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Politicians and the press – who should fear who and where should the power lie?

If anyone is to decide the future of the press – surely politicians should be bottom of the list.

It would be fair to say that politicians are often scrupulously examined by the press. And rightly so.  As much as the press can sometimes go too far and dare I say even be unreasonable towards politicians, there is no doubt that the press have helped to ensure that we have one of the most accountable political systems throughout Europe and the western world.

Look at Franceas an example; the sort of investigative journalism we’re used to in Britainsimply doesn’t exist. The Daily Telegraph’s expenses investigation would have been undreamt of inFrance despite Dominique de Villepin’s activities being common knowledge; even throughout his tenure as Prime Minister and his bid to become French President. I’m certain such activities inBritain would have been in the press long before his promotion through Government.

Fear of power is a very dangerous thing and I’m a strong believer that Governments should fear the people, not the other way round. InBritainI’m pleased to say our politicians do fear the people and it is the strength of our democracy that unpopular Governments always have a decisive public to answer to.

While I know some politicians feel hard done by from the press I have only one requirement and that is that politicians are treated equally. At the end of the day if you go into public life you should expect to have your political thoughts and musings criticised. I would have no problem whatsoever of being giving an absolute grilling on the Today programme by John Humphries, as I know there will be just as hard a time given to any opponent.  Robust and proper interviewing is nothing we should complain about.

To those politicians who complain they were not given a chance to put their argument across in an interview I would suggest that is the weakness of the politician rather than the interviewer.  The written press is however a different kettle of fish. I have lost count of the number of times I have read “what Tory backbenchers are saying” and don’t recognise a single quote being printed. The comments are rarely reflective of any conversations I’m part of in the Commons.

With the printed press the fact that the reader pays for the paper they want to read is evidence that they are satisfied with the content of that publication and in many cases their choice of publication is reflective of their political ideology. How many Mirror or Guardian readers were ever likely to vote Tory?  Equally how many Labour voters find they agree with the Daily Mail, Express or the Telegraph? And why do you think the Daily Star rarely runs a political front page? The Sun is probably the most politically independent newspaper; although it still tends to go with the mood of the public rather than ultimately lead them it also has a reputation of independent editorials.

So far in this article I’ve drawn much attention to what politicians think of the press. So how much do we worry about what the papers say? Are we really bothered? I would say yes, and unnecessarily so.  In 1987 the following sketch appeared on Yes Prime Minister:

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.
Jim Hacker: Don’t tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.
Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don’t care *who* runs the country – as long as she’s got big tits

Although exceptionally funny, it is cuttingly accurate.

The attitude of politicians towards the press has always been same; we know what we’re getting and though we’ve moaned, we’ve also lived with it. Did politicians feel hard done by during the expenses scandal? I wasn’t in Parliament then but if you want my honest opinion I would say they did. Those of us who entered Parliament in 2010 are still accused of ‘fiddling’ and the whole thing has undermined the public’s attitude towards MPs. Was it wrong for the Telegraph to run such an exposé? Of course not. It was utterly the correct thing to do and it is right that the press were free to print such shocking revelations without fear of a backlash.

If we put politicians in charge of a press watchdog we risk the press looking over their shoulder when they have a story to print about a politician. Would stories of political impropriety really come out if press ultimately faced a £1 million fine for the breaking “the code” overseen by a politician?Chinais a shining example that the only direction we should be travelling in terms of state regulation of the press is as far away as possible.

The real problem with the press came about when public victims of the newspaper’s activities became common knowledge. These victims deserve all of our thoughts and prayers as they never sought to be ‘famous’ yet had their most private moments intercepted by a cruel and corrupt press looking for “a world exclusive”.  It’s simple, they broke the law.  Why would a new law make any difference when the actions of the press that caused the most revulsion with the public was illegal in the first place?  We should be ensuring that the law in place is used properly to ensure those responsible are reasonable punished.

Instead, as has become typical of the Labour Party they jumped on the bandwagon calling for press regulation under statute – it would be cynical of me to suggest this is because not all newspapers are as sympathetic to them as the BBC.  However, as Jeremy Paxman put it with the latest scandals at the BBC:

The real problem here is the BBC’s decision, in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, to play safe by appointing biddable people”

Let us not forget that the Hutton Inquiry came about after the BBC effectively exposed that Tony Blair and Labour had made up facts to spin a positive light on theIraqwar, “45 minutes etcetera”.

It was easy to do this to the BBC as it is part of the establishment but do we want this for our written press?  I don’t, in fact it shouldn’t be the case for any part of the press.

The newspapers may be excruciatingly painful and frustrating for politicians but that doesn’t mean we should clip their wings. This is not the actions of a free society; we either have freedom of speech or we don’t. If the law is broken then those who broke it should be prosecuted under the law already in place. The simple fact is the press needs to get its act together.  Newspaper sales have dropped off a cliff in recent years as public revulsion to their tactics comes home to roost, which is why their headlines get more and more ridiculous and why they pander to their readerships’ prejudices.

None of these points should mean a politician should be able to exert any influence on the press whatsoever, even through the smallest means of allowing OFFCOM to oversee them, which has its chairman appointed by the Secretary of State. As a small state Conservative, I find it simply ridiculous to even suggest that we should use legislation to regulate a free press. At the end of the day the public will judge the actions of the press themselves.

Have we missed the point anyway? Is it not the case that the sensationalised headlines and stories that have come into criticism most sharply by the Leveson Report are a function of the fact they are desperate to gain market share in a collapsing market as people switch to on-line media?  Do we really want to start a legislative process where we don’t even mention what is likely to be the biggest news source within the decade?

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