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Panpa Bulletin : July 2007
32 PANPA Bulletin July 2007 When Tony Blair was a member of the British House of Commons and par- ticularly when he was Prime Minister of Great Britain, he (and his wife Cherie Booth) provided great copy for the British media. On his recent retirement as Prime Minister and from his parliamentary seat, he gave a speech reflecting 'on the challenge of the changing nature of communication on politics and the media'. It was a long speech, one so full of worth- while comment that I believe the extracts below (some paraphrased) are as apposite to Australian newspapers as they are to those in the UK. (That is my disclosure as to the source of this article. My comments, additions or changes in italics) At the outset Blair made it clear he was not whingeing about his treatment by the media - he recognised that criticism, how- ever harsh, was a small price to pay for the privilege of being Prime Minister. Blair said, "The relationship between politics, public life and the media is chang- ing ... the effect of this change is adverse to the way public life is conducted ... we need a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future. "Newspapers fight for a share of a shrink- ing market ... because many are read online immediately not the next day, internet advertising is overtaking newspaper ads. The media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have experienced before. They are not mas- ters of this change but its victims. In 1997 we could release an issue a day, in 2007 we have to have one for the morning, one for the afternoon and a third for the evening. A vast part of our jobs as politicans is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. "The central issue is how politics is re- ported ... or rather not reported. How many maiden speeches, excellent second reading or committee speeches are covered? Except when they generate major controversy, they aren't. The result is a media that is driven by impact. Impact is what matters. It is all that can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of the story matters. But it is secondary to impact. It is this nec- essary devotion to impact that is driving standards down. "Broadsheets today face the same pres- sures as tabloids ... The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions en- gaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. Blair went on to give his opinion as to the consequences of the dumbing down of newspapers . "First, scandal or controversy beats ordi- nary reporting hands down "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. "Third, the fear of missing out means today's media hunts in a pack. It is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputa- tions to bits. "Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news be- ing as, if not more, important than the news itself. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of en- ergy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended. "Fifth, the confusion of news and com- mentary. Comment is a perfectly respect- able part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate, Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words this is not an exception. It is routine. "The final consequence of all this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life's usual grey is almost entirely absent. Its a triumph or a disaster. A problem is 'a crisis'. A setback is 'a policy in tatters'. A criticism, 'a savage attack'. Is it becoming worse? I would say yes. "It used to be thought new forms of com- munication 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. "But there is also an opportunity. Trust in journalists is not much that above politi- cans. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impar- tiality. The way that people get their news may be changing but the thirst for the news being real news is not. "The media will fear any retreat from impact will mean diminishing sales. But the opposite is the case. They need to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment". In conclusion, Tony Blair said, "I've made this speech after much hesitation. I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters. But I also know this has needed to be said." I agree with Mr. Blair. As Australian newspapers have become more garish in style they have deteriorated in quality of content. The tabloids in all states are inconsequential, aiming to hold readers (they are not gaining them) with a mixture of sport, on and off the ground antics of players, crime and criminals, political and social gossip. The once highly regarded, thoughtful broadsheets are playing catchup with bigger headlines, beat-up societal is- sues and boring comment by a plethora of commentators all saying the same thing in different words. PETER ISAACSON Peter Isaacson is a former publisher and is a life member of PANPA. Does this apply to your newspaper? publishing matters In lamenting the state of today's media, Tony Blair was justi ed and accurate in his comments, writes Peter Isaacson.
August September 2007