Alastair Campbell: The cynicism that is corroding faith in democracy

Saturday 07 December 2002 01:00

Twenty-odd years ago, when I started out as a trainee journalist, the media largely meant newspapers plus three terrestrial television channels. Now we have five terrestrial channels and 24-hour news coverage on CNN, BBC and ITN. Sky News is also on in most newsrooms. The number of local radio stations is ever expanding, and we have a huge number of free newspapers, an expanding ethnic media, specialist journals for every subject under the sun, and the internet.

I think the sheer size of the media has had an impact on the nature of the media. Stories that are deemed to be new at 8am are considered old by the time the newspaper journalists are writing, even though large numbers of the public may be unaware what the original story is. New angles are needed. And what may happen in the future is often deemed to be more important and more interesting than what is happening now. The result is less reporting, more predicting and more taking of stances.

These changes have taken place in one of the most competitive media market-places in the world. I think many journalists would agree that, in our national newspapers in particular, this competition has eaten into standards of accuracy, fairness and judgement. We have more media and a lot more noise, but the public have less understanding of what is actually happening within the political debate. And that inevitably leads to greater cynicism.

I think it is fair to say that if you were Nye Bevan or Neil Kinnock, or other historical figures in the Labour Party, you would think you had a very, very rough deal from the press – I don't think any objective analyst would say otherwise. And it's fair to say we were determined not to let Tony Blair get the same treatment as they did. Competence with the media conveyed a general competence that was important to us in establishing ourselves as a competent Government. I would argue that what we were doing was the basics needed for a professional media operation for a major organisation. But therein lay the seeds of spin.

The consequences were greater than we anticipated. We appeared, and perhaps we were, over-controlling, manipulative. People stopped trusting what we had to say. What we underestimated was the extent to which the changes we made in our relationships with the media, and in getting our media act together, would itself become an issue and a story. That's in part because we carried on for too long in Government with some of the tactics of opposition.

We were too slow to see our part in the way the dialogue between politics and press was becoming devalued. A lack of trust and a lack of mutual respect developed. While I am willing to accept our share of the blame for this situation, it is not unreasonable to point out these other important factors responsible for the disconnection: a hostile and cynical media, a more demanding public living in a culture of immediacy, and less trust in established institutions. If the public come to believe that all communication is spin, no matter how much we may want to blame the media, it is ultimately our problem, a problem for our political culture.

But the media also has to engage with change. Cynicism, ultimately, will damage the media as much, if not more, than us.

Now, every time I speak about this, people just assume that I want slavish, pro-Government coverage, and it isn't true. Pravda was probably the most useless political organ in history because people knew it bore little relation to the reality of their lives. I was, as a journalist, a great believer in causing trouble and making mischief, and I enjoy good argument. But I think if you get a mindset that the only journalism that really counts is journalism that is knocking government or politics, that's wrong.

When I was at The Mirror – I won't make any bones about it now and I didn't then – I was a committed political journalist. I also felt I had a sort of respect for politics and the political process and I felt an alternative was present that I'd speak up for. Today, only cynicism and disillusion is fostered about politics, and in some quarters about pretty much everything else.

Perhaps the most important change is the Prime Minister's press conferences. He has always done lots of media, but to have one per month, with questions on anything, should improve dialogue. Already the public response has been good and – famous last words – the word spin has featured less in recent weeks and months.

Journalists are an absolutely vital bridge between politicians and the public. And if journalists see their role as simply presenting the negative, that a story's only a decent story if it's a bad story, then that bridge exists only to be blown up. People will begin to lose their faith in politics.

It is time for the press to think seriously about how it should address the problems and for the debate within the media about the media to become less superficial, less defensive, less clubbish. We both have a problem with trust and turn-out. I have tried to give you a flavour of the self-critical appraisal we have undertaken in trying to address it. But it is something that would benefit from the media looking honestly at its role, too.

This an edited version of an article that appears in the current edition of the 'British Journalism Review'

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments