Why we should all praise the power of our free press

I have seen the power of the state at close quarters - it is huge, relentless and unforgiving
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The Independent Culture
SOME PEOPLE are alarmed by what they see as the increasing influence of the press. We are getting rule by the tabloids, and it is very like rule by the mob, wrote the admirable Peregrine Worsthorne in The Daily Telegraph last week. I do not share his concern. I could re-phrase that: I am not perturbed about the strengthening of a countervailing power to that of the State - if that is what is happening.

Let us recall how political power in its widest sense has shifted during the past 25 years. At the beginning of the period, the government of the day had two rival forces to take into consideration - the local authorities and the trades unions. In contrast, newspapers were so constrained in their physical operations by the printing unions that they appeared feeble upon the national stage; moreover their proprietors and editors were mostly stooges of the Conservative party.

Local authorities had much greater scope for independent action than they have at present. The trades unions could bring employers to their knees with relative ease. They made the conduct of anti-inflationary policy impossible. They were also bullying, undemocratic organisations. Both local authorities and trades unions could thwart the plans of central government.

Mrs Thatcher's administration, elected into office in 1979, passed successive Acts of Parliament which effectively dismantled these two rivals. In the case of the unions, this required courage. The famous miners' strike threatened a different sort of power: the electricity supply. Nonetheless the Iron Lady prevailed. The authority of the State was re-asserted and enhanced.

The power that had been lost, however, did not simply evaporate or run into the ground. It was picked up by the press and by pressure groups. In particular newspapers - now free of trades union restraints in their day-to-day output; having to reflect the arrival of third party politics with the defection of David Owen and Roy Jenkins from the Labour party; influenced too by the arrival of a less deferential society - began to take on the government of the day.

It is wrong to see the flourishing of newspaper power as having been called into being by Mr Blair and New Labour. Perry Worsthorne was in error when he wrote that the most prominent feature of new Labour's great constitutional revolution in most people's minds was not devolution and the reform of the Lords but "the rise in the power of the Fourth Estate at the expense of the authority and prestige of every other national institution". It was John Major's government which suffered the first blows.

Indeed the incessant spin doctoring of the present Government is an acknowledgement of the sheer power of the national press, not the cause of it. It is similar to the technique that the intelligent wrestler employs when faced with a formidable opponent - he uses the power of his adversary to bring about his defeat.

Spin doctoring is essentially a defensive technique, a method of warding off the blows which may be about to land. And when the Prime Minister's press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, said the other day that, in future, the Government would try to by-pass the national press by speaking more directly to the public through radio and television interviews; press conferences; soft question and answer sessions with magazines, and even coverage in the foreign press, he was admitting defeat.

Why do I focus on newspapers rather than on the media in its broadest sense? After all, the circulation of national newspapers is in secular decline, especially among young people, while radio and television channels flourish and multiply. The fact is that, in matters of public policy, national newspapers can freely attack who and what they like, whereas the news output of the electronic media is strictly regulated so as to provide impartial coverage. On radio and television the reporting of policy initiatives follows the same un-illuminating form - the Government says this, the Opposition parties disagree; in other words, assertion, denial, denial. It is very boring. This is why broadcasting companies plan their daily news coverage in light of what the mornings newspapers have done. The Fourth Estate is the national newspapers - it is not the BBC

What we can thank the entire media market for, is the way it seems to provide a daily seminar on the question of the day. Once the "big issue" has been established, every radio news programme, every chat show dealing with current affairs, every television news service, every daily newspaper has a go. What is this doctrine of reincarnation about which Mr Hoddle appears so muddled; what do Hindus and Buddhists believe about this? What are the rights and wrongs of genetically modified food? Who are the Kurds and why are they rioting? When a hospital wishes to perform an operation on your sick child, what does informed consent really mean?

Next week, we shall all partake in a further lengthy examination of the question highlighted by the Lawrence report - whether the police are riddled with racism. Unless one confines one's radio listening to music, and one's television viewing to soaps, and ignores newspapers altogether, it is impossible to avoid this daily, national debate, which jumps without a backward glance from one subject to another. That is why people are much better informed than they used to be.

Certainly the freebooting, maverick, irresponsible, irreverent arm of the media - the national press - does maintain a ceaseless harrying of the government of the day and of establishment bodies. As a result the authorities do pause, turn back sometimes, hesitate and then move forward more cautiously.

Where is the harm in that? I have seen the power of the state at close quarters. It is huge, relentless, unforgiving. The press attacking the government is like lightly armed, mobile troops attacking heavy armour. As for so-called national institutions, I have the care of two of them. I carry out my duties on the basis that the press has every right, if it sees good reason, to attack me and the bodies concerned. I am prepared to take my chance.

Not Perry. Was he teasing us, or had he become the wicked Peregrine, when he ended his article by urging a remodelled Tory party to win back its spurs by taking on the media? He wants the party to challenge "the ancient" (and in his view anachronistic) "taboo about the indispensability of a free press". Ugh!