Blair is right too

First Bush. Now Blair. What is happening to the world?

Actually, the feigned surprise could be considered disingenuous. This author does not generally perceive politicians as knaves or fools. Mostly, they are decent and intelligent people trying to do what they think is best. Of course there is sometimes corruption and incompetence, but most of the many failings of government can be attributed not to individual failings but to the intellectual climate, both in shaping politicians' false conceptions of appropriate ends and means, and (perhaps more importantly) in shaping the public perceptions that they have to satisfy. What is surprising is not that these people have shown their intelligence, but that they have used that intelligence to reach unpopular and unconventional conclusions, and moreover that they have felt able to go public with them. What a pity that politicians with the freedom of not seeking re-election are not reported more often.

(It is this, by the way, and not whether you agree with what he did, that makes Blair's valedictory excuse - "I did what I thought was right" - so feeble and irrelevant. It is outcomes and not intentions that count.)

Anyway, what Mr Blair is right about is a decent chunk of his analysis of the role and behaviour of the modern media. Not in the regulatory solution at which (as so often) he hints. But in his assessment that there is a problem.

The media have said sayonara to subtlety, dispensed with detail, kissed goodbye to considered analysis. Everything must be immediate and black-and-white. In echoes of Hollywood, there must be "good guys" and "bad guys", a very simple plot, and two-dimensional characterization.

That is not to reject the notion of right and wrong answers. This blog believes emphatically that alternative philosophies and solutions are not just different, equally-valid opinions and approaches, but better or worse, more or less valid, opinions and approaches. We are not moral and intellectual relativists.

But we also believe that the truth of a story is unlikely to be apparent immediately, without consideration. And yet 24-hour news forces immediate assessment. The reduction of the opportunities to break stories forces the traditional media to distinguish their contribution through opinion and stance, which must themselves be decided on within hours. In reality, it might take days, weeks or months to understand what happened or what is proposed, and one can scarcely do useful analysis of why it happened or the merits of what is proposed without understanding the objective details first. In medialand, there is not time to wait for that understanding. So one must rely on what comes easily to hand - padding out the incomplete details with assumptions relying on personal prejudices.

There was a nice example last week. The Institute of Physics held a debate between what the media might describe as global warming "sceptics" and (if they were inclined to balance of caricature) "alarmists". Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT spoke for the sceptics and Professor Alan Thorpe of NERC for the alarmists. Michael Meacher chaired. Generous time was allotted for each speaker's presentation, so they were able to address the detailed arguments in a way that is rarely done in a public forum.

What came out most strongly from both speakers, and from other interventions, was the uncertainty. Neither was claiming to have the answers or that the debate was over. Their assessments of the likelihoods and the balance of risks existed at different points on the spectrum of probability, but not polls apart, and not without the possibility of adjustment. The same can be said for most other experts in this field - they will argue passionately about the merits of various analyses, but there is no suggestion that the issue is settled.

Extraordinarily, given his past position on climate change, and to his great credit, this was the point that Michael Meacher chose to emphasise in his summation. He even admitted, whilst affirming his commitment to the precautionary principle (OK, so he's not perfect), that he was surprised at the extent of the uncertainty. One of the experts in the audience (a moderate alarmist, if one had to generalize) observed privately, with a little contempt, that it was sad that he was unaware of the extent of the uncertainty, given his long interest in the issue. But Mr Meacher having demonstrated that he has an open-mind, and Ministers being dependent on the information that is provided to them by civil servants, lobbyists and the media, one has to ask whether it was the fault of the politician, or of the people who supplied him with information, that he had never until then been exposed to the extent of the uncertainty felt by both sides in the issue. Perhaps a bit of both, but anyway there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents....

The attendance list of the event, which included many of the great and the good on this issue, contained journalists from the BBC, ITN, The Independent and The Observer. But has there been any reporting of the event or this conclusion? Not as far as I can see. Has there even been any sign of a change in the black-and-white way that this issue is reported? Again, not apparently. The BBC, Independent and Guardian stable papers have carried several stories since then that have assumed as strongly as ever that man-made global warming is a done deal. Their gut reactions and prejudice remain unchallenged by this more complex reality. The easiest way to deal with something that challenges the assumptions on which they rely to paint a simple and immediate story on environmental subjects, is to ignore it.

In those circumstances, can we expect to see Mr Meacher speaking up in public for a more balanced approach on this issue? Can we expect less draconian, more risk-based options to be put forward by politicians and given serious consideration? Not in a month of sundays. In the interests of dramatizing a story to make good copy, the media make it impossible to have serious public discussion of, and proportionate, principled action on the issue.

The assumption must be that the public is too stupid to understand these subtleties. Yet personal experience suggests that most people appreciate intuitively that this is a difficult, technical, grey issue, on which the science is still developing, unless they have been brainwashed by the simplistic, blinkered version peddled by many of Hayek's professional second-hand dealers in ideas (e.g. journalists and teachers). They may want clear leadership, but that is not the same thing as caricaturing the issues and promoting reactionary solutions. The media may be giving people what they want, but it is not because people want half-truths and blinkered views. People want entertaining, so they get half-truths because the media do not have the wit, or (more kindly) do not give themselves the time, to make the subtleties of reality entertaining.

The answer, of course, is not to rely on the immediate media - the 24-hour news, daily newspapers, websites and blogs - for your information on the world. So what are you reading this for?


"...what Mr Blair is right about is a decent chunk of his analysis of the role and behaviour of the modern media." 

I agree, but no PM has ever taken advantage of the role and behaviour of the media quite like Tony Blair did all the way back in 1994 and right through to the current day.  The media made new labour what it is and now new labour must pay the consquence.  You live by the sword you die by the sword.  I have little sympathy for either Blair for feeling this way nor the media for its "shock horror" reaction.  For Blair knows, deep down, that he manipulated the media for his own gains and benefitted greatly from their simplitistic and sound bite reporting and the media too know, deep down I'm sure, that they are making the news as entertaining as possible with a high priority put on selling copies/getting viewers and that may mean not giving the whole, balanced story.  It is laughable that both sides are now taking this "holy than thou" attitude.

And I agree with you (let's form a mutual appreciation society). But I don't think the fact that Blair is guilty should exculpate the media in any way, nor us, the consumers whose demand has driven reporting in this direction. It is highly predictable that the media and the other political parties will attempt to turn the story around to be about Blair, and I don't think we should let them get away with it. This would be an opportunity to have a real look at our shallowness, if only we weren't dependant on the peddlers of shallowness to report the outcome of that inspection.

I have to say, I wholeheartedly oppose a regulatory solution, but I haven't got much of an alternative to offer. Never a strong position. Sounds like I've put myself in the dreadful "Something must be done" camp on this one....

Surprisingly, maybe, but I am going to be even more "libertarian" about this one than you, it seems.  I believe it is up to the media themselves to regulate themselves and there should be under no circumstances any interferance from government on this.  I strongly believe that the media is the best weapon to keeping governments in check (far better than the Tories have been over the last ten years).  It is up to them and the consumers to up the ante. 

We have to face it, not everybody cares about politics and so they want to buy papers that report on Big brother and David Beckham and with that they get a few headlines on current affairs thrown in - dangerous, but better than nothing?  Those of us who want to get know more can get more in depth analysis from other sources.  The material is out there, but it is not main stream for a reason and no-one can force that. Having said that, the papers and media do have responsibility, which they could certainly live up to better, to inform us better and more accurately - and give a more balanced view.  The best way they will do this is through debate and awareness - so Blair can be congratulated for getting the coverage.  Unfortunately, I can not help think he is only saying this because of the lack of support he had over Iraq - support he may well have taken for granted if the media backed him, because the Tories certainly wouldn't have stood up to him.  Right speech, wrong man.

As libertarian, perhaps, but hopefully not more so (what are you, an anarchist Wink?). I don't want regulation any more than you do - that's why I said I was wholeheartedly opposed to it. But I don't believe the media will self-regulate either. That leaves me with nothing - not suggesting regulation, but not believing things will get better without things getting so bad that there is a reaction. And will people realize it's got bad, given where they take their views from?

I take the appetite for Beckham and BB stories as clear evidence that our educational standards have not been improving, but not in any way reprehensible of the press to give the public what they want in that regard (providing they respect the individual liberties of the celebrities). It's only the political reporting I am worried about, and yes, I would say nothing would be better than half-assed reporting, particularly if it's there supposedly for people's own good and not because they want it. But only if it were self-imposed discipline by the press. Constraints imposed from above would be disastrous.

The trouble with saying "right speech, wrong man" is: would the right man have made it? If you hadn't had a run-in with the press, would you go out of your way to alienate them? Blair's motives may be complex and compromised, but we should be grateful that someone visible has said this. 

I have given this some careful thought and still not managed to come up with a satisfactory solution - the problem is far more complex than anyone of the below statements that it seems each key stakeholder seems to use as the basis for their argument:

"Politicians get the media they deserve"

"The public get the politicians they deserve"

"The public get the media they deserve"

It's a little chicken and egg as far as I can make out.

You're right though, maybe Blair is best positioned to make this sort of speech - but I still question his motives. He wasn't complaining about the "viewpapers" style Murdoch was putting accross in 1997. Maybe education is the key - but that is the slow road to change.

An illustration why the media can not be entirely to blame for this one - In the space of a few days last year Charles Clarke lost 1100 foreign prisoners, Patricia Hewitt was booed by a load of nurses for her latest bout of incompetence yet the papers were full of John Prescott's affair. Why - because it sells more papers.  You can't blame them really.  Check out Boris's take on it this week -

Your previous comment was bang on the money. Unlike Boris.