Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

John Lloyd, currently the editor of the Financial Times Magazine, resigned as associate editor of the New Statesman in April 2003. His reasons for leaving were published in a ‘farewell article’, in which he criticised ‘a large part of the British Left’ for its opposition to the war in Iraq, described the Statesman as ‘a sort of upmarket version of the Daily Mirror’, and concluded that because ‘the NS believes that Blair and the US are the problem, not the solution,’ it was ‘time to recognise that Blairites like me should not appear regularly in its pages’.

In his new book, What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (Constable, £12.99), Lloyd broadens his argument to attack the entire British media, though particularly the BBC, expressing the view that ‘journalism in this country could be one of the causes of social malaise because of its aggression towards those in power in civil society.’ Many of Lloyd’s criticisms of the BBC are hard to disagree with – a wearisome focus on personality and celebrity, a deficit of serious current affairs and arts programming – but the pressures of competing with commercial TV for ratings in order to justify the licence fee are not, pace Lloyd, entirely of the BBC’s making.

The rudeness and insubordination of the media, he says, are part of ‘the well-discussed decline in public manners and deference, which politicians find unnerving – though in which many continue to indulge, or to acquiesce, when in opposition’. This sad shake of the head segues effortlessly into mention of poor persecuted Peter Mandelson, who has suffered so terribly at the hands of a remorseless and unforgiving press. ‘The standards of manners and courtesy have dropped,’ Mandelson told Lloyd (‘in his rooms in the Commons’), ‘there’s a lack of any kind of respect for achievement and status.’ As if his status made it more rather than less acceptable for him to borrow money from Geoffrey Robinson without declaring it, or to put in a word at the Home Office to help Srichand Hinduja get a passport. Readers might be forgiven at times for thinking that a more accurate title for the book would have been ‘How the Media Are Being Unfair to Our Politicians’. Lloyd contends, however, that the contempt and distrust journalists display towards politicians are a profound threat to democracy.

Politicians are hardly powerless in the face of media attack, even without resorting to a public inquiry. If someone prints lies about you, you can sue them for libel: it is then up to the press to prove that what they have said is true. (MPs, on the other hand, can say pretty much anything they like, if they say it in Parliament: during the Kosovo campaign, Tony Blair accused John Simpson of reporting for the BBC ‘under the instruction and guidance of Serbian authorities’. Had the prime minister ‘repeated that outside the privilege of the Commons,’ Simpson wrote in his autobiography, which Lloyd quotes, ‘I would sue him and win.’) In two of the most memorable libel cases of the last twenty years, Jeffrey Archer v. ‘Daily Star’ and Jonathan Aitken v. ‘Guardian’ and Granada, both politicians committed perjury, Aitken even cajoling his 17-year-old daughter to perjure herself, too.

Characteristically, Lloyd reinterprets two famous cases of political misdemeanour as prototypes of media disrespect, or ‘self-delusion’ as he calls it, in Britain and the United States: respectively, the Profumo affair and Watergate. Funny that. After all, the editor of Private Eye wasn’t the one sleeping with the girlfriend of a Russian diplomat and lying to the House of Commons about it (a reason for resigning, once upon a time); Woodward and Bernstein weren’t the ones breaking into Democrat headquarters, planting bugs and stealing files.

When Alain Juppé (or ‘Juppe’, as Lloyd calls him) was found guilty of dodgy dealing, he was widely expected to retire from politics as he had promised to before judgment was handed down (he was given an eight-month suspended sentence). Juppé announced his response to this judgment on 3 February this year on the 8 o’clock evening news on TF1, a private TV channel. France 2, a state-owned channel, broadcasts its news at the same time, and gambled on Juppé’s resigning. When he announced instead his intention to appeal the decision and meanwhile continue serving both as a parliamentary deputy and as mayor of Bordeaux, France 2 had to fudge their story. Olivier Mazerolle, the director of the channel, resigned; David Pujadas, the news anchorman, was suspended for two weeks: journalists at the station had threatened to strike unless they went. In Lloyd’s account, bizarrely, the scandal of Juppé’s volte face is of interest only to the extent that it provides the context for a story intended to demonstrate the integrity of the French press by comparison with the British: the chiefs of French TV stations resign under pressure from their journalists; in Britain, it takes the opinion of a retired judge to get them to go. If Lloyd’s thesis is correct, then French politics should benefit from the higher standards of their media. Hmm. Maybe not French politics: just French politicians.

Predictably enough, Lloyd takes as the starting point for his criticisms of the British media the allegations made against the government by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme at 6.07 a.m. on 29 May 2003. (Lloyd refers to Gilligan’s story as the ‘original’ report, as if what went before – you know, the invasion of Iraq, the intelligence dossier justifying the invasion etc – weren’t relevant.) Gilligan’s report was bad journalism, and was exposed as such by the Hutton Inquiry. So he lost his job. Fair enough. Compare that with the experience of Tony Blair, who knowingly or otherwise misled the country into war. (He has now admitted that ‘Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction may never be found’ – implying that, however untraceable, such weapons nonetheless exist.) He is still – in case you hadn’t noticed – prime minister.

In a parallel incident, when the Mirror’s photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners proved to be fake, Piers Morgan lost his job as editor of the paper. Printing those pictures was, for all sorts of reasons, bad journalism – the most damaging consequence of which was to deflect attention from the actual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers as documented by the Red Cross, abuse that took place on Geoff Hoon’s watch. Yet Hoon, already lucky to have survived the Hutton Inquiry, is still running the Ministry of Defence.

It is baffling that Lloyd considers the professional failings of journalists to be more severe than those of politicians. ‘The clash between "pure” media and "grubby” politics is one which all media cultures use to their advantage,’ he writes, meaning that the media like to misrepresent the clash in those terms. He, on the other hand, seems to believe that a certain amount of grubbiness in politics is only to be expected and tolerated. Is it that journalists – Lloyd is one himself, don’t forget – need higher standards because they’re more important, more powerful, than politicians? Perhaps the charge of self-delusion isn’t so far off the mark.