Bitter, bitter, bitter

Insisting that he’s not bitter and not just complaining about his many blows to the kidney delivered by the UK media — the PM doth protest too much, methinks — Tony Blair nonetheless bites back in a farewell speech moaning about the state of the news:

As a result of being at the top of the greasy pole for thirteen years, ten of them as Prime Minister, my life, my work as Prime Minister, and its interaction with the world of communication has given me pretty deep experience, for better or worse. A free media is a vital part of a free society. You only need to look at where such a free media is absent to know this truth. But it is also part of freedom to be able to comment on the media. It has a complete right to be free. I, like anyone else, have a complete right to speak.

Yes, and media is either free or it isn’t. But Blair tries to argue for reinvigorated regulation. Yet there is no halfway in freedom of speech. That works about as well as trying to be half in Iraq.

He vaguely threatens but, thank goodness, stands in no position of power to do anything:

And there is inevitably change on its way. The regulatory framework at some point will need revision. The PCC [Press Complaints Commission] is for traditional newspaper publishing. OFCOM regulate broadcasting, except for the BBC, which has its own system of regulation. But under the new European regulations all television streamed over the internet may be covered by OFCOM. As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.

And that European regulation is terribly dangerous. It means that our simple communication could be regulated. Freedom-loving people should be fighting this intrusion into our conversation, our space.

While continually repeating that he’s not complaining about the media and the people in them, he complains:

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.

Could this merely be accountability, openness, sunshine? Blair is known as the great controller. The problem is that media cannot be controlled anymore, not by him, not by media themselves, not now that media are passing into the hands of the people. This means we can now more clearly hear the views of the people. Blair calls this cynicism and he blames not the performance of politicians for its growth, but the state of media:

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. . . . And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing. My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault.

Have you considered that it might, indeed, be your fault?

Like a master of S&M, Blair alternates between bashing and empathizing with media — perhaps because he recognizes, deep within, that it’s the era of centralized control by either estate that’s passing. He wants someone to be in control, damnit.

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims. The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by “impact”. Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else. . . .

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.

Roll that wine around on the tongue before you realize it’s vinegar: It’s not politicians messing up that makes voters cynical but reporters calling them on misconduct.

Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So – for example – there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible.

I got off the phone with a TV producer today doing a segment on objectivity in journalism arguing that this distinction between opinion and fact was never clear as journalists convinced themselves it was. There is opinion — perspective, bias, experience, judgment — in any journalistic judgment. The question is whether you have been transparent about that vantage point so others may judge what you say.

Blair simply gives up hope that “new forms of communication [read: the internet] would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.” But then he argues that he has found the new business model for news. “They need to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment.” Eureka! And please ignore all that comment against us nice politicians.

It’s time that he go because he could not bear the open comment of the people who are the new media.