On You Reds" with Blair in the No.10 shirt and Gordon Brown as No. 11.
Where The Sun’s support was so critical has been over the Iraq war and its consistent support for "Our Boys" or "The lions of Basra" (4.9.2007) as they tended to be dubbed in Sun-speak. The supposed invincibility of the British troops was encapsulated in the report over the arrival of the Black Watch regiment in Basra: "Watch it: Our Boys off to the battle zone. We beat Napoleon, Kaiser and Hitler…it’s just another job." (25.10.2004). When the action switched to Afghanistan, there was the same Boy’s Own style of coverage when a reporter was sent to join troops on the front line: "The Sun takes on the Taliban" (9.10.2006).
So the closeness of the link between politicians and media proprietors should never be overlooked and while there is no doubt that newspaper sales are declining at some speed, the owners are doing all they can to ensure they retain their dominant position as news and information providers. Their first significant victory has been to ensure that not just text but also all audio-visual material on their websites has escaped regulation by Ofcom and will instead be subject to self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. This means that newspaper websites can take full advantage of the growth in internet television.
The Daily Telegraph is ahead of the pack and has begun streaming its own programmes via its website. Right On is Telegraph TV’s weekly political programme and unlike the traditional mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Sky which have to remain politically impartial, the newcomer is blatantly partisan. It is the "show that’s politically right, not politically correct". Right On is chaired by the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe and she is joined by a trio of right-wing journalists, Simon Heffer, Andrew Pierce and Jeff Randall.
The Murdoch press is concentrating most its push on the internet into developing the websites of The Sun and the News of the World which regularly feature full length videos of topical and exclusive interviews obtained by the two papers. "Burrell: I lied to Di inquest" was The Sun’s front-page headline (18.2.2008) over a report about a secretly-filmed video in which the former royal butler Paul Burrell was said to have admitted perjury at the inquest into the death of Princess Diana. "Amy On Crack" was another of The Sun’s secretly-filmed videos which provided a world exclusive (22.12008) and boosted the number of hits on the website. Footage of the "troubled Amy Winehouse plumbs the depths" provided exclusive after exclusive: "Cops Seize our Amy drug film" (23.1.2008) and "Cops grill Amy over crack video" (6.2.2008). Within a month the Amy Winehouse video had secured nine million hits on The Sun Online.
The scramble by the newspaper owners to protect their businesses is underlined by the fact that the total spend on online advertising has been doubling every year and by next year is likely to exceed the amount which UK advertisers spent on television. What has yet to be established is whether the media proprietors will continue to exercise the same degree of political influence which they achieved with their newspapers. I believe they will: the power of political patronage of the press barons is moving into the electronic era.