Power and the press

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

The press has come to dwell in a twilight zone in which the certainties of old are gone and even the guide posts are badly damaged.

You cannot hope/To bribe or twist/Thank God! The British journalist/But seeing what/That man will do/Unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe in Punch

THE British press is under attack. In February, a British Parliamentary Committee report on the press censured it for dirty tricks and recommended tighter rules. Its severest censure was reserved for Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and its practice of stealing messages from the voicemail boxes of prominent people. Its reporter Clive Goodman was jailed only to receive a generous pay off from his former employer for unfair dismissal.

In the same month was published this thoroughly documented expose by Lance Price. With a first class academic background, he served on the BBC, joined 10 Downing Street as Alastair Campbell's Deputy in the press office and became the Labour Party's Director of Communications. His book The Spin Doctor's Diary was widely acclaimed. The present work is a worthy successor to James Margach's The Abuse of Power (1978), which covered the War between Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to James Callaghan. Lance Price's book, more detailed and thoughtful, covers the period from Lloyd George (1916) to Gordon Brown (2009). They all manipulated the press, none respected it: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Others were not more generous. A typical comment was Freedom of the press in Britain means freedom to print such of the proprietors' prejudices as the advertisers don't object to.

The press was not above flattering and manipulating men in power. It would be wrong to ignore its achievements, though; and wrong also, in any study of this symbiotic relationship, to ignore the impact of the Prime Ministers and the press on the quality of the political process. If we are to make the most of this rare period of genuine public interest in where power lies in Britain, the relationship between the media and politics cannot be ignored. If for no other reason than that so many people in both professions would prefer to keep their dealings with each other away from public scrutiny. Where Power Lies is an attempt to shed a little more light on the cloud-covered territory where the worlds of journalism and politics overlap. I have spent long enough criss-crossing that rocky terrain to know that it can never be mapped with complete accuracy. Anybody hoping for clear and unambiguous signposting should turn back now. It is a place where private conversations, off-the-record briefings, nods, winks and gestures of a less friendly nature are often the language of choice. But the territory is too important to be left to those of us who already know our way around.

Lance admits that he sinned. There's no doubt I contaminated my impartiality when I went to work at Number 10, and perhaps some of my integrity, too. But I also got a glimpse of how government really works, and of where power really lies, that not every journalist is privileged to see. He once agreed to a deal with a well-respected political editor. In return for some private information that he wanted, information that reflected badly on the Conservative Party, he would say in print that it had come from senior Tory sources. He would not merely hide where his information came from, he would lie about it. To my shame I agreed. There are, of course, journalists of great integrity just as there are politicians who have never abused the trust of their electors, but neither profession can claim an unblemished record for honesty.

The rules set by John Delane in 1852, reproduced in the journal, have been eroded by time. To maximise their commercial advantage and to exert the greatest political influence, journalists enter into all manner of secret alliances with politicians, including the Prime Minister of the day, surrendering any claim to genuine independence and often bolstering rather than scrutinising those in government or aspiring to government.

The press first enthusiastically builds up Prime Ministers and then mercilessly destroys them if it finds them wanting. The press is part of the political system; not its mere observer. If as voters we have a right to know what our elected representatives are up to and we do then as readers, viewers and listeners we have a right to know how those who inform us and influence our opinions behave also. Only then can we start to make sense of all the allegations and counter-allegations of spin, bullying and the illegitimate use of power and influence that both sides hurl at each other at regular intervals.

The book ends on a note of hope. Both sides have been humbled. The tactics of old no longer work. Power has been diffused. In the final analysis, as Joseph Pulitzer said: An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the rights and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.

Zamir Niazi adorned the press in Pakistan as an upright and fearless journalist utterly devoid of ambition. He became its honest chronicler with three books The Press in Chains (1986); The Press under Siege and The Web of Censorship (1994).

Zubeida Mustafa, herself a highly-respected journalist has ably revised and updated the first volume. This is a fitting tribute to a hero who remained true to his ideals until he breathed his last in 2004.

Decades ago the Natarajan brothers, Jagdish and Swaminathan, wrote their separate histories of the Indian press. It will be long before we have an updated chronicle comparable to Zamir Niazi's. We need one all the more now because the press has come to dwell in a twilight zone in which the certainties of old are gone, values have eroded, and even the guide posts are badly damaged.

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