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Blair takes swipe at the media

The World

The outgoing British premier says they give priority to scandal, not accuracy or objectivity.

June 13, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In a parting salvo at media that alternately defined and savaged his administration, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday accused journalists of abandoning accuracy and objectivity in favor of scandal and controversy on a scale that "literally overwhelms" public discourse.

Blair, who leaves office in two weeks, lamented the emergence of a supercharged atmosphere driven by 24-hour-a-day news technology and an emphasis on "impact" and "heat" in reporting that emphasizes "sensation above all else."

"We are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact," Blair said in a speech organized by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

"The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack," he said. "In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."

Blair's decade as prime minister has redefined the relationship between press and power in Britain in a way that until recent years appeared to work substantially in the government's favor. His administration in the early years dealt famously in buzzwords, photo opportunities and "messages" that helped create the overwhelmingly positive aura that enveloped the debut of the Labor Party government in 1997.

"Blair was the master manipulator of the press and, for 10 years, had virtually a free ride," said Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Evening Standard and onetime political editor of the Economist.

But the skilled media machine at Downing Street foundered over the war in Iraq and allegations that the government had exaggerated evidence of weapons of mass destruction used to justify dispatching British troops to the conflict.

The last few years of Blair's premiership have seen aggressive media investigations of a series of scandals, including allegations of cash paid for peerages and the government's decision in December to halt an investigation of possible payments made to Saudi Arabia in connection with an $86-billion contract for military aircraft and equipment.

"One is struck by the irony," said Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and a journalism professor at London's City University. "If you live by the spin, you'll die by the spin."

The Independent, which the prime minister singled out in his commentary as an example of "a viewspaper, not merely a newspaper," published an article on its website calling the speech "a mendacious attack by Mr. Blair to cover up his fatal misjudgment," a reference to the paper's long-standing critical coverage of the Iraq war.

From the beginning, Blair acknowledged "my own complicity" in helping to nurture the current state of affairs.

"We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labor to courting, assuaging and persuading the media," he said, a policy that "ran the risk of fueling the trends in communication that I am about to question."

But the diversion of audiences from traditional newspapers and evening news broadcasts to 24-hour cable news and the Internet created an environment in which media had to compete for attention and politicians were forced into a mode of constant reaction, he said.

"When I fought the 1997 election, just 10 years ago, we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon, and by the evening the agenda had already moved on," he said.

"I'm going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: A vast aspect of our jobs today, outside of the really major decisions -- as big as anything else -- is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms."

He accused the media of sacrificing accuracy and objectivity in a bid for attention and distinction. "Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact," he said. "News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light."

Nuances are lost in coverage that casts issues in black and white, he said. "A setback is a policy 'in tatters.' A criticism, a 'savage attack.' "

The result is that the relationship between public life and the media "is now damaged in a manner that requires repair," Blair said. "The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief.... It reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit, for our future."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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