Saturday, 31 March 2012

Democracy under attack: 'Rupert Murdoch, 24th member of the cabinet'

This extended book review first appeared at Counterfire.

Malcolm Dean began researching his book about the relationship between press and politics several years ago, probing the ways in which the media in general, and newspapers in particular, influence British politics. As he was finishing the book, in July 2011, a crisis developed which vividly illuminated the numerous problems he was documenting. The hacking scandal meant that the book’s hard-hitting title (Democracy under Attack) and provocative cover (a shark, jaws dripping with blood, as a metaphor representing the press) would, by the time of publication, seem entirely uncontroversial. They might even appear to understate the case.

Dean’s thoroughly researched account of the impact the British press has made on evolving social policy - covering seven different areas, including asylum, health and poverty, with a chapter for each one - covers much wider territory than the specific issues brought up by the News International scandal. Towards the book’s end he explains the significance of the scandal and indicates how it might lead to some positive changes. This brings the analysis up to date. More importantly, though, the book puts that unfolding crisis for the Murdoch empire, and the political debates and multiple inquiries it has prompted, into a broader historical context.

The author’s central concern is the extent to which the press influences social policy, and the nature of this influence. His extensive experience in this field (he started working on The Guardian in 1969 and was for many years its social policy editor) means he is especially astute about changes over time. It also means he has intimate knowledge of the two themes of the book, the British press and social policy, and the complexities of how they are related.

The motivation for writing Democracy under Attack came from deep concern that the press, dominated by several national right wing papers, had increasingly (especially from the Blair era onwards) come to influence policy and public opinion. The whole British political class had apparently become preoccupied with PR, spin and appeasing the Daily Mail, rather than representing those who had elected them.

The Hackgate crisis exposed not only the ethically disgusting and commercially driven practices of the News of the World, but the extent to which politicians had subordinated themselves to the court of Murdoch and the whims of the right wing press more generally. It showed that democracy has been hollowed out, partly because politicians have long been craven to the hysterical headlines, scapegoating and conservative agenda of several national newspapers. Dean’s book documents numerous examples of this in practice, seeks common themes in how the press distorts politics, and traces the long term developments that got us here.

The subject matter might seem rather grim – I am thinking of the right wing press, but also of the social problems like drug dependency and child poverty documented - but this is mitigated by a lively writing style and many illuminating examples. As a pleasing bonus, in some chapters, we are treated to the witty cartoons of The Guardian’s Harry Venning and his ‘Clare in the Community’ strips.

There are grounds for hope in knowing that right wing distortion does not necessarily entirely shape public attitudes. Dean correctly states that three of his chapters, on law and order, drugs, and asylum, examine areas where the press has had an unmistakable and highly negative influence on both policy making and public opinion. However, even in these areas, there are examples of dominant ideologies being resisted.

It is widely thought that the beginnings of ‘New Labour’ government in 1997 mark perhaps a permanent shift in the relationship between politics and the press. While pointing out instances of continuity, Dean provides a wealth of substance to support this view. He quotes newly-elected Labour Party leader Tony Blair in 1994: ‘the only thing that matters now in this campaign is the media, the media, the media’ (p.3). When Blair became prime minister in 1997, his powerful director of communications, Alastair Campbell, told his press office staff: ‘If we do not feed them [the media], they eat us’ (p.4).

Lance Price, who became Campbell’s deputy, once referred to Rupert Murdoch as ‘the 24th member of the Cabinet’ (p.6). Blair’s team had demonstrated its desire to appease the press baron while still in opposition, dropping three important media reforms which had been in the 1992 election manifesto: ‘restrictions on foreign ownership of British media; a stricter privacy law to curb tabloid invasions; and moves to outlaw predatory pricing which would have stopped The Times’ price war that almost shut down The Independent and destabilised other broadsheets’ (p.6).

Media relations and opinion polling both became integral to government in the Blair era, rather than being merely secondary considerations. These two areas were connected because they both reflected a desire to tailor policy to prevailing opinion, whether actual public opinion or the often misleading impression of it created by right wing newspapers. They were linked to the pursuit of ‘electability’ and the notion that such a project depended entirely upon ditching anything vaguely left-wing, gravitating always to a mythical ‘centre ground’.

Dean reveals just how central PR and polling were to the Blair administration. Alastair Campbell attended all cabinet meetings; unprecedented for a media director. Blair himself wrote (or at least attached his name to) 150 articles in his first two years in Downing Street. He had weekly meetings with his pollster. In Blair’s first four years (1997-2001), his administration issued a staggering 32,000 press releases.

I do not think, however, that the author quite gets to grips with the contradictions in all this. It is important to note, for example, that the media offensive was not enough to offset growing disillusionment and disappointment with New Labour in office: the Labour vote fell substantially in 2001. It is also not nearly as simple as being a case of Blair and his ministers tailing the press or public opinion. They defied majority public opinion by invading Iraq in March 2003. On a host of other issues, government policy was to the right of majority opinion (though not, it is true, to the right of the bulk of the national press).

The politically important point here is that a number of other factors influenced the right wing positions adopted by successive Labour governments. Dean’s overwhelming focus on the role of the press runs the risk of obscuring these broader influences. It would be useful to examine New Labour’s politics in the context of the long-term rise of neoliberalism, the defeats for the labour movement of the 1980s, and the European-wide rightwards shift by social democracy.

One reason this matters is that we could, mistakenly, draw the conclusion that changes in media policy, from improving regulation to altering the rules governing ownership, will inevitably inoculate social democratic politicians against right wing social policy. Such improvements would, so this logic runs, stop left-of-centre politicians joining in with the baiting of asylum seekers, benefits claimants or other tabloid targets. While changes in the media could help, regrettably it is not this straightforward.

An interesting aspect of the book is the charting of the changing fortunes of the press in recent years, which is primarily a story of declining circulation. Dean describes the mainstream press as a ‘fatally wounded stag’, observing that ‘circulation of national newspapers dropped by almost a third between 1987 and 2007’ (p.46). In 2007-09 there was a further, more dramatic, decline of a quarter overall. Regional newspapers have suffered an equally severe long term decline, with scores of them folding.

The most outrageous and unpleasant examples of reactionary muck have often been connected to editors’ perception that they are good for sales, hoping to counteract this decline in sales. It is clear, for instance, that obsessive attention to asylum seekers by the Daily Express – 22 front pages in 31 days at one stage in 2003 – was influenced by the circulation spike whenever they indulged in such scapegoating.

This is not the main motivating factor behind a right wing agenda, but on certain issues, notably asylum and law and order, the press tends to appeal to widely held popular prejudices and anxieties. However, the chapters on those topics are also very sharp about how newspapers bear a lot of responsibility for the prejudices being widespread to begin with; they are not merely responding to public appetite, but rather shape that appetite. On these issues there is a three-way relationship between press, politicians and public opinion, with right wing papers tending to pull the centre of gravity to the right.

Dean observes that there is a profound contradiction in the modern press. This should, he says, be a golden age for journalism because access to information has never been so great, yet what he terms the ‘seven sins of journalists’ counteract this. On the positive side, the Freedom of Information Act has helped reveal otherwise hidden truths. The proliferation of reports and data about public services, as a result of inspections for example, has opened up new avenues for journalists. Finally, the role of the internet, through techniques like crowd-sourcing, is increasingly relevant.

Investigations, such as The Guardian’s pursuit of News International or the Telegraph’s extensive work on exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal, have indicated the positive use that national newspapers, with their considerable resources and access, can make of the unprecedented wealth of information available. Co-operation between mainstream media outlets and Wikileaks has brought to light important evidence that powerful forces would prefer remained in darkness.

Yet nobody could seriously claim, especially after the implosion of the country’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, that we are living through a golden age for the press. Dean’s ‘seven sins’ are the endemic problems in reporting and press coverage that point in the opposite direction. They are: distortion, ‘dumbing down’, being more interested in politics than policy, hunting in packs (group think), being too adversarial, being too readily duped, and concentrating on the negative (pp.341-388). This list is, I think, an accurate characterisation of what is wrong with great swathes of newspaper content, though it is a little frustrating that the author does not have any general framework for understanding these elements and why they are dominant. This would take us into closer consideration of ideology and the political economy of the media.

It is the excessive focus on the negative that Dean regards as the most corrosive of all. He is referring to the misrepresentation of areas like crime and asylum due to an almost exclusive focus on ‘bad news’, so that most people perceive crime as rising even when it is falling and grossly over-estimate how many asylum seekers enter Britain. Also important is the relentless drip-drip of negative stories about the state of public services. He quotes David Bell, a former chief inspector of schools, in 2005: ‘a lack of coverage of positive stories can create the impression that a system – in my case education – is in a perpetual state of crisis. This is simply not true’ (p.3).

Press distortions can have a profound effect on public perceptions. The Social Attitudes Survey in 2002/03 provided a classic illustration (p.347). The public believed that 44% of total social security spending was on unemployment benefits. The real figure was 6%. Over 50% goes to pensioners, yet most people in the survey thought it was much less.

Analysis of a survey looking at attitudes to NHS services reveals how these misperceptions are possible (p.348). The Ipsos/Mori survey in 2006 found fairly low satisfaction ratings for a range of services among the general public, including in-patient services (47%), walk-in centres (30%) and NHS Direct (36%). There was one striking exception: GP services scored 80%. Why the gap? In Malcolm Dean’s words: ‘This is the one service most of the public will have visited, so they can use their own experiences to evaluate it. For the other services, the public have to rely on press reports and hearsay’ (p.348).

What confirms this interpretation is the feedback from patients who have actually used those other services, with much higher satisfaction ratings: in-patient services (74%), walk-in centres (69%) and NHS Direct (71%). Dean shies away from developing a further conclusion: media distortion of the NHS and other areas of public service and the welfare state makes it easier for politicians to justify ‘reforming’ them. It plays an ideological role in support of cuts and privatisation. The level of opposition to current attempts at ‘reforming’ the NHS, indicate that this ideological project is not entirely successful.

In the matter of public attitudes towards asylum seekers, however, it is hard not to feel that right wing papers have largely (thankfully not entirely) prevailed. The chapter on asylum is the most disturbing, revealing a number of newspapers at their most vicious and dishonest. In 2003 the Sun launched its ‘Stop Asylum Madness’ campaign, which quickly collected a million names in support. Analysis at the time found the Mail and Express were even more obsessive in their focus on asylum seekers than the Sun: an example from the Express, ‘Asylum flood – immigration up fivefold in ten years’ (p.212).

A poll in 2003 identified the effect on popular perceptions. The British public thought Britain was receiving 23% of the world’s asylum seekers. The true figure was just under 2%. What is especially insightful about this chapter, though, is how the author dissects the relationship between press hysteria and government policy. One indication of the extent to which Tony Blair appeased the right wing press is the fact that ‘between 2001 and 2004 there was no subject, with the exception of Iraq, that took as much of Blair’s time – 50 meetings, some lasting three hours, over two years, according to Downing Street sources’ (p.216).

Finally, Dean outlines three specific recommendations for media reform, in the context of wanting a wider, deeper shift in the press and how the political class relates to it. These are reforms which have, in the wake of the Murdoch saga, become much more prominent and mainstream than just a year ago. His proposals are concerned with regulation (centred on the need for a far stronger replacement for the PCC), greater transparency in meetings between ministers and media executives, and stricter controls on media ownership (pp.395-7).

These reforms are of course insufficient, but can be considered a helpful start. The depth of the problems expertly documented in Democracy under Attack is such that a more far-reaching political challenge, to media barons and politicians alike, is required. Malcolm Dean’s book provides a wealth of evidence on what has gone wrong, with many insights into why it has happened, and some pointers to a different way of doing both media and politics.


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