Politicians are not mere pawns in the hands of journalists

Understandably the Leveson Inquiry has concentrated on the misdeeds of journalists and the behaviour of newspaper owners. However, the appearance of a series of figures this week at Leveson could – indeed should – have highlighted how often the power lies with politicians, not the media. We had three figures appear who all, in their own very different ways, showed that despite all the talk of politicians been cowed by the media, it is far from uncommon for politicians to have far too much power over the media.

Gordon BrownFigure one: Gordon Brown. I’ve often asked Labour Party and civil service figures quite why it was that so many people, not only outside but inside the Labour Party, were highly critical of Gordon Brown and yet then he was elected party leader unopposed. The answers they give me, some based on first hand experience, mirror what the better journalists of the era reported: many people were scared, intimidated or just plain put off by seeing what Team Brown did to its opponents through briefings to the press that could be at best distorted and at worst deceitful.

Far too often Team Brown were able to beat up on their opponents or possible rivals by getting stories run in the media that should have shamed any media outlet even half-interested in presenting honest and accurate coverage. Yes, the media deserve criticism for that – but the problem was as much the power Team Brown was able to exercise over the media, helped by competitive journalists eagerly chasing stories, tightness of budgets seeing journalists looking for the easy story rather than digging out the truth, and by the combination of media non-regulation and expensive to use laws that meant the victims of such ‘news’ usually had little redress.

Figure two: John Major. The former Prime Minister, and also the man who nearly drove the New Statesman into bankruptcy in a libel action over a story reporting that there were rumours about his private life. Never mind that the New Statesman wasn’t saying the rumours were true, but was simply reporting on the facts of their existence. Never mind that what we have since learned from Edwina Currie makes John Major’s claimed outrage over the reporting of rumours of him being an adulterer look rather different. The fact is that he nearly drove a national magazine out of business by targeting not only the magazine but its printers, wholesalers and distributors in a broad and expensive legal action.

You can still have a lively debate about the rights or wrongs of that magazine’s story, but for a politician to nearly close a national magazine (and one in rather better health than it is today!) is again a major display of politician power over the media even if one that incremental changes to libel laws has altered.

Figure three: Nick Clegg. In his case, the power was not his, but was of others. The Conservative Party to be precise. As Phil Cowley has reported the barrage of negative stories about Nick Clegg on the morning of the second TV debate in 2010 was planted by the Conservative Party: “All but one of the stories to feature on newspaper front pages on the day of the second TV debate came from Conservative sources.”

That is remarkably sweeping influence for a political party to secure, dominating the front pages of national newspapers with stories provided by it – and all published without giving away their origins. What was presented as spontaneous independent journalistic research was in fact a coordinated put up job by political opponents.

Again, journalists and their editors deserve criticism for taking the stories en masse and running them without crediting their origins or even properly questioning their validity. But this isn’t just a story about how the media behaves, once again it is also a story about how at times those in politics have far too much power over what appears in the media.

But that, alas, is a story Leveson doesn’t appear to want to know about.

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Jeanette Aron 15th Jun '12 - 8:38am

    Are you talking about politicians at every level from grassroots up or just those at Westminster Mark? The newspapers & journalists should take responsibility for what they print. They must make sure their stories can be validated when the effect they have impacts and influences peoples lives in an adverse way and this applies to our politicians as well. Both have that responsibility and one should not be controlling the other with either power or money. This corrupts both parties in the eyes of the public and overshadows any good that others are trying to do in their work in public service.

  • Michael Clements 15th Jun '12 - 9:46am

    The relationship between press and parliament has been exposed as unhealthy: it has to be corrected but how? Outright censorship is a non-starter but an obligatory right of reply would be in line with democratic principles. We already have party political broadcasts in the visual media (television) so perhaps these or something similar should be introduced to the written media (newspapers)

  • Ah, honest John Major – the man who prorogued parliament in order to shelve the Downey report (as was hinted at in his autobiography), a report which eventually found compelling evidence that Conservative MPs were taking cash for questions. Politicians, don’tcha love ’em?
    Incidentally, David Aaronovitch has endorsed the opinions of several young voters who were hugely impressed by the performance at the Leveson inquiry of somebody they had never heard of. Apparently, it was mostly down to John Major’s glasses…..any Liberal Democrat MPs got a pair?

  • I think broadcast media is getting let off very lightly in all of this Leveson business. The focus is always on the power of the press but what about how the press influences the broadcast media and its agenda. Now this might be more subtle but all the broadcasters seem to follow an agenda set by the newspapers these days. And the broadcasters in terms of reaching the masses are far more effective than any newspaper is. So if a story breaks in the Daily Mail or Observer and is parrotted over and over and over again on BBC, ITV or Sky its impact on the individuals, organisations involved and upon public opinion and perception is magnified 10 times over. There are also pretty power people within the major broadcast organisations making vital decisions day in day out about what will or won’t be broadcast and when and how party leaders can be interviewed or not. Who are these people? Why are they making these particular decisions which in turn influence the way we all think? Until we get proper political plurality and debate across our media (and i mean all media) we will not actually live in that wonderful active democracy we all aspire to be part of.

  • sorry above should read…’there are also pretty powerful people within the broadcast organisations’ NOT ;there are also pretty power….

  • @Ashley
    You’ve chosen quite a good day to make your point. Many people will have seen the front page of today’s Mail on Sunday (it’s best to compare a Sunday paper against The Observer): ‘Leveson’s Threat to Quit over Meddling Minister”, which is apparently not true. Although a call was indeed made back in February to the Cabinet Secretary about Michael Gove’s criticism at a press gallery lunch , the judge’s resignation was apparently never mentioned.
    By tonight the bulletins will have changed; but virtually everyone who has seen, heard or or only glanced at the headline will have believed “these people” – the people who feed the parrots, as you said!

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