McTernan on politics

The relationship between the media and politics generates deep
interest and passionate debate. Week in, week out there are
flashpoints which can become talking points. Margaret Hodge,
minister for children, is just the latest member of the Blair
government to feel the heat of a press campaign for her
resignation. She is a tough and capable operator and, backed by the
prime minister and education secretary, she is likely to stay. In
doing so she will buck the trend of recent years which has seen,
among others, Stephen Byers driven from office and Estelle Morris
bowing out under a pressure that she found had become intolerable.
Tony Blair came to office vowing that he would not allow the press
to pick and choose his ministerial team. Labour believed that John
Major had made a huge mistake in bowing to such pressure and that
it weakened his premiership – from David Mellor to Tim Yeo, as soon
as a minister got the full backing of the prime minister you knew
they were doomed. But as Labour’s term in office has proceeded it
has proved almost impossible to defy the power of the press – once
the pack have fastened their teeth into a minister they normally
get their sacrifice.

Whatever one feels about individual cases few can feel relaxed
about the ability of the fourth estate to dictate – in effect – to
elected governments. It is ultimately the responsibility of the
electorate to hold ministers to account. The role that the press,
in particular, have taken on – of judge, jury and executioner – is
one that profoundly distorts accountability. Politicians start to
dedicate themselves to addressing and satisfying a limited number
of political correspondents and editors rather than the public at
large. Both sides will argue that their conduct is in the public
interest. Politicians see the mass media as a fleet of flexible
vehicles through which they can deliver their message, and
journalists contend that they represent the views of ordinary

In reality, what is going on is a private conversation between
fewer than a thousand people in the country – politicians,
journalists and commentators – which excludes the voices and
concerns of the public. Where will this all lead us? On the one
hand there is abstentionism – falling turnout at elections is
matched by declining newspaper circulations. On the other, there is
the proliferation of alternative channels of communicating news.
The internet has allowed a plurality of voices and a genuine
contest of perspectives. And as political campaigning via the net
takes off – look at the success of Howard Dean’s in raising money and communicating – the
world of politics and the media is being changed utterly.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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