Greasy Pole: Blair bites the hand that fed him
“It must have taken a considerable effort of amnesia for Blair to attack the very media he has courted and manipulated”
Among the associated discomforts of the event, the process of dying is said – by some who have yet to experience it – to activate a flash review of the more guilt-worthy episodes in one’s life. So was it that Tony Blair, as he clung on in the dying days of his prime ministership, became moved to look back on the style of, and his government’s relationship with, the media. Astonishing though this was it was made more so by the distortion which Blair applied to his recall of certain events and his disregard of others.
About a fortnight before he was due to hand over to Gordon Brown Blair revealed to the waiting world the fruits of his meditation about the media. They were not those of a satisfied, reassured man:
“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out… the media has become dangerous because of its desire for stories with “impact” that will allow it to stand apart from the rest of the media. This comes second to accuracy.”
The use of the word “feral” is interesting in that it does not chime in with the usual vocabulary of Blair’s oratory. More often it is a word resorted to in panic-inducing media reports of offences by youth gangs in the frenzied centres or hopeless estates of the cities. Used in that way it encourages a concept of crime as a social ailment more susceptible to cure by harsh, confining penalties – behaviour to be tough on – rather than as a doomed response to conditioned alienation – a cause to be tough on. It recalls the time when Blair was eagerly grasping for power, showing a budding skill in using the very media he now condemns to stimulate the kind of impulsive, ill-considered response to a social problem he judged would yield him the support he needed to realise his ambition.
Among those under the lash of Blair’s criticism there was one who cheerfully admitted to being a “feral beast”. Piers Morgan, during a long, and not always reputable, media career, was editor of the Daily Mirror for about nine years until May 2004. At that time he was sacked after the Mirror had published photographs, on its front page as well as inside, which seemed to be of British soldiers assaulting and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war. The Mirror hailed this as a world exclusive and there was an appropriate response, from the Chief of the General Staff (“…appalling conduct…contravenes the British Army’s high standards of conduct”); Downing Street (“We expect the highest standards of conduct from our forces in Iraq”); and the then Defence Minister (“…behaviour clearly unacceptable”). Rival newspapers were sourly envious while much of the world media clamoured to be allowed to publish the pictures. Without a doubt, this was a story with what Blair later called “impact”, designed to drive up circulation and thereby inflate profits. The problem – for Morgan and for the Mirror – was that the pictures had been faked. And a problem for Blair was that the Mirror and its embarrassing editor were Labour supporters; in the midst of the crisis over the photos, Blair sent a handwritten note to Morgan: “Thank you for the Mirror’s renewed support, it’s come at a good time”. Although the “renewed” support did not include backing the Iraq invasion, which Morgan described as “a senseless, illegal war”.
A media rival of Morgan, also thrown off an editor’s chair, is Andrew Marr, whose amiable, interesting face has recently invaded our homes with his TV series The History of Modern Britain (in which some of his conclusions are open to debate). One of the upward steps in Marr’s journalistic career saw him, in 1996, editor of the Independent, a newspaper apparently well-suited to his reputation as a centre left commentator on the seamy world of British politics. His design for the Independent was for it to be tough and serious, read by about 200,000 tough, serious people. Not, in other words, at all like Morgan’s Mirror. This promised to be hard going in the ruthless broadsheet circulation war in which the victor was likely to be, not the best written, most courageous, widest informing, newspaper but the one able to compete for sales through cutting its price or with promotions like give-away CDs. Most to be feared in this struggle was The Times which, backed by Murdoch’s riches, was able to sell below its market price.
At the time the Independent was almost half owned by the Mirror Group, which put it under the influence of the odious David Montgomery, who was himself struggling to resuscitate his employable appeal to newspaper proprietors after being fired by Murdoch in response to a disastrous launching of Today. Montgomery’s vision of the Independent was very different from that of Marr; he saw it as a kind of yuppie version of the Daily Mirror, appealing to Rolex-wearing, Porsche-driving, “aspirational” (another word in present favour with New Labour) people. This style was supposed to raise productivity through savage budget cuts and sacking a host of people, especially those whose function was to report the news as distinct from composing a column about those “interesting” people. Marr did not see this as the way out for the Independent which was why he had to go, although he did have the consolation of the staff giving him a send-off which included the honour of “banging out” – an old ritual involving the wielding of printers’ hammers. In fact, soon after being sacked Marr was enticed back but it was not long before he finally left.
Like Morgan, Marr is no blind supporter of Blair and his party. In his book My Trade he comments on Labour’s “sophisticated, endless media strategy” and its “ruthless discipline on its main figures”. Tony Blair, he writes was “adept at telling people what they wanted to hear…Tough on crime with the Daily Mail; tough on the causes of crime with the Guardian” . And this was before New Labour had got into power. One of Marr’s conclusions is that the party’s “relationship with rich, and sometimes dodgy, characters was no purer than the Tories’ had been in the bad old days of ‘sleaze’ “. Clearly, it must have taken a considerable effort of amnesia for Blair to attack the very media he has courted and manipulated, sucking up to Murdoch and his rags, playing on the neuroses of Daily Mail addicts. The media reflects the society it operates in, poisoned by the reality that its first regard must be for sales and profits, a society where feral beasts roam because only the most savage survive.