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Tony Blair: surfing the media torrent

12 June 2007

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Blair’s speech on the media (opens pdf document) follows what is now a classic set of moves.

  1. 1. Man who makes news and seeks headlines attacks the media for sensationalising and corrupting public life.
  2. 2. He agrees he is part of the problem but blames the media for making him do it and repeats obvious truism that media conflates news with views
  3. 3. Accepts that part of the problem is no-one's fault but due to technological change thus letting everyone off hook despite gravity of situation.
  4. 4. Seeks to preempt the media response to his attack by saying they will rubbish him, which they will
  5. 5. Of course the media will also say how right, how shrewd, how sage because it amplifies its own importance.
  6. The dynamics of this process are best theorised by Todd Gitlin in his great book Media Unlimited (not published in the UK, perhaps now it will be). He shows how we live in what he calls the “media torrent” which is driven by its own constant self-reference. It penetrates everywhere, flooding our lives, generating fame out of the glamour of its own foam, creating a politico-entertainment complex that none can escape. Blair has always surfed the torrent in a masterly fashion, from the deck of the HMS Albion to YouTube. Like Princess Diana he knows how to flirt with it, exciting it and seducing its reporters (so-called) and editors with his knowing “self-depreciation” and cult of himself as both a powerful shaper (see his speech that he made on the deck of HMS Albion on his attachment to hard power) and as victim – seeking our identification but generously refusing our sympathy, so as all the more to stimulate it.

    All this will be to the good if the media is seen as part of the system of power, which it is. Here the central issue is about who sets the agenda. The BBC, whom Blair viciously attacked and suborned because it did report the news rather than his views – namely that the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq was “sexed up” – does at least continue to try to retain a distinction between reporting and interpretation. This is why it is so important (as I posted recently) that it does not let the standards it has retained slip further into the entertainment torrent, if it can help it.

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