Thursday, 6 March 2008

Power to the Press?

Just how powerful is the British media? Not that powerful, when you get right down to it. That's what journalist Dominic Lawson said at a Reuters Institute seminar yesterday.

Lawson wasn't saying that the press had no power, just that its ability to influence politics and policy--feared by politicians and touted and tutted-over by journalists--is grossly exaggerated. The belief that the press can push the buttons and jerk the levers stems, he said, from the 1992 British elections. That's when the Sun printed its famous "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." The red-top tabloid claimed to have turned the electorate away from Labour and towards the Tories.

Not so, said Lawson. The Sun was following its readers, not leading them. But it scared Labour enough to cause it to obsess about courting the media and spinning it. In 1997, when Labour took over, there were 300 press officers in government, Lawson said. Today there are close to 3,000, with more than 200 in the Ministry of Defence alone.

Lawson said that the press does have power when it comes to fact, to the revealing of information. But newspaper leaders--what Americans would call editorials--are read by people who want to confirm their views, not challenge them.

Power, we are reminded, corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what about perceived, but non-existent power? Lawson might argue that it ties the government up in knots it needn't be tied up into. I'd add that it distorts in readers' minds the reach, ability and obligations of the press.

Lawson quoted former Express editor John Junor's belief that journalists aren't corrupted by power, but by friendship. Or rather, by the odd simulacrum of affection that passes for friendship between journalists and their sources. Can you be quite as objective and pitiless in your reporting when you socialize with the people you cover? Can you, if necessary, plunge the knife quite as deeply, or twist it?

It's not necessarily a bad thing for politicians to feel intimidated by the press, Lawson said, if the alternative is for the press to feel intimidated by politicians.

In the Dominic of Time
Lawson is an interesting character: son of a former chancellor of the exchequer, Oxford educated, brother of pneumatic TV chef Nigella, former editor of the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, married to someone whose first name, according to Wikipedia anyway, is "The Honourable," and whose brother invented something called the "eternity puzzle."

No wonder some people find U.S. newspapers boring in comparison to U.K. newspapers. Our journalists are more boring than theirs are.


Henry said...

True, the press's power is often exaggerated, but I'm not sure the distinction between "editorial opinion" and "facts" is as clear as Dominic Lawson says. As we saw in the MMR case, (or with WMDs for that matter) the press can be highly, highly selective in how and which "facts" they reveal (some endlessly, some not at all), and that can have a big influence on public opinion. Lawson got some good questions about that, but didn't really answer them.

More importantly, John, in your capacity as an American journalist, don't do yourself down: you're never boring!

Candadai Tirumalai said...

An Austrian aphorist once said that politicians tell journalists lies and believe what they read in the papers the next day. That was a century or so ago.

Ken said...

Curses, I missed this. Think you can get me a signed pic of Nigella?

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I'm with Henry: you're NOT boring, John. Also Your Lovely Wife is a much better cook than Nigella.