The Government should take on its real enemies, not the BBC

It's bad enough to share Berlusconi's view of transatlantic relations, without emulating his intimidation of the media
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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks ago Tony Blair called for a period of "respect and restraint". There appears to have been a footnote to this call, visible only to members of the Government, which exempted attacks on the BBC from the general injunction. Personally, I regard the way that the Hutton inquiry is now being briefed in Whitehall as some kind of high noon in the war between the Government and the BBC as deeply distasteful and disrespectful to Dr Kelly.

I am also perplexed why the Government has picked on the BBC as its whipping boy. As a social democrat I could have comprehended a call to arms against any of the right-wing newspapers, but, on the contrary, a Government of the centre-left has instead embraced some of those conservative organs as allies in its jihad against the corporation that provides public-service broadcasting. In my more suspicious moments, I wonder whether Number 10 does not regard those papers as too powerful to take on, but regards the BBC as weak enough to bully.

There is also a tendency in government statements to use the BBC and the Today programme as synonyms. Only those blinded by their own indignation could fail to see the wide horizon of quality output by the BBC and damn the whole immense corporation because of the irritation caused by one breakfast programme.

The Today programme can be irritating. More than irritating. I empathise with my erstwhile Cabinet colleagues, as I too in my time found myself awake in the small hours staring at the ceiling and wondering how I was going to get through the morning joust with John Humphrys. There is room for debate as to whether Today would not provide a better service if it reverted to covering the news agenda in place of its more recent mission to create the news agenda. There is, though, no case for a debate on whether the Today programme is justified in reporting stories which the Government finds inconvenient.

The outrage over the notorious Gilligan story also smells suspiciously confected. A fortnight after it, a large delegation from the BBC, including the editor of Today, called at Number 10 for an exchange with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell. The Gilligan story was never mentioned. The curiously delayed explosion of anger over its alleged unfairness only came later, when the Foreign Affairs Committee started investigations into whether it was true. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Great War on the BBC was a classic diversionary tactic.

I would urge my former colleagues to call a truce. A government victory over the BBC is an appalling prospect, as it could only be secured on terms that would undermine the independence and authority of public-service broadcasting. It is bad enough having a government that shares Berlusconi's view of transatlantic relations, without it also emulating his intimidation of state broadcasting. Besides, as Peter Hain reminded us in The Independent on Sunday, there are much bigger problems about the present media culture of which the contemporary BBC is a symptom, not a cause.

The first is the obsession with celebrity politics. Politicians find themselves conscripted as the cast of a soap opera in which the plot line is entirely speculation about who is on the way up, and who is on the way out. This style of reporting is corrosive of democracy as politics is presented as the prerogative of top people, with the rest of the public reduced to spectators as much as they are of the careers of any other set of celebrities.

The second problem compounds the first. Lobby journalists are obsessed with process rather than outcome. They will invest weeks of fishing and lunching in order to land a morsel of gossip on how a decision was taken, but never dream of researching what impact it will have on the real world. Thus politics is routinely presented as a product of the incestuous relationships within Westminster rather than a response to any popular need from beyond Parliament Square. The net result is that political reporting has become too introverted and concerned with gossip, and not concerned enough with whether it ever connects with the real lives of the electors and readers whom MPs and lobby are there to serve. Unfortunately there is always something to fill the papers, as the Westminster village is capable of spawning more gossip than Ambridge.

The danger is that in the process both politicians and press are losing their audience. Surveys have confirmed that what the public want of their politicians are people with whom they can empathise. They yearn for figures who appear to speak from the heart and to articulate honestly held beliefs of their own. Yet today's politicians are caught in a media trap which cruelly punishes the least spark of originality.

While a Cabinet minister, I had to live with the dismal knowledge that if I misplaced a comma in the approved mantra on the euro, I would be branded in the media as being guilty of a "gaffe". I could also predict how the next act would be played out with the inexorability of Greek tragedy. On day two the press would ring round my colleagues until they found someone who was outraged that I had moved the comma, enabling them to report a "row". With a bit more fanning they might strike it lucky on day three and be able to announce a "split" over the comma.

The natural self defence of New Labour against such press practices was to forge a party with the discipline of an old Soviet communist party. But the era of pager politics has solved the trouble with the press at the expense of creating an even greater problem with the electorate. At a time when society has become increasingly individualist, politicians appear more weird than ever when they speak by rote. The public cannot comprehend why otherwise rational people spout the party line rather than say what they really think. Paradoxically the media keep complaining that politicians have become boring without recognising the role the have played in making originality such a dangerous gamble. If we really want a more interesting political culture, then we need a media that rewards rather than punishes candour and dissent.

We need a new deal between MPs and media. Politicians could worry less about the spin and concentrate more on having something original to say. Media could focus less on spotting splits in Government and allow more space for independent thought. My impression is there is a growing number in both professions who are weary of the stalemate and who understand the need for a new terms of trade between us if we are not to continue to spiral further out of touch with our public.

It is just possible that Lord Hutton could give a welcome boost to those on both sides who want a more productive relationship by detailing how destructive and sterile has been the recent confrontation. And it may then even be possible for my former colleagues in government to grasp that any new relationship with the media will only be possible if they recognise that the BBC is part of the solution, not the problem.