Departing British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a strong speech on the increasingly fraught, hectic and complex relationship between politics, the media and a general air of pervading cynicism overnight, just hours before appearing with two people in giant Wallace and Gromit suits to launch Wrong Trousers Day. Which proves some sort of point.
He wasn’t pulling his punches on the state of modern media:
The media world — like everything else — is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology… The newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market. Many are now read online, not the next day. Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads. There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with around 120,000 being created every day. In particular, younger people will, less and less, get their news from traditional outlets.
But, in addition, the forms of communication are merging and interchanging. The BBC website is crucial to the modern BBC. Papers have podcasts and written material on the web. News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge. Realistically, these trends won’t do anything other than intensify.
These changes are obvious. But less obvious is their effect. The news schedule is now 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. It moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up-to-date news. That’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed. When I fought the 1997 election — just 10 years ago — we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on.
You have to respond to stories also in real time. Frequently the problem is as much assembling the facts as giving them. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the 1960s, the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a cabinet lasting two days. It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean,you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.
I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today — outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else — is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.
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Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today — business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organisations and they will tell you the same. People don’t speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to. But it is true, nonetheless, and those who have been around long enough, will also say it has changed significantly in the past years.
We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. Actually, not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear.
And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing. My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact.
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