Read all about it: yesterday’s newspaper is often tomorrow’s government policy




Democracy Under Attack: How the Media distort policy and politics
Malcolm Dean
Policy Press, €14.99

Enoch Powell famously said that politicians who complain about the media are like sailors who complain about the sea.

Malcolm Dean, the Guardian’s social affairs correspondent, has produced a thoughtful book on the symbiotic relationship between politics and the media in the UK. Dean, a journalist of 40 years, gives a critical account of the influential role of the media in shaping public and political attitudes.

The most stunning example is the declaration by Tony Blair, on his election as Labour leader in 1994, that “the only thing that matters now in this campaign is the media, the media, the media.” In contrast, Clement Attlee, one of Blair’s predecessors, at the beginning of the 1951 general-election campaign, declined to comment when asked by a reporter to elaborate on his campaign. Attlee’s chief concern was to finalise his party’s policy and campaign details, before engaging with the press. Such reticence would be impossible today.

The evolution of the media from daily newspapers to instant mass communication and a 24/7 news cycle puts insatiable demands on politicians to react immediately. As late as the 1960s, the government would have a two-day cabinet meeting before commenting on a serious issue. On leaving Downing Street, Blair whimsically pined for a return to this more relaxed atmosphere. He said “it would be laughable to think that you can do that now, without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day ... things harden within minutes. I mean, you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.”

There is irony in Blair’s departing ‘wisdom’, because the New Labour project was more responsible than any other British administration for centralising political control, reducing the role of the cabinet, and being driven by the demands of the media agenda. Blair was the first prime minister to allow his media director to attend all cabinet meetings, the first to give his media director powers to instruct civil servants, and the first to write regularly for the tabloids.

In its first four-year term, the Blair administration issued 32,000 press releases. Labour’s approach to media relations is best summed up by the guidance of the Government press secretary, Alastair Campbell, to new recruits to Blair’s press office — “If we do not feed them, they eat us.”

There is nothing new in British politics about governments trying to manipulate the media. During World War I, Churchill suggested that government attitude to the press should be either “squash ’em or square ’em.”

Dean shows that New Labour’s approach to the media was very much to “square ’em”. Blair’s first appointment was not a policy chief, but a press chief.

By the time of Gordon Brown’s premiership, there were 3,000 press officers employed across government, with huge departments of communications within each Whitehall ministry, some occupying whole floors.

Dean convincingly argues that Labour’s obsession with media relations, and their unrelenting determination to “square” the press, had its roots in lessons learnt from harsh electoral reality. Some five years after Neil Kinnock was depicted by the Sun as turning off the lights in Britain, in 1992, Blair was endorsed on the front page of the same tabloid, on the day of the general election in 1997.

“The Sun backs Blair … the people need a leader with vision, purpose and courage, who can inspire them and fire their imagination” declared Britain’s best-selling tabloid. This was a ringing endorsement of such magnitude that it even puts in the ha’penny place the Irish Independent’s infamous “It’s payback time” front-page editorial from that same summer.

Labour’s assiduous wooing of national newspapers from the point that Blair became party leader paid electoral dividends. In the 1992 British general election, only three out of 10 national newspapers supported Labour, but, in the 1997 general election, six out of 10 supported Labour, with one (The Times) staying neutral and three offering only tepid support to the Tories.

In the run-up to the 1997 election, Campbell even boasted that Labour had, for the first time, both The Sun and The Mail onside. One of Dean’s main themes is that this support came at a real price. In particular, Dean shows, by way of a number of fascinating case studies, that Labour’s policies veered sharply to the right as the party strove, first, to gain support of the big-selling tabloids and, then, keep them on board.

Labour had arrived in Downing Street at a time when asylum was way down the list of public concerns. Only 3% of people polled suggested it was a significant issue, but, as the number of asylum cases began to rise — due to turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe — the tabloids began to focus on this issue.

The author chronicles the extraordinary pressure the Labour administration was under, from the popular press, to make it more difficult for people fleeing from persecution to obtain asylum in the UK. He lists a sample of headlines in the run-up to Blair’s policy announcement — “Now there’s one asylum claim every six minutes,” (Daily Mail); Britain “has more than EU share of refugees” (The Daily Telegraph); and “How ‘soft touch’ Britain tops the asylum league” (Daily Mail). In early 2003, The Sun launched its ‘Stop Asylum Madness’ campaign, which had quickly gathered one million names. That same year, The Express ran 22 front-page splashes, in a 31-day period, about asylum seekers.

Dean compellingly argues that policy-making was driven by focus groups, polls and the tabloid press. Éamon de Valera once famously said that all he had to do was look into his heart to know what policy the Irish people wanted.

Blair’s approach was more scientific. Labour’s focus groups probed everyone’s hearts and minds, while their extensive media operation was obsessive about ‘squaring’ the press. It may be hyperbole to suggest this amounts to democracy under attack, but Dean’s work is a compelling analysis of the complexities and, at times, cynicism of how policy has been shaped in modern Britain.

- Brian Murphy is completing a PhD in the School of History and Archives, UCD. He was a speech writer for two taoisigh .

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