What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics by John Lloyd

The sickly sweet smell of symbiosis
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The Independent Culture


In her 2002 Reith lectures, the philosopher Onora O'Neill asserted that the media were the only great power left unregulated. The theme of John Lloyd's essay, in the form of this short book, is that this out-of-control colossus substantially damages the political process. How does that come about?

Partly, by sheer dominance. Lloyd, now an editor at the Financial Times, shows that we British use more of our time on absorbing the media than we apply to any other activity. We watch a lot of television, we listen to many hours of radio, we still read newspapers and magazines in great numbers, and we have come to value the internet. All that, comprising news as well as entertainment, occupies us for longer than even conversation with friends and family.

Into the vast media output - the second step in Lloyd's argument - practitioners insert the notion that politics has no high, or even moral, purpose. It merely consists of a series of strategies for getting and keeping power.

Actually, I think that analysis a perfectly serviceable hypothesis. It explains contemporary politics pretty well. Keeping power entails delivering the kinds of outcomes that voters want. And when a moral imperative is preached, as by Tony Blair in the case of the Iraq war, we end up with the torture of detainees.

Nor do I hold that politics is a degraded profession, as Lloyd believes most of the media do. He carries his attack forward by asserting that the media have decided that politics is a dirty game, played by devious people who tell an essentially false narrative about the world and deceive the British people. As a result, the media have become ravenous - hungry for conflict, scandal, splits, rows and failure.

Lloyd's broad picture is, I think, inaccurate. Go to the political coverage in this issue of The Independent, turn to its rivals, switch on the TV news today or tune into the radio and then apply Lloyd's description to what you read, see or hear. Does it fit? Sometimes, but not generally.

To the extent that the media are ravenous, as they can be, their appetite embraces more than the political process. Take the relatively small amount of attention that the media give to the Church of England: the coverage likewise focuses on conflict, scandal, splits, rows and failure.

Lloyd rightly emphasises the central transaction of the political process. Politics and politicians depend on the media for access to people. The most common method is the interview.

Whether heard on the Today programme in the morning, or viewed on Newsnight late at night, or read in one's newspaper, or somewhere implied but not stated because it was off-the-record, the result is often unsatisfactory. Politicians are defensive where they are not bland; journalists are rude where they are not probing.

Whose fault is this? This is unknowable, but Lloyd points to the media. For, he says, access is granted on increasingly harsh terms. As a result, politicians have learnt to arm themselves. The consequence is that the interview - a technique to elicit information and increase clarity - produces no more than the smoke of battle and the fog of war.

Lloyd is writing to change things. Although I believe his analysis is too sweeping, I accept his recommendations. Reform of the media can only come from within; it is not a suitable arena for government action. For example, The Independent was founded for a variety of reasons, but among them was a desire to show that there was a better, more even-handed, more truly independent way of being a newspaper.

I agree that while any publication may choose to oppose the government, the media does not have the responsibility for so doing. That duty belongs to members of Parliament. I accept that over and above the truth that emerges from the clash of opinions, or from investigation, there is a third kind of truth - "explanation of contexts and events, using the rational tools of observation and enquiry". It is the everyday work of journalism. And the more of it, the better.

Andreas Whittam Smith was founding editor of 'The Independent'

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