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Blair on Media, Media on Blair

The Guardian: Right sermon, wrong preacher. There is an easy response to Tony Blair’s lecture on the failings of the media, and some will seize on it. It is to accuse the prime minister – the master (some will say) of half truths, evasion and spin – of breathtaking hypocrisy and an almost clinical lack of self-awareness. Well, yes. But Mr Blair’s heartfelt homily deserves a more serious response. His words will have struck a sympathetic chord, not simply among people in public life, frustrated at the way their words and deeds are mediated, but among a broad section of readers and viewers as well. Much of what he said was true, and it took some courage to say it, a courage that was doubtless easier to draw on amid the last embers of a political career.

As it happens, I stopped by the Guardian yesterday while its editor, Alan Rusbridger, was working on this editorial (British papers call editorials “leaders.”). More than most responses to Tony Blair’s sharp-edged speech yesterday, it reflects the reality that the prime minister made some good points amid his brazen hypocrisy.

The Blair speech comes on the heels of a gigantic scandal involving his government. As the Guardian and BBC have led the way in reporting (Guardian, BBC coverage), BAE, the British aerospace giant that makes fighter planes, has made huge payments to a Saudi prince — apparently with government approval if not overt complicity. If this journalism is not an example of the finest traditions of the craft, nothing is, and it’s plainly a disaster for Blair and his cronies.

I’d disagree with the Guardian on one point, though — the newspaper’s rather mild response to Blair’s chilling, if carefully worded, pitch for more government control of journalism. Media control is an authoritarian’s favored tool. The police-state tendencies of governments worldwide, which are especially worrisome here in the nation that gave birth to the Magna Carta, don’t need any further assistance.

4 Comments on “Blair on Media, Media on Blair”

  1. #1 Simon Dickson
    on Jun 13th, 2007 at 5:45 am

    Dan, having read the speech several times now, I don’t see any reference in Blair’s words to ‘more government control’. His comments regarding ‘the regulatory framework’ seem (to me) to consider the blurring of distinctions between media, and considering the appropriate body in the UK context to oversee them.

    His main point seems to be whether the newspapers should be treated specially, by having their own Press Complaints Commission, when all other media are part of the Ofcom remit. It becomes ever more ludicrous as the newspapers move into websites, podcasts, audio, etc etc.

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Jun 13th, 2007 at 6:59 am

    Simon, I hope you’re right. But I interpreted those words in the context of his wish for fixes of the problems he identifies.

  3. #3 Neil Harding
    on Jun 13th, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    The big question is; if we accept that much of what Blair said is right (regardless of whether he was suggesting regulation), how do we go about correcting the problem?

    This is not about suppressing a free media, it is about making it truly free. How can we say a press controlled by a few overseas media moguls (largely exempt from tax) is truly free? Do people think that a media reliant on advertising is free to criticise its advertisers? – mostly big business (this is one reason publicly funded media (like the BBC) is such an important part of the media mix.

    Freedom is not about unbridled capitalism, as the 1930s demonstrated (yet the Right have managed to equate freedom with laissez faire in our minds). There is little freedom in a system that distorts so obviously. Inequality of power – like wealth and income inequality matters – and the media is inextricably linked with power – as Blair suggests – it is essential for a proper functioning democracy that the media is not only free but balanced. It is the media that helps hold governments to account on a daily basis between elections but to be truly free. it ironically needs some regulation. Just as business will ignore health and safety, environmental concerns and workers rights without government regulation – the media will ignore accuracy and quality. We do need regulation – but it is nothing to do with suppressing the freedom of the press – on the contrary it will enhance it.

  4. #4 Dan Gillmor
    on Jun 14th, 2007 at 12:17 am

    Any regulation of speech will, by definition, reduce freedom of speech.

    We correct the problem by helping people understand the value of better speech.