30 May 2003 - 01 June 2003

The impact of the media on the politics of our time

Chair: Lord Birt

Over a beautiful sunny weekend at the end of May we met at Ditchley to discuss the impact of the media on the politics of our time.  We were fortunate in having a wide range of media experience around the table including representatives of print, broadcasting, public service and private channels together with politicians from both sides of the Atlantic.  Our discussions were ably guided by a chairman who had considerable experience of the media and who was now experiencing life on the other side of the divide.  Our discussions were dominated by the discussion in the Anglo-Saxon world.  Occasional observations from outside that community served to remind us that different conditions exist in some other countries.  We looked at the issue from the points of view of the “eternal triangle” – The Press, The Politicians and The Public.

In our opening discussions we looked at the general situation in the UK and North America where it was pointed out that the generally adversarial relationship between the press and politicians had succeeded in alienating most citizens.  This picture appeared to be confirmed by opinion polls where the public’s view of the trustworthiness of both press and politicians was low and the public’s disengagement from the formal political process was measured by increasing abstention from voting at elections.  A range of reasons were adduced for this from the professional media training of politicians and their attempts to manage the press to political activism on their  part by journalists.  The new media and web loggers (bloggers) who put their views directly to an increasingly e-literate public without the intermediation of the established press, were seen as alternative avenues for political expression.  A number of measures were suggested, mainly in a UK context, to ameliorate the situation and create confidence between the two sides.  These included daily on the record briefings published on TV, clear rules about unattributable quotes, a substantial Freedom of Information Act, the Press’s willingness to correct their own mistakes, clear separation of factual reporting and comment in the press and further thought about ownership of the press.  One participant suggested that, when absorbing the news, the public should be covered against inaccuracies and distortions in the same way as consumers were protected against flaws in other products.

In a closer look at the issues of main concern for the press we looked at some general developments.  In the US, old-style journalism associated with figures such as James Reston, had been changed by Vietnam, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement etc.  The assumption had become that politicians were mendacious and that the task of the press was to get behind their defences to discover the truth.  The same attitude was prevalent in the UK.  The development of “gotcha journalism” in which a politician was exposed either in some personal delinquency or misconduct, was noted.  Notwithstanding this general trend, it was suggested that in the US, journalists were still fairly respectful of the White House while in the UK their attitude was generally more contemptuous of politicians.

In looking at the commercial pressures on the press we ranged between the view that the only good newspaper was a profitable one to a more public service concept which we thought  was characteristic of major newspapers in the US, some of which were protected by family foundations.  It was suggested that in the UK the press operated in an intensely competitive and political market.  There was also a danger that major proprietors might seek to play a political role.  A participant commented that if the press tried to take over the role of the opposition in the UK, it would make the role of the official opposition increasingly difficult and pose the question of who exercised control over the press.

There seemed to be a general acceptance that public service broadcasting in the UK, exemplified by the BBC, acted as a “gold standard” against which private broadcasting channels could be measured.  Some US participants regretted that Congress had never sanctioned tax revenues for public service broadcasting in the USA and that the cost of raising revenue for such service amounted to an onerous 45 cents in every dollar.  Given this gloomy outlook some US participants hoped that the BBC, staffed by American journalists, would move into the US market.  Overall, it appeared to many of us that the quality and responsibility of many major US broadsheets stood in sharp contrast to the UK press, while the reverse held true for the broadcast media.

The BBC was not, however, exempt from critical comment.  Its coverage of the Iraq war was claimed to have been biased against military action and it was alleged to have been reluctant to address the threat of Islamic extremism.  These allegations were vigorously disputed, and most American participants were inclined to see the BBC’s coverage of the war as objective.  This led to a discussion of the presentation of the war in the US broadcast media.  Fox was thought to have had a strong patriotic bias while CNN troubled patriotic people.  One participant argued that a plethora of views was healthy and that there was nothing wrong in offering a particular point of view to a sector of the market which identified more naturally with that perspective.  In this context we looked at the effects of “rolling news” and the pressures generated by the need to report events as they occurred.  Checking sources and considered comment were thought to be casualties of this new development in broadcast media.  Some argued that in rolling news corrections of a sort were indeed issued as stories were changed in the light of new facts or circumstances.  Others maintained that the damage caused by the original inaccuracies remained as viewers might not necessarily see the later programmes.  Some of the journalists present referred to the practice of having an independent complaints procedure at Board level in their organisations to which members of the public could turn for redress.

We looked at regulation of the Press as well as at legislation to deregulate the media in the light of the legislation impending in the UK.  The chief complaint against the press, requiring further regulation, was thought by some to be their intrusion into the private lives of public figures.  British journalists argued, however, that the libel laws in the UK were too onerous for journalists investigating the public lives of public figures and that the same laws were not strong enough against those investigating the private lives of public figures.  There was no consensus on whether further curbs on press intrusion and investigation were desirable.  A public hearings system as in the US was suggested as one way of checking British politicians’ fitness for public office, or possibly a US style Sullivan protection for journalists investigating public lives which might be matched on the journalists part by forgoing the investigation of politicians’ private lives.  We asked ourselves what effect all this had on the calibre of those entering public life.  One or two of us argued that the effect was overstated.  President Bush’s past showed that private weakness was no bar to high office.  Others thought, at least in the UK where members of the executive had to be Members of Parliament, that the effect was considerable, not so much perhaps on the person directly concerned but on his family, which had resulted in a diminution in the quality of those entering public life.

Opinion was split on deregulation in the US.  Some argued that joint ownership of local TV and newspapers could have benefits, with the expertise of print reporters transferred to the screen.  Others doubted this and expressed concerns about concentration of ownership.  The same concern was expressed about the likely effects of the current draft legislation in the British Parliament.  In their view a loosening of the ownership criteria would not necessarily lead to greater plurality.  A successful media landscape was not a byproduct of a free market.  In response it was argued that there was a profound difference between the US and UK.  In the UK there would be regulation of content for the broadcast media.  In the UK there was also a marked difference in the credibility of the broadcast media with 87% of the audience believing what they heard or saw while only 14% believed what they read in the tabloids.

We also took a look at the phenomenon of web-loggers (bloggers).  The internet, by enabling e-mail and bloggers, seemed to many of us to have had a profound impact on both the media and politics.  One British national daily, we were told, now had a circulation of 400,000 copies but an engaged audience of some 9 million on the net.  These were people who monitored and interacted with various segments of the paper and with each other.  The editor’s symbolic position had changed from the top of the news tree to the centre of a disaggregated readers community.  Others pointed to the very rapid creation of powerful groups of like-minded people such as those seen in the fuel protests, the countryside march, protest against the war in Iraq etc as a new way of political expression and empowerment which bypassed both the normal media and formal political channels.  In a broad sense the initiative often now lay with the media.

When we looked at the role of the politicians we were advised first of all to “follow the money”.  Election campaigns for the US Congress typically needed $25,000 a day to finance them.  This money went on political advertisement on cable TV and other networks.  It was claimed that the interlocking interests of politicians seeking election and the media represented a powerful barrier to election finance reform.  The pseudo-adversarial relationship between the press and politicians had trivialised politics.  Political parties in the US had really become little more than fundraising organisations for Presidential candidates.  The main issue in the relationship between politicians and the press was, we thought, one of trust.  Politicians increasingly distrusted journalists who were thought to have their own agendas.  The Government had a duty to explain but should be given a chance to do so.  The use of “spin-doctors” or professional spokesmen was, however, seen by the press as an attempt at news management favourable to politicians.  And while the latter were rarely thought to be deliberately mendacious, they were often thought to omit information from their statements which would allow a different interpretation.  More sins of omission than commission, commented one participant.  While many of us thought that an attitude of healthy scepticism on the part of the press was in order, there was equally a feeling that mutual distrust, particularly in the UK, had gone too far.  In terms of the public discourse we thought that journalists should not approach politicians on a basis of plain disbelief nor with their primary concern to expose differences of view between senior members of the Government (“splits”).  It would also be helpful if the press made a much clearer distinction between the news they reported and their comments on it.  Politicians too could help themselves, some of us thought, by being more candid about the issues and options open to them.  Such openness had proved popular when practised by Senator Macain in his Presidential campaign, and had also earned him the respect of the media.  Ministers needed to engage voters in a language they understood, commented a British participant.  The Government should play it straight and the media play it fair.

Accountability was another big issue, we thought, between the press and politicians, with a major effect on the public.  Most of us were in agreement that the media’s job was to report and analyse, but not to campaign on its own behalf.  Holding politicians to account for sexual improprieties was thought to be a particular issue for the Anglo-Saxon press.  A number of us were in favour of placing limits on investigation into this aspect of politicians’ lives, but there was no general agreement on where such limits should lie.  It depended, commented one participant, on whether it was thought that a person who was promiscuous in his or her personal life was likely to be similarly flawed in their political judgements.  A few argued that journalists might, with benefit, be held to similar standards as those applied to politicians.  But, commented a US journalist, the habit of putting damaging personal information about rivals for office into the public domain was not confined to the press, it had now spread to politicians themselves in the USA.  Candidates for high office sometimes now hired private investigators to look into their own past lives to check whether they might be vulnerable to such tactics.  In considering the generally adversarial nature of the relationship between the press and politicians in the UK and USA, we were reminded of another world in Continental Europe where, commented a participant, politicians and leading journalists were sometimes thought by the public to be too close as members of a common establishment.  Our overall conclusion was that both the media and the politicians were jointly responsible for the present low esteem in which they were both held.  Both sides would have to move together if they were to raise that esteem and help to improve the public discourse.

When we widened our consideration of the press/politician relationship to include the third element, the public, whom both were ostensibly there to serve, many of us thought that something had gone seriously wrong.  It was argued that the electorates in many western countries were divided between a minority of political obsessives (not unlike those around the table at Ditchley, suggested someone uncharitably) and a majority who were disengaged from the debates which were typical of the Beltway/Westminster.  Young people were largely outside the formal political process.  This was not because the public did not care about the issues.  Anti-globalisation protests, environmental movements etc demonstrated the opposite.  In looking for a way in which the politicians and the public could reconnect we examined a number of possibilities.  Political parties should be more open to membership by a range of different groups.  Politicians might also be more open about difficulties and failure, journalists should act more responsibly and voters should accept that with their rights also came responsibilities.  Attempts might be made to get the formal news more into the popular culture.  Beyond these general propositions a range of specific suggestions were made including campaign finance reform, e-registration and e-voting, civics education and some integration of media education into the more traditional curriculum.  Devolution of power from the central government to local communities, if accompanied by devolution of finance too, was also thought to be an effective way of engaging local communities with issues of importance to them.  A plea was also made to move away from a predominantly male and unnecessarily adversarial way of conducting politics.  Without moves in these directions, it was argued, the public would continue to feel left out of the discussions between the media and politicians and would turn to alternative ways of pursuing their interests.  Politicians and the media needed to be aware how much public trust had already been destroyed.

In looking at the ground we had covered we noted a number of points.  Should we strive for an objective standard of truth in relation to any question or should we accept a plethora of polemical views?  Did market forces make it more difficult for political questions to be made understandable for the public?  Were the media distorting the picture to obtain audience figures and sales?  Perhaps the media needed to reflect on their power.  Overall the point was made that we all seemed “violently agreed” that neither the press nor the politicians were reaching their overarching goal of an inclusive and publicly comprehensible discourse about major political issues.  The truth, as one participant had expressed it, might look like hell and be unappealing to most parties, but an effort should be made to express it, even if it was unattainable.  Otherwise the danger would continue of a small circle of obsessives surrounded by an increasing circle of indifference.  While there was no silver bullet which could cure such a complex problem, perhaps meetings such as those at Ditchley could give rise to cautious hope that, with recognition of the scale of the problem, might come a will to make some of the necessary changes.

My thanks go to the Southern Center for International Studies as our partners for this conference and to all the other participants for making this an unpolemical and thoughtful conference.  My thanks also go to the chairman for his impartiality in steering our discussions.  This conference is the third in a series which included the Democratic Deficit, and Reform of Public Services where we have looked at current domestic issues which are high on the political agenda on either side of the Atlantic.  It is a complex set of problems to which Ditchley should return in the future.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression

Chairman:  Lord Birt

Strategy Adviser to the Prime Minister;  Director, Lynx Capital Ventures;  former Director-General, BBC

Dr Robert Rabinovitch 
President and CEO, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1999-);  Chair, Board of Governors, McGill University (1999-);  formerly:  Deputy Minister, Department of Communications (1982 85)

Dr Lykke Friis

Research Director, Danish Institute of International Affairs

Ms Carola Meyer

Editor, Cultural Department, Norddeutscher Rundfunk

Mr Gerard Baker

Associate Editor and Chief US Commentator, Financial Times
Mr Nik Gowing
Main presenter/anchor, BBC World (1996-);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Mr Mike Granatt CB
Head, Government Information and Communication Service
Mr Howell James CBE
Director, Brown Lloyd James Limited.  Formerly:  Political Secretary to the Prime Minister (1994-1997)
Ms Sian Jarvis
Communications Director, Department of Health
The Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport;  Member of Parliament (Labour), Dulwich and West Norwood (1997-) (Dulwich 1992-97)
Mr Martin Kettle
Chief leader writer and policy editor, the Guardian;  formerly:  Washington correspondent
Mr Andrew Knight
Editor, The Economist (1974-76);  Chief Executive Daily Telegraph (1986-89);  Chairman, News International (1990-95);  Director, News Corp (1991-);  Chairman, Jeswood Charitable Foundation (2003 );  Governor and Member, Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation (1982-)
Mr John Lloyd
Editor, The Financial Times magazine
Ms Melanie Phillips
Columnist, Daily Mail;  formerly columnist, Observer;  Sunday Times;  author
Lord Puttnam CBE
Film producer;  Chairman, Administrative Trust, 1999 Teaching Awards;  Chancellor, University of Sunderland;  Member, Educational Standards Task Force;  Chairman, Enigma Products Ltd (1978-)
Mr Joshua Rozenberg
Legal Editor, The Daily Telegraph (2000-);  formerly:  Legal and Constitutional Affairs Correspondent, BBC
Ms Helen Rumbelow
The Times
Mr Alan Rusbridger
The Guardian:  Editor (1995-)
Mr Clive Soley MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush (1997-);  Hammersmith North (1979-83);  Hammersmith (1983-97)
Mr Graeme Trayner
Consultant, Opinion Leader Research
The Rt Hon The Lord Windlesham CVO PC
Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford, (1989-2002);  Visiting Professor Public and International Affairs, Princeton University (2002-);  Managing Director ATV Network (1974-81);  Director, The Observer (1987-9);  Governor and Deputy Chairman, Council of Management, the Ditchley Foundation;  Board Member, the American Ditchley Foundation

Mr H Brandt Ayers

Chairman and Publisher, “The Anniston Star”;  commentator National Public Radio,  member:  board of directors, The Southern Center for International Studies;  member:  Council on Foreign Relations;  Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation
Ms Josephine Ayers
Director of Special Projects, “The Anniston Star”
Mr Daniel Balz
Washington Post
Dr Christopher Brown
Research Director and Latin America Specialist, Southern Center for International Studies
Senator Wyche Fowler
Chairman, Board of the Middle East Institute, Washington DC;  former:  Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Dean, Annenberg School for Communication and Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Lee W Huebner
Department of Communication Studies, Northwest University, Evanston, IL
Professor Loch K Johnson
Regents Professor, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia at Oxford
Mrs Julia Johnson White
Southern Center for International Studies:  Co-Founder, Vice President and Legal Counsel;  Producer of educational films
Mr Alex Jones
Director, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Harvard University
Dr Andrew Kavoori
Associate Professor, University of Georgia
Mr Axel Krause
Contributing editor, Europe Magazine, United Press International and TV5, (1997-);  Secretary General, Anglo-American Press Association of Paris (1993-);  formerly:  Corporate editor and economics correspondent, International Herald Tribune (1979-87)
Ms Judy Milestone
Former Senior Vice President, CNN
The Hon Robb L Pitts
Commissioner, Fulton County Board of Commissioners
Dr Samuel Popkin
Professor of Political Science, University of California
Mr Richard Reeves
Author;  formerly:  political correspondent, New York Times
Ms Gail F Sermersheim
Former Senior Vice President MBO
Mr Daniel Sreebny
Minister-Counselor, US Embassy, London
Dr Cedric Suzman
Vice President and Educational Program Director, The Southern Center for International Studies, Atlanta (1977-), and member, Board of Trustees (1988-)
Dr Adis Maria Vila
Vice President External Affairs, Miami-Dade Community College