Monday, May 11, 2009

Bhikhu Parekh on the media

. . . as reported from his speech here recently given in the House of Lords:

"My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for introducing the report of the Select Committee on Communications with the clarity and fluency that we have come to expect of him. He will forgive me if I do not agree with all the party political points that he made. Many of the recommendations of the committee are well taken and well argued, and I hope that the Government will give them serious consideration. However, there is one small but rather important gap in the report on which I wish to concentrate.

In his evidence to the committee, Sir Robert Phillis said that the central problem, the focus of his report, was not just "press management or spin" but rather the question of trust—the,

"breakdown of trust between politicians, the media and the general public",

and the consequent disillusionment and disengagement from the democratic process. I would
have liked the Select Committee to concentrate on that important question and suggest what we might do about the breakdown of trust between those three agencies.

Democracy, we all know, requires enlightened public opinion. Enlightened public opinion in turn depends on the public having access to accurate facts and to unbiased analysis. For both, the public depend on politicians in general and on the media. If those two groups of people, politicians and the media, are known to resort to lies, or to mischievous and self-serving spin, the public have no basis on which to form their opinion and to make reasonable demands. They also become cynical and fall easy prey to populist demagogues, who claim to tell the truth as it is but in fact do the opposite. We must therefore find ways of guarding the integrity of the public realm and ensuring that our political system is respected for its honesty and truthfulness. Sadly, for the past several decades, this has not been the case.

Politicians and journalists are among the most distrusted groups. A reasonable degree of scepticism is obviously necessary, but total cynicism and mistrust spell disaster for a democratic system. Journalists start with the assumption that all politicians are liars; and politicians for their part start with the assumption that journalists have their own agenda—which often is true—that they are feral beasts, as Tony Blair once called them, and that they are out to trip up the politicians, to take their remarks out of context and blow them out of proportion.

Both groups therefore approach each other with mutual contempt and suspicion, and what we hear and see on the radio and television is each trying to avoid being caught by the other. That, naturally, alienates the public and stifles a robust and public debate. Let us think of the occasion when Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question several times, which has now become part of popular legend in this country. Was that a reflection on the politician, or a reflection on the interviewer who did not know how to get the information out by indirect means and had to repeat the same question so many times? Changes are needed in our political culture; it is not just a question of the mechanics of communication. The media need to realise that many of our politicians are honourable men and women who are guided by a spirit of public service and wish to do well by their country. Politicians for their part need to realise that many of our journalists are persons of integrity and wish to expose misuse of power and ill judged decisions. We need therefore to create a culture of mutual respect.

That culture requires changes both in the media and among the politicians. Politicians need to be more honest and open with the public—I shall say something both about politicians and the political culture and, a little later, about journalists and the media culture, as well as the changes we need to ensure the mutual respect that I was talking about earlier.

Politicians need to explain why they have taken certain decisions. What alternatives were available to them? What problems did each of these alternatives raise? Why did only a particular policy or decision seem right to them? They need to disclose all the relevant facts, which is what Sir Robert Phillis talks about when he stresses the principle of transparency and openness as central to any good governance. Politicians need to share their doubts, be tentative, and open to criticisms and new ideas. They need to answer questions honestly and not resort to long-winded statements that all but avoid the questions asked. Sometimes, listening to even very sensible people on the television and the radio, I wonder why otherwise sensible people spend so much time avoiding the question when the question could easily be addressed and answered.
Ministers should be more accessible to the public if we want the public to have ownership of the decisions taken by the Government. They need to travel more widely, meet groups of citizens, debate their policies with ordinary citizens and invite new ideas. I am thinking of the kind of thing that I read about when Bill Clinton first became President and went round the country meeting ordinary citizens in city halls and debating with them why the country needed a radical new direction on race. Rather than concentrating only on the press conferences, which are obviously important, we should also be thinking of Ministers addressing selected members of the public on a regular basis. In short, I very much hope that Ministers and others, not only in this Government but all Governments in future, treat the public with respect and are less self-righteous and dogmatic in their approach to their decisions. Political power has a tendency to breed its own pathology, its own isolation, its own secrecy, its own self-righteousness and dogmatism, and we need to guard against it.

Let me now turn very briefly to what I think the media need to be doing. The media need to take a balanced and nuanced view of the matter in question. Rather than blow up isolated remarks, constantly looking for a gaffe by politicians and jumping on it, which makes politicians nervous—rightly so—and prevents any kind of public debate, they should learn to ignore these isolated remarks and concentrate on the central issues. Nor should they be one-sided and concentrate only on discrediting institutions. When individual politicians or Members of Parliament misbehave, obviously they should be exposed, but not in such a way that the institution gets discredited. Take, for example, the debate about MPs' and Peers' expenses. Naturally, some people have misbehaved and this needs to be exposed, but at the same time, it is equally true that there are several Peers I can think of easily who attend regularly but never claim their attendance allowances. I also know Peers who are entitled to travel first class by train, but prefer to travel standard class. When people are told only one side of the story and not the other, an impression is created that all Peers and all MPs are out for their own benefit, which is not the case at all.

The second important thing to bear in mind about the media is that journalists should be subject to the same norms of public decency as public figures. We in Parliament declare situations where there is a conflict of interest. I can think of many cases where journalists write about matters where they have business, political or ideological interests. Would it not be proper that they should declare their business and other interests and not work or write on subjects that involve conflict of interests? There has to be a sharp separation between facts and opinions. Facts should be rigorously checked, and prompt corrections—not delayed corrections in the corner of a newspaper, but prompt and prominent corrections—should be available when so-called facts are proved to be wrong.

I have also often thought that the idea of cross-party parliamentary committees, holding public meetings where editors of major media might be asked to explain their coverage of public events, might have something to be said for it. Just as we have Select Committees where Ministers are cross-examined, I do not see any reason why editors or producers of major programmes cannot be cross-examined and asked to explain why they took a particular stand or represented the event in a particular manner.

An independent and publicly funded body could also be set up to audit periodically media coverage of important events and public figures, and to grade different media on a scale of objectivity and accuracy. This is what we do in relation to schools when we name and shame them. Why should not the same policy be applied to the media and other vehicles of information?"
It is striking that in a recent survey just under 10 per cent of those interviewed trusted national newspapers, but 70 per cent trusted the publicly regulated broadcast television and radio. The point I want to make is this: the media cannot just be private business. They wield public power; they influence public opinion; they shape the alternatives that the Government consider, and in so doing shape the policy of the Government; and, even when they are privately owned, they are public institutions. They should therefore be guided by basic norms of public accountability. Such norms should be voluntarily enforced as far as possible, but, when necessary, I do not see any reason why they should not be subjected to sensitively calibrated and sensitively enforced legal constraints.

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