08 June 1990 - 10 June 1990

Politics and the Media

Chair: The Rt Hon the Lord Windlesham CVO PC

A joint conference with The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, held at Ditchley

This was a lively conference and we were glad to welcome again to Ditchley our friends from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, as well as participants from the Federal Republic and Italy. Unfortunately, three participants from France had to cry off in the last fortnight; and it might have provided better balance if there had been more representation from the political side of the fence.

The differences in attitude, convention, law and language between the US and Britain were emphasised repeatedly. In the UK, it was claimed, government believed that the media, and the public, should be told only what was good for them, while in the US public officers, from the President down, acted on the assumption that everything was to be passed on unless there were strong grounds for keeping it confidential - the contrast exemplified in the Official Secrets Act in Britain and the Freedom of Information Act in the States. In the States, where the constitutional position and the separation of powers created favourable conditions, journalists could easily obtain leads from a variety of sources, both within the Administration, each department having its own line, and on the Hill. On the other hand, it was claimed, with some dissent, that this was more difficult in the UK, although the monolithic nature of government and parliament might be crumbling somewhat. The lobby system, as institutionalised in London, came in for strong criticism, especially the discrimination against foreign journalists and freelancers, though others defended it, on the grounds that it was a convenient method of disseminating news and comment, that the media in general valued it, and that in practice such lobbies existed wherever the media was active, including Washington, though not institutionalised as in London. The tension between politicians and journalists was inevitable and healthy. Politicians would always, quite properly, try to ensure that their policies were presented in the best light; and if the system of unattributable briefings was used to “give a spin” to a story, it was up to the good journalist to spot the fact and report it. It was even suggested that in this (as perhaps in the matter of official secrets and other limitations under which it was claimed the British media operated?) the journalists protested too much.

In Germany, it appeared, perhaps because of the nature of coalition government, access to politicians and relations between them and the media were closer to the situation in the US. There too, however, as in Britain, the courts could bar a programme or article, though the example quoted was on the motion of an individual citizen and not, as so often in Britain, on the motion of the government. In Britain the enactment of a bill of rights, or the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, could do much to mitigate the propensity of government to resort to legal sanctions.

One consequence of the American situation, however which some deprecated, was that in effect the fourth estate operated as the only real opposition: given the weakness of the party system, even a Congress of a different political complexion from the President operated as 500 or so individuals. It followed that to be effective a President had to woo and master the media. This fact, the power of money to buy television time, and the commercial exigencies of television programming which put time for news and comment at a premium, resulted in over-simplification, and often exclusion, of issues, and increasing emphasis on personalities. Indeed, negative campaigning, the attempt to traduce the opposing candidate, had largely replaced positive presentation of policies. The effect on the electoral process in the US was deplored by all, it seemed, though some argued that we should not despair, and that technological developments were so revolutionary that it would take years for politicians to adjust and leam to use the media properly.

A similar trend was detected in Europe, not only in the UK, especially where monopoly control of the media was growing, as in Italy - in contrast, it was claimed that regional monopolies in the US tended to produce better balanced television. Planned de-regulation of television in the UK was noted with foreboding, since increased competition was thought likely to drive out quality in pursuit of ratings. On the other hand, the British system of allocating broadcasting time to the parties during elections and the ban on paid TV advertising were seen as generally successful expedients, though few tears would be shed if party political broadcasts between elections disappeared. While the trend might be towards using allocated time more as an advertising slot than for serious presentation of policies, that was up to the parties themselves. The job of political consultants, it was claimed, was to encourage the parties to present their programmes in as palatable and assimilable way as possible, not to "manipulate", although in the process it could well be that they would try to shield their employers, especially incumbent employers, from the risks of public interrogation and debate so as to reduce the possibility of gaffes - hence the steering of leading politicians towards short, readily quotable statements, the ‘sound-bite’. For similar reasons a candidate with no background was often to be preferred to one with a public history which might include some skeletons.

There was some discussion of the relative importance of the printed press and broadcasting, with the greatest influence by far accorded to television. In the US, endorsement by a newspaper of a candidate was rare at the national level (the absence of truly national papers was noted, though with the possibility opened up, by satellite transmission, of printing in a number of centres, this could change), but could be important at local level. In the UK, where the party allegiances of papers were known, popular perceptions of those allegiances were confused and voting behaviour was probably not greatly affected. Opinion polls were influential, however, particularly perhaps in discouraging turn-out where the cause appeared either secure or hopeless; there was no feeling however in favour of restricting opinion polling (e.g. in the last few days before an election), though some thought that polling organisations should be more vigilant in monitoring reporting of polls. The almost universal practice of mixing fact, explanatory background and comment in modem journalism was noted, as was the possibility for those who wished, of acquiring actual texts from facsimile news services.

The conference also considered the relationship between the media and the individual, particularly the alleged right to privacy and the right of reply. In the US it seemed there was little support for either alleged right, and certainly none in the case of public figures, though individuals might feel more strongly in cases of a kind of which they saw themselves as potential victims. Good taste was more effective than regard for privacy as a criterion, but for public figures it seemed to be generally accepted that anything went

In the UK, where as a result of the excesses of the tabloid press public opinion and parliamentary opinion seemed to be moving in favour of some regulation - the conference was held on the eve of the publication of the Calcutt report on privacy - there was nonetheless a strong feeling that such regulation was best left to the media themselves, through such bodies as the Press Council, even though the latter was seen by some as toothless and often flouted by the press which set it up. Moreover, the difficulty of defining such concepts as privacy and the national interest or of devising effective but practicable sanctions inhibited statutory regulation. In general, it was felt that those who sought public office must accept intrusive scrutiny, especially where it was relevant to their fitness for office and Cobbett was quoted in support. Continental Europe was probably more reticent and tolerant at least in relation to sexual peccadilloes. The proposition that in Britain the relationship between the media, the government and the public was governed by a tacit deal that a degree of irresponsibility would be tolerated as the price for freedom of the press, but that if irresponsibility went beyond bounds, the government, whether responding to public or parliamentary pressure or not, might move to curb press freedom, was greeted with astonishment by American participants, and sad acknowledgement by some British.

The law of libel as a sanction was weak in the US. There was talk of obliging political leaders to accept legal responsibility for all negative attacks on their opponents, though the practical difficulties were clear. In the UK libel actions were too expensive and too unpredictable both as to result and as to damages. In Germany, libel suits could be brought, quite cheaply, and for modest damages, in the lower courts. Reform in the UK in that direction was desirable.

There were no specific conclusions beyond the general feeling that the quality of reporting and comment in the media, especially in television, tended to be on a downward path, that the power of money encouraged the process and that others should be wary of following the US in that direction, even if the freedom of the American press and its access to information were to be envied.

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

Conference Chairman: The Rt Hon the Lord Windlesham CVO PC
Principal, Brasenose College, Oxford; Director, W H Smith Group pic; a Governor, Vice Chairman of the Council of Management and Chairman of the Programme Committee, the Ditchley Foundation


The Rt Hon John Biffen MP

Member of Parliament (Conservative), Shropshire North
Mr Henry Brandon CBE
Columnist, New York Times World Syndicate; Guest Scholar, The Brookings Institution, Washington DC
Dr David Butler
Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford
Ms Liz Forgan
Director of Programmes, Channel Four Television
Mr Godfrey Hodgson
Foreign Editor, The Independent; author and broadcaster
Mr John W Last CBE
Head of Corporate Affairs, Littlewoods Organisation, Liverpool
Mr Peter Mandelson
Director of Campaigns and Communications, Labour Party
Mr Kenneth Morgan OBE
Director, The Press Council; Director: Journalists in Europe Ltd; Reuters Founder’s Share Co; member: British Committee, Journalists in Europe; Church of England General Synod Committee for Communications Press Panel; International Ombudsman Institute
Professor Ben Pimlott
Professor of Politics and Contemporary History, Birkbeck College, University of London; member, Fabian Society Executive
Professor Colin K Seymour-Ure
Professor of Government, University of Kent at Canterbury
Professor Hugh Stephenson
Professor of Journalism, City University; author
Mr Harvey Thomas
International Public Relations Consultant; Consultant Director of Presentation and Promotion, Conservative Party
Mr Robert Worcester
Chairman and Managing Director, Market and Opinion Research International (MORI); Consultant to The Times, Sunday Times and The Economist; Member, Programme Committee of the Ditchley Foundation
Sir Brian Young
Chairman, Christian Aid (1983-); member: Executive Committee, British Council of Churches; A Managing Trustee, Nuffield Foundation; Trustee: Lambeth Palace Library, Imperial War Museum

Herr Reinhard Beltzuege

Director, Public Relations Department, Federal Foreign Office, Bonn
Dr Karl Wilhelm Pohl
International lawyer, specialising in international media law; author; editor; Board Member, German National Trust
Herr Dietrich Schwarzkopf
Programme Director, German Television (ARD)

Count Paolo Filo della Torre

London Correspondent, La Repubblica

Mr R W Apple Jr

Chief Washington correspondent, New York Times
Mr John Callaway
Senior correspondent, WBBM-TV, Chicago; host, Chicago Tonight with John Callaway, Chicago Feedback; Board of Directors, William Benton Fellowships in Broadcast Journalism, University of Chicago
Dr Arthur Cyr
Vice President and Program Director, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
Mr David Gergen
Editor, US News and World Report
Mr Robert Helman
Partner, Mayer, Brown & Platt, Chicago; Board of Directors, No. Trust Corp., South Pacific Transport Co., VHA Insurance Services Co., Shorebank Corporation; member, Chicago Financial Planning Committee, Chicago Crime Commission; director & trustee, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Trustee, Aspen Institute
Dean Michael Janeway
Professor of Journalism and Dean, Medill School of Journalism, North-western University, Evanston; Senior associate, Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government
Mr Thomas Joyce
Senior Partner, Shearman & Sterling (United States Lawyers), London Office
Mr Frank Kruesi
Chief Policy Officer, Office of the Mayor, City of Chicago
Dr William J McCarter
President and General Manager, WTTW/Chicago
Mr Daniel Pedersen
London Bureau Head, Newsweek
Mr Philip H Power
Founder, Owner and Chairman of the Board, Suburban Communications Corporation; Chair, Michigan Job Training Coordinating Council; member, Advisory Council, the American Ditchley Foundation
Dr John E Rielly
President, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; Director of newly established Konrad Adenauer Fund for European Policy Studies
Dr William Scheider
Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC; contributing editor The Los Angeles Times, National Journal and The Atlantic
Mr M Jon Vondracek
Vice President, Programs and Public Communications, The Johnson Foundation, Racine, WI