We Need to Talk about the Media
Democracy Under Attack – How the Media Distort Policy and Politics
Article first published online: 22 MAR 2013
© The Authors 2013. The Political Quarterly © The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2013 Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The Political Quarterly
Volume 84, Issue 1, pages 163–165, January-March 2013
How to Cite
Sambrook, R. (2013), Democracy Under Attack – How the Media Distort Policy and Politics. The Political Quarterly, 84: 163–165. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2013.2424_6.x
- Issue published online: 22 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 22 MAR 2013
Democracy Under Attack – How the Media Distort Policy and Politics, by . Policy Press. 420 pp. £19.99.
These are difficult days for British journalism. Hundreds of jobs are being lost from newsrooms as advertising revenues fall, regional journalism is being hollowed out under economic pressures, the Leveson Inquiry has revealed a corrupt culture in at least one newsroom and possibly more, the press regulator has been deemed ineffective and in need of replacement and the man who has arguably invested more in British journalism than anyone else over the past forty years has been described by parliamentary committee as ‘not fit’ to run a global media company.
Even in this context, the corrosive failings outlined in Malcolm Dean's book are shocking, and perhaps go some way to explain these dire circumstances. From his standpoint as the Guardian's Social Policy Editor, having worked there for forty years, and as a former Whitehall special adviser, he lays out seven case studies of how the media distort policy and politics. They are meticulously researched and make sober reading for anyone who believes in the importance of public debate.
Dean also outlines seven deadly media sins: distortion, group think, being too adversarial, dumbing down, being too readily duped, emphasising politics over policy and, of course, relentless negativity. Clearly, in his analysis, they damage the democratic process that freedom of the press is meant to support.
We know, for example, that the media campaign against the MMR vaccine, based on the views of one maverick doctor who believed it caused autism standing against the considered research of his peers, left a generation of children needlessly unprotected against measles, mumps and rubella. This is perhaps the clearest example of real harm caused by media misrepresentation. However, it is far from being an exception.
Dean is particularly strong on scaremongering over immigration, from the Sun's three-page splash on asylum seekers allegedly capturing and eating the Queen's swans to a Daily Star follow-up on them eating donkeys to the Daily Express running twenty-two suspect front pages in thirty-one days. When journalists on the Express complained to the Press Complaints Commission, they were told the PCC could only investigate complaints from victims, not third parties.
If these examples suggest that politicians are right to bemoan the press, others illustrate their complicity. Dean tracks in detail the savaging of the Runciman Report (2000)—the most comprehensive study of drugs legislation for twenty-five years—which proposed a degree of decriminalisation. Anticipating a media backlash, ministers condemned the report's conclusions three days before publication, only to find, when it came out, that even the most right-wing press gave it serious consideration. Cue much back-pedalling in Westminster. Drugs, and the moral questions they raise, prove a remarkably difficult subject for both politicians and the press when trying to judge the public mood. But, as Dean points out, the result is that the public is denied a rational debate about a serious social issue.
How did things get so bad? Unlike the previously best known example of this dog-eat-dog genre (John Lloyd's What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, 2004) this is not simply a polemic. Dean is clear about the part played by politicians and spin in arriving at this dysfunctional relationship. He begins with Tony Blair's ‘feral media’ speech, but points out that the Prime Minister pulled his punches—attacking the Independent rather than the more powerful Daily Mail, which was his real target. Blair's fear of reprisal was symptomatic of the broader problem.
Dean blames politicians who, fearing attack, allowed the Murdoch group to accumulate too much power—with News Corporation's ready access to Downing St becoming far too cosy a situation. Looking at the examples here of policy by headline, it is easy to agree with Sir Humphrey in ‘Yes Minister’, who suggested Prime Ministers should never read the newspapers.
The media's exponential growth during the 1990s, with satellite, cable and the internet, was also partly to blame. More competition for public attention drove a rush for impact and celebrity to maintain sales, which has only been accelerated by collapsing advertising revenues.
Dean traces the Daily Mail and The Sun's shadowing each other in the fight for circulation and the extent to which the more serious ‘broadsheets’ have been caught in the same celebrity trap. Clearly he subscribes to the view, shared by the higher minded amongst us, that serious journalism should entail evidence-based and impartial analysis of policy and politics. Unfortunately, these are unfavourable times for such an approach. Tabloid, celebrity-based news can still make money, but more serious, analytical news loses millions. There is no easy way to reconcile this for owners and shareholders. The UK remains lucky with regard to the amount of high-quality journalism still available under adverse conditions.
The 1990s saw a growth in the numbers of specialist correspondents across the industry equipped to analyse and test policy. However, the commercial impact of the internet has seen their numbers shrink back in the past decade, with many technical issues subsequently unreported or covered by under-informed generalists.
In addition, there are the systemic problems of daily news, which has a notoriously poor memory, a brief attention span, is always better at reporting events than processes and demands from politicians and commentators a clear, simple narrative to cover even the most complex of issues. It is no accident that the more complex stories—the Middle East, climate change, social policy—attract the most controversy about how they are reported.
Where does this spiral of hype and sensation lead? The economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman recently wrote of a ‘post-truth’ environment in the USA, with political rhetoric and media coverage totally divorced from facts or evidence. We should not be complacent—this analysis suggests the same could happen here.
What is to be done? Dean starts and ends with the phone-hacking scandal and the issues considered by Lord Justice Leveson. He calls for radical reform, with tighter press regulation, stronger rules on ownership and more transparency between owners and ministers. Such legal steps would certainly make a significant difference, but are not sufficient to deal with the underlying cultural issues or the fading prospects of the newspaper business.
The challenges and opportunities of the internet and digital journalism are outside the scope of this book, but are clearly where the answer must lie. Regulators and judicial inquiries should also note there is no market failure in opinion, but there is in evidence-based newsgathering.
Dean is more convincing in reflecting on lessons to be learned by politicians. He outlines five—good as well as bad:
- Where there is a policy vacuum, as with asylum seekers, the media's influence can become disproportionate;
- pledges with clear targets receive more serious coverage;
- where things go wrong, as in the NHS in 1999, the media can accelerate decisions and correct policy;
- Ministers should be more prepared to take on the tabloids—any government purporting to take evidence-based decisions should do just that;
- For all their bravado, the media can still be led.
In other words, it is elected politicians who still hold the power and make the decisions, even when they appear to be in thrall to the headlines.