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The feral beast

Martin Moore
10 February 2008

"We are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact" Tony Blair said before stepping down last summer. "Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today... and they will tell you the same. People don't speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to."

These are serious charges, but are they true? Unfortunately, since they were made by a Prime Minister famed for manipulating the media, they have not yet been properly addressed.

For this reason the Media Standards Trust and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism are organising a series of special debates - the first of which was held at the end of last year - about the media and public life.

We invited four senior figures from public life - to represent the church, the military, the civil service, and the public - and asked them to respond to Blair's charges.

Tim Livesey - the Archbishop of Canterbury's head of public affairs, General Sir Rupert Smith - who served in the Gulf and Kosovo and has recently written a book about the art of modern warfare, Lord (Michael) Jay - ex Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, and Sue Stapely - a reputation consultant who does extensive pro bono work.

Sue talked about the media's impact on the public, on a very personal level. She illustrated what a devastating effect the media can have on ordinary people inadvertently caught in its glare. Stapely represented Sally Clarke - pro bono - after Clarke was wrongly accused of killing two of her children. Clarke died earlier this year. On the day she died, Stapely described how her husband and young son could not get into their own home because there were hoards of journalists crowded round their door. Even though the paparazzi had been told they would not be given pictures, and though there was a court injunction in force protecting the child's whereabouts, the press would not leave. "To breach [the injunction] by photographing the house and identifying the village and to cause untold distress to a family which is grieving and in shock, seems to me inhuman", Stapely said.

Are the paparazzi increasingly out of control? What can we do to protect ordinary people suddenly pitched into the media spotlight?

For Lord Jay, the media's impact on the Foreign Office was more pervasive though generally less destructive. Jay emphasised how his department has a ‘symbiotic relationship' with the press. From that relationship comes ‘a whole range of different kinds of contacts, from confidential background briefings, privileged off the record briefings, press conferences, doorstep interviews, press parties going on planes, privileged briefings on airplanes, ambassadorial briefings to the press for other capitals, and so on.'

The chief problems arise, Jay said, when there are human interest stories. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, for example, Foreign Office staff spent weeks trying to help British nationals affected. All but two, according to Jay, had good experiences. Yet it was these two who made the national press and whose story led to attacks on Jay by the Foreign Affairs Committee (which later apologised). In this instance the media coverage was both a distraction and a drain on departmental morale. "It was quite difficult then, as the manager," Jay said, "to get them to realize that they had done a good job, [that they shouldn't] believe everything from the press, we're behind you and get on with the job".

Are the media becoming obsessed by human interest stories, to the exclusion of serious democratic reporting? How should governments react to human interest stories?

In war, negative media coverage not only effects morale but can jeopardise your support back home, General Sir Rupert Smith argued. If you fail to produce a broad ‘narrative' of the whole situation for the media, the General said, then "when you're faced with the inevitable disasters", they are seen in isolation. "The enemy doesn't appear in the story. And yet, their people have killed your soldiers, or captured the hill, or sunk the ship."

If the media is so important, and has such a material impact on public life, what should public figures do about it?

In General Smith's view they should take control. Journalists, Smith suggested, are like spectators, sitting high in the stands of a Roman amphitheatre. Unable to take in all they action at once they inevitably focus on one small part of it. Unless you thread this small part into a larger canvas it then becomes the view the world receives - however misleading that may be. It is therefore up to you, Smith said, to take on the role of Master of Ceremonies, the producer who orchestrates the show, the "conjurer" even, "prepared to practice illusions" for the sake of a larger truth.

Is it right that public figures should be willing to deceive the press if they fear they will be misrepresented?

Tim Livesey rejected this theatrical metaphor and method. Far from dissembling, Livesey said, public figures should simply "be themselves". When it comes to dealing with the media "the answer", he argued, "is to know who you are, and to get on with it." Although he accepted that to do this, you needed the right "avenue", or media outlet. Choose the wrong one and any complexity or nuance was likely to be lost. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, gave a lengthy and thoughtful interview to a Muslim magazine in the hope of promoting interfaith accord. Yet two phrases were taken from that interview - out of context - and presented by The Sunday Times as a vicious attack on rampant US imperialism.

Can public figures just "be themselves" or is this naïve?

Lord Jay's advice sat somewhere between the two. Acknowledge the complexities of the relationship, Jay suggested, and where possible work with them. As with General Smith, Jay appeared to view the media as being rather like the weather. Though highly unpredictable and difficult to control, one could try and forecast it, and then take precautions accordingly. There were certain situations, Jay maintained, where the media's reaction tended to follow a very similar pattern. After a terrorist attack, for example, the media coverage would be "Day one, shock horror. Day two, sympathize with the victims. Day three, blame the Foreign Office". "We actually began to plan" Jay said, "on the assumption that it was [on] day three [that] you needed to have defensive stuff in place".

Does it damage democratic understanding if governments are always thinking about how they protect themselves from media criticism?

Though each of the panellists had very different experiences of the media - and starkly different views as to how to engage with it - there was one thing about which they all agreed. The media now plays a significant role in their public lives. They cannot ignore it and need to learn how to deal with it.

We will continue to explore the relationship between the media and public life throughout 2008. If you would like to be notified about Media Standards Trust events and discussions please feel free to get in touch with Martin Moore at [email protected].


Dr Martin Moore is director of the Media Standards Trust, a new independent not-for-profit organisation that promotes high standards in news.

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