Birt warns of danger to political system in era of the soundbite

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The Independent Online
The political process is in danger of being destabilised by a media inspired "feeding frenzy" which militates against considered decision making, John Birt, the director-general of the BBC warned last night, writes Rhys Williams.

Delivering the annual Independent Newspapers Lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, Mr Birt said that politics had been "brought out into the open in recent years and its workings exposed to public scrutiny as never before. At its best this new openness is highly democratic, sometimes giddily so."

However, he added: "The fear must be that the balance is swinging towards disputation and away from reflection. It is possible that the interplay between the new politics and the modern media will unbalance the political process, and inhibit its proper working."

The result, he said, was that popular attention was focused on the short rather than long term, on the personality rather than the issue. "In the era of the soundbite and the tabloid, a stray remark, a poorly judged phrase on a Sunday can build by Tuesday into a cacophony of disputation and political crisis."

Print media, broadcasting and the parliamentary machine combined to offer "the spectacle of a feeding frenzy in which it is difficult to exercise cool and measured judgement".

"It is hard to believe that political decisions made quickly in such circumstances are always the right ones, made in the public interest. Most importantly, the issues that lend themselves to tabloid headlines, or to a studio argy-bargy, crowd out discussion of the events, forces and circumstances that will have a major and lasting impact on shaping each of our lives."

Broadcasters needed to seek opinion from a "wider array of witness", not just politicians, while more weight should be given not to personalities and rivalries, but to the issues that lie behind them.