There is a scene towards the end of the film The Queen (2006) in which Queen Elizabeth II (played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren), after having been taught a lesson in public relations by the new, media-savvy prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), gives him a word of warning. In future he too, like her, will fall prey of newspapers baying for his blood. “One day,” she predicts, “quite sudden and without warning, the same thing will happen to you”.
That day seems to now have come. In the last month of his term, Blair lashed out at the media. In a speech at the Reuters Newsmaker event in early June, he called the media “a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out”. This seems like quite the turnaround for a prime minister who, like none before him, managed to use the media to his advantage.
When New Labour came to power, it appointed Alastair Campbell, former journalist on the tabloid newspapers the Daily Mirror and Today as its spin doctor. Campbell became, in the words of the BBC, “the most famous press secretary the UK has ever seen”. In his Reuters speech, Blair acknowledged that New Labour in its early days “paid inordinate attention to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media”. Now, however, he accused the media of “unravelling standards, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else”. He wasn’t mincing his words as he listed the “acute consequences” of this attitude that favours scandal above reporting and sensation above news as media hunt in packs to sniff out conspiracies, false motives and ruins reputations.
The media, of course, went to town. The speech made front page news in the liberal paper The Guardian, which also devoted several full inside pages to coverage and commentary on Blair’s attack (The Guardian, by the way, is probably one of the best newspapers in the world when it comes to coverage of media-related issues, and partly served as a source for this column). Part of The Guardian’s indignation at Blair’s words perhaps stemmed from the fact that it has historically been a supporter of Labour.
Blair’s attack on the media in his last days in power seemed like a sharp U-turn. In his early days as prime minister, he was the one who urged the Queen to embrace the postmodern media culture where celebrities were the new royals. It was he who helped package British politics to fit this same media culture. Now he seems repulsed at the media’s actions, and even suggested a revision of the regulatory framework in the UK. The revision, supposedly, was necessary because of the convergence of old and new media that makes the separation of the print regulator (the Press Complaints Commission) and the one for broadcasting (Office of Communications or Ofcom), redundant. But his suggested revision also seemed to entail more control, since the “relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair”.
Blair’s U-turn is not unusual. He is by no means the first politician that has attacked the media after falling out of its favour. He might have succeeded in mustering broad media support at the beginning of his term, but recently came under severe criticism for the failures of his government with regard to the war on Iraq.
In South Africa, conflict between media and government is also not something strange. The South African media and government are also locked in an uneasy embrace – while the mainstream South African media prides itself on its role as “fourth estate” that remains vigilant of government power, they have been largely uncritical of some of the government’s policies that suited their own position as big businesses.
The ANC’s business-friendly macro-economic policies, for instance, have been largely applauded by the mainstream media. At the same time, the media takes care not to be seen as being in government’s pocket – their mantra of being the “watchdog of democracy” has also led to an often unproductive antagonism between media and government. While no-one would deny that scrutiny of government excesses is an important function of democratic media, the media often remain uncritical of their own preconceived assumptions and perspectives.
In the tango between media and politics both partners need each other, but theirs is a love-hate relationship. Politicians know that they desperately need the media if they are to succeed in today’s soundbite-world (although the importance of media in a context such as South Africa, where society is much less media-saturated than the US or Europe, and ethnic and historic loyalties play a large part of political behaviour, should not be exaggerated).
On the other hand, the media also rely on politicians to provide them with the news they can sell. And this news is all too rarely focused on issues or substance, and more often focused on personalities, conspiracies and horse-race political coverage (one only needs to look at the “succession debate” in South African media to realise this).
The South African media should consider the complicated nature of this relationship when, as has recently been decided at the second Sun City meeting between government and South African National Editors’ Forum, editors will in future meet with the president and cabinet once a year. At such meetings, media should move beyond the incantation of tired slogans and rather be creative in carving out a relationship with government.
Such a relationship should seek to devise a role for media to contribute to the building of a democratic culture while retaining its critical voice. Such a role should have more dimensions than only knee-jerk attacks and suspicion. At the same time, government would do well to recognise the importance of a truly democratic media (which is a much more inclusive concept than just a “free” media), and work towards conditions that would establish media diversity, inclusivity and independence.
Back in the UK, Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown has started to play up a new image – that of an honest, hard-working, no-spin politician who will “do his utmost” for his country. His opposition has already embarked on their media strategy by appointing another former tabloid editor, Andy Coulson, as David Cameron’s chief spin-doctor.
Perhaps fretting a little less about soundbytes and listening more carefully to the disgruntled voices heard in the tabloids is also a lesson South African politicians could learn.