Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Journalists and Tony Blair


Once upon a time newspaper and TV editors and managers kept a tight rein on what appeared in the media. Many an ex reporter recalls being instructed by not-so-subtle editors to stick to reporting the news rather than creating or interpreting it. Editorialising was the editor's preserve. Those days, sadly, have gone. So, too, have most of the journalistic old hands with experience and institutional knowledge. Everywhere in the world young opinionated history and political science graduates take up media causes, parading their inadequate knowledge and small life experiences. They editorialise under the guise of reporting. Politicians in particular suffer at their hands. Right now Tony Blair is being slowly murdered before our eyes. Most of his media assassins aren't fit to tie his shoelaces.

While in Europe recently I kept a close eye on the media. The virulence of the crusade against Blair astounded me. Everything he says and does is reported so as to place him in the worst possible light. Words like "dishonest" and "liar" roll off journalistic pens and then on to tee shirts. His imminent political demise is daily predicted. Two independent reports by Lords Hutton and Butler on key aspects of Britain's involvement in Iraq have pointed to woeful intelligence before the war but have cleared the British Prime Minister of personal wrong-doing. After mercilessly cross-questioning Lord Butler in the hope of forcing him to criticise Blair, journalists resorted to attacking Butler himself, claiming his findings were the product of inadequate investigation, or the work of a toady. One senses that if Jesus were to pronounce in support of Tony Blair, journalists would dismiss it as the word of a known heathen.

Why the animosity to someone who is being compared with the greatest British Prime Ministers and was recently called "the dominant political figure of our time"? I have no simple answer. I suspect that many reporters deep down are now at the stage where they have invested so much of their own credibility in attacking Blair that the longer he survives, the sillier they look. Ratcheting up attacks on him is a form of self-justification. It's him or them.

Understandably, journalists dislike "spin". Joh Bjelke-Peterson used to call his news briefings "feeding the chooks". Eventually they got their own back. After Blair won office in 1997, 10 Downing Street excelled at news management. Those who were being pressured to see things Blair's way eventually sensed they were being manipulated by cleverer people than themselves. Resentment had built up before the Iraq war. Failure to find the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Blair claimed to exist in Iraq gave journalists their chance to retaliate. Although the existence of WMD was never held to be the only reason for war, journalists have acted as though it was. The headlines just keep on getting nastier. Many reporters, of course, personally support the anti-war movement. They revel in each new crisis in Iraq. But as the illustrious military historian John Keegan points out, they have been conspicuously silent about how the world could possibly be a better place were Saddam Hussein still in office.

Interestingly, the war is the only weapon used against Blair. In part this is because Britain's recent economic performance has been spectacularly better than Europe's, due largely to the reforms of the 1980s. There is room for criticising Blair's broad-brush investment in health where outcomes show little improvement. Moreover, British Labour made several false starts with their educational reforms after 1997. However, these are areas where responsibility for any failings must be shared with others as well as the Prime Minister. Right now he is the one the journalists are gunning for.

Journalistic assassination is an ugly sport. Blair ages before our eyes but manages to retain his sunny disposition despite the vicious attacks. Beset by rivals within his own party and media wolves slavering after him, he will eventually be dead meat. And then what? We'll be treated to the nauseating spectacle of the same journalists praising him to the skies and comparing him with Churchill and Gladstone. There's been a bit of attempted political assassination in New Zealand lately, too. The beat-up over Helen Clark's South Island speeding and the extraordinary attack in the Sunday Star Times on Don Brash over his Orewa speech come to mind. No wonder politicians of all stripes everywhere are talking about the need for better media self-regulation. In my view it can't come fast enough.