British press hurting

Tony Blair was right about the British media. It’s a fleet of runaway mechanical diggers without driver or brakes, beyond accountability or control even by those who nominally run them.

Needless to say, with almost one voice the media turned the blame back on Blair: who was this spin maestro to throw stones? They have a point, up to a point. But there was no nanosecond’s pause for reflection, not a moment for self-doubt. Blair’s enemies of right and left, current and former editors, used every Blair sin from BAE to the 45-minute dossier ahead of the invasion of Iraq as a good excuse to block their ears. Too rare investigations of serious wrongdoing and a pious claim to safeguard freedom were figleaf justifications for an unremitting dose of poison poured into public ears every day.

There are good journalists, but few would claim these voices are the weather-makers in the UK’s media. And even many of them feel the insidious undertow tugging towards ever more robust opinion.

But it’s a shame Blair’s speech omitted the root of the problem — the ownership structure he did nothing to break. Had he been brave, he could have restored media ownership rules to pre-Thatcher days. She let Murdoch burn the rulebook to acquire more than 40% of newspaper ownership. She arranged a unique get-out clause in EU media law to allow him to launch Sky. Now as he stalks the Wall Street Journal, shudders run down American spines at the possibility of the owner of the New York Post and the corrosive Fox News seizing this business bastion. If he fails then the Financial Times fears he will instead devour that, and its owner Pearson. An eloquent protest against his Wall Street Journal bid came from the FT’s economics writer, Martin Wolf: “How many even of his admirers would argue that Murdoch for all his successes has created even one serious, authoritative and truly independent newspaper?”

Every poll shows its revulsion against the press, with journalists ranking lower than politicians. If only the internet had become the promised antidote to the media, a better

forum for exchange of ideas and information would have emerged.

The newspaper agenda, slavishly followed by the BBC, reflects a profoundly dystopic image of a society where nothing works, everything gets worse, public officials are inept, public services fail, tax is wasted, lethal dangers proliferate, and everyone conspires to lie about it. Then sententious editorials complain that children are being locked in by frightened parents! News editors spike most stories that don’t fit that simple template. That means good specialist correspondents at the BBC and in serious newspapers who know the complexity of their subjects in great depth hardly bother to offer any story that doesn’t exaggerate some minor failings, leaving the bulk of an essentially favourable report as an afterthought. Good crime, health or education figures are distorted by reporting of the one indicator that has turned downwards.

It’s a state of mind that drives out balanced analysis: unless there’s a “crisis”, it won’t make the cut. This isn’t special to the era of Labour, but it’s got worse and it’s done without reader research which might reveal people are equally interested in stories of improvement — or at least of complexity. — The Guardian