A handful of text messages, hushed up Yuletide diary entries, the odd misemployed ‘LOL’: in the year of Leveson these have become the reluctantly public displays of affection between the ruling elite of Britain’s press and politics. Bankers aside, it’s hard to imagine two more vilified professions, yet to what extent does the Cameron-Brooks love-in reflect a deeper, more pernicious, trend in British culture and, controversially, does it even matter?
It is certainly nothing new. Perhaps fittingly for panel debate hosted by The Oldie, the discussion comprised considerable evidencing of the historical relationship between newspaper proprietors and politicians. The likes of Labouchère’s periodical Truth, the domination of Lord Beaverbrook, and Thatcher’s political interest in Murdoch’s takeover of The Times all cited as examples where newspapers and politics have long been intertwined, with both sides equally to blame for the perpetuation of this ‘special relationship’.
Neither is it necessarily a bad thing. Commentator and Journalism Professor Roy Greenslade made it clear that journalism can’t exist without discourse with politicians, while it seems equally fundamental that democracy can’t function without the working of a free press. So long as each believes the other to be essential for their survival, what has been referred to as a ‘loveless embrace‘ is unlikely to change. What matters then is who benefits from our politicians and journalists getting cozy over the mince pies: the politician’s poll ratings, the proprietor’s bank balance, or the electorate’s access to truth?
It boils down to the question of whether newspapers actually hold sway over voters: was it the Sun wot won it? Greenslade argued convincingly that the ‘idea that newspapers can tell you how to vote has been disproved time after time’. Yet if it is a myth, it is one that both sides clearly benefit from perpetuating; it is suggested that politicians can use the press to deflect blame and deny responsibility for losses otherwise attributable to party or individual failure, while proprietors secure their own importance and influence by courting politicians desperate for votes. Where Greenslade feels that newspapers can influence public opinion is in ‘setting the narrative’ between elections, which will almost inevitably play a role in the voting booth. That Neil Kinnock and the 1992 election is the main example discussed feels like a temporary shift in the time continuum although reference to the press’s ferocity over the pasty tax did mercifully drag the discussion back into this century.
As chat over Greenslade’s vajazzled reading glasses droned on, the audience understandably started to get a bit antsy about whether any of this is still relevant in an ever changing media landscape. When super injunctions are being broken by legally ignorant twits while editors keep schtum at the behest of lawyers; when a viral video of Nick Clegg on a website does Private Eye’s job for it (and then some); when Armando Iannucci becomes the go-to man for disgruntled leaky lackeys, surely questions about the relevance of the traditional press has to be asked. Vested interests aside, it seems frankly absurd for the debate to have practically ignored the issue of what effect declining newspaper circulation is likely to have on those special relationships between press and politicians, or the nature of political reporting within the media as a whole. Quality journalism is a force for good, but to pretend that newspapers remain the only gatekeepers of truth or satire seems outdated and arrogant.
Finally – and although this is a sidebar it happened to be the main issue I took from the debate – it was disappointing, if not entirely surprising given male dominance of both industries, to see no women on the panel. Even more worrying was the language that weadled its way in to the discussion; talk of sleaze and scandal unblinkingly shorthanded to ‘tit and bum stories’ (focus always on the woman of course, never the rampant riddled men in question), then from the audience a mention of ‘Kate’s fried eggs’. That such language should be used unquestioningly revealed the inherent sexism that continues to dominate this industry: agonising over who foots the bill when a journalist and politician take each other out to lunch might not be the only question the newspaper industry needs to start asking itself.