So in this year of change another authoritarian, nepotistic, oppressive regime is on the rocks. MPs have taken up the fight for a genuinely free press with a systematic forensic attack on News Corporation’s misdemeanours, and in so doing have struck a blow for parliamentary democracy. That generations of politicians of all parties have been terrorised by tabloids only to cosy up to their editors and owners on every possible occasion reveals a variant of ‘Stockholm syndrome’ which is a matter more for psychological analysis than political comment.
Has the implosion of at least part of News International some wider political significance beyond the obvious issues of media concentration, and links between politicians, police and the press?
The recent period of press intimidation has had incalculable consequences not just on politicians but on policy. The political agenda of approximately 80% of the media has been largely unchallenged- borderline xenophobic euroscepticism, fawning support for US foreign policy and military intervention; anti-immigrant; anti-welfare; anti-redistribution; anti-prison reform; anti-health and safety legislation; and in favour of the most repressive security measures and of business untrammelled by regulation. The press barons have sought pre-emptive closing down of debate on all serious policy choices. Anyone straying outside the tabloid consensus is either dangerous, demented, disloyal or just plain ‘Red’.
Media bullying certainly worked with Labour. From the decision to use Europe as a bargaining chip in negotiating electoral support from News International, to ‘British jobs for British workers’, to ever more outlandishly punitive Criminal Justice Bills at practically each parliamentary session; and to the dropping of ‘social justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘redistribution’ from Labour’s lexicon- the pandering to the redtops has known almost no limits.
Of course there is nothing new in the ‘popular press’ being hostile to a progressive agenda. The difference has been that the politicians now roll over so easily. It is true that Britain, say, in the 1960s had more diverse media ownership; newspapers had fewer tools of intimidation at their disposal. And, equally, the 24/7 media poses greater strains on politicians than before.
But had this generation of politicians and this generation of media magnates been running things in the 1960s we would have had none of the civilised society reforms, we would have sent troops to Vietnam, we would still be hanging people and we would have remained an impotent satellite of the emergent European Union.
But surely there is a bigger point here. The media has presented itself as representative of the ‘centre ground’- the mythical magic spot where elections are decided. The Sun, the Mail, the Express and others trumpet themselves as the spokespersons for Middle England. They have convinced the politicians that their readers are of settled views- views settled by their proprietors- and that any challenge to their received wisdom will condemn heretics to political immolation.
In part this is just a gigantic bluff. There is no clear evidence that tabloid endorsements swing many votes at elections. And tabloids want to be seen to be backing winners. But there is no doubt that sustained press campaigns on issues can alter opinions. Public opinion is a not immobile; but just as it can be influenced by media campaigns so political leadership can also create shifts of the majority view. Those ‘civilised society’ reforms are now mostly accepted by voters. There is now little electoral mileage in calling for a return of the rope or flogging.
The new leadership of the Labour Party is constantly being lectured about winning elections from the centre. But should we simply accept that the centre-ground is where the Daily Mail or the Sun say it is? Isn’t political leadership trying to persuade people of one’s position rather than simply buying in to a catalogue of policies that the newspapers tell us have already been sanctioned by today’s equivalent of ‘Mondeo Man’ or ‘Worcester Woman’?
There is an outside chance that this government might not last the course but Labour in all probability has nearly four years to prepare for the next election. That’s surely enough time to develop some radical policy proposals, and engage and win the argument for them: and to withstand the inevitable counter information from sections of the press.
As an example, take defence. If Labour comes to the view that the renewal of Trident is contrary to Britain’s interest, irrelevant to modern defence needs and a colossal misuse of public expenditure it will certainly come up against a wave of jingoistic propaganda from certain press barons. But if calmly and doggedly Labour makes its case, using strong, objective arguments and marshalling support including from some more enlightened military experts, are we really to believe that it is impossible to win people over? Of course if we panic and backtrack at the first critical blast from the Daily Mail then we will have demonstrated our almost limitless pliability, and sent a strong signal that Labour’s still for turning.
Or take tax. Is it really so difficult to persuade electors that maintaining a reasonably high rate of taxation on top salaries is a price worth paying if we are to sustain quality public services? Some will remind us of course of John Smith’s ‘Shadow Budget’ in 1992; and others will be nervous about putting off the ‘aspirational’ classes’. The redtops will misrepresent the proposal and try to frighten off middle class voters. Do we run at the first sound of gunfire, or do we stand our ground and argue our case?
Are we incapable of tapping deep public resentment about the growing inequalities in Britain? Are we afraid of giving expression to the swirling fury about the costs of the banking crisis being borne by the lower paid? Public opinion is shifting on the social injustice in Britain today. By demonstrating that the most successful economies in Europe are the most equal, we can wrong foot both the coalition and our opponents in the press.
On Europe there is a long road to change public opinion. It is the area where the newspapers have been most successful in poisoning the debate. A daily diet of half-truths and misrepresentations for nearly twenty years, compounded by the pusillanimity of successive governments and a generally flat-footed response from Brussels, has turned opinion against not just the euro the EU itself. Now that the newspapers which led the charge have themselves been discredited, it may be possible to get a hearing from public opinion. People can understand that being on the outside of decision-making in the EU is detrimental to UK interests, and that a stronger Europe is necessary to give us, the British, a say in shaping our world of tomorrow. Any suggestion of a stronger pro-European message coming out of Labour will infuriate the Mail, the Express and the Sun. But now is precisely the best time to take them on.
Labour has so far a good ‘hacking crisis’. But it will reap long-term benefits only if it liberates itself from the thrall of newspaper editors and owners. This means more than refusing their hospitality- it means rejecting their politics. The permanent decline of the print media, the discrediting of a national press which had largely gone rotten, and the growing fragility of government leadership present a great opportunity for Labour. Above all it should put forward policies it believes in. And then put them forward with conviction, rather than always looking over their shoulders at the Murdochs, Brooks, Coulsons, Dacres and Desmonds of this world.
Waterloo, July 25th 2011