An address by Chris Mullin MP to the Media and Politics Group conference at the university of Sunderland, November 17, 2006
Welcome. For those of you unfamiliar with Sunderland it is an old industrial city which took a battering during the Thatcher decade from which we are still recovering. Recent years have seen some remarkable changes. Had you come 20 years ago Wearmouth Colliery would have dominated the skyline on the site now occupied by our magnificent Stadium of Light. You would have seen ferries destined for Denmark lined up here along the side of the river at the site now occupied by St Peter's Campus. And you would have found a polytechnic with less than a third of the number of students currently being educated at the University -- and no sign of a Media Studies Department.
I am going to talk about journalism and politics. Although I have been in Parliament for 20 years I am a journalist by profession. I should make clear at the outset that I am not expert in media policy, although I have dabbled. I have moved amendments on quality and diversity to various broadcasting Bills. In 1995 I devised a little Bill of my own - the Media Diversity Bill -- which would, among other things, have obliged Mr Murdoch to part with some of his newspapers and to choose between his controlling interest in Sky and control of his remaining newspapers; it would also have created a level regulatory playing field between terrestrial and satellite television and required a given percentage of output to be produced locally. Alas, it went nowhere, but it did have one interesting outcome.
During the course of moving my Bill, I went down the card denouncing by name many of the unscrupulous megalomaniacs who control British broadcasting and, one by one, they invited me to lunch to explain why they had been misunderstood. All except Gerry Robinson of Granada, who insisted that I pay.
I have also been on the receiving end of tabloid induced hysteria. The headlines of which I am most proud (some of which I have framed and hanging on the wall of my study) include:
LOONY MP BACKS BOMB GANG
Twenty things you didn't know about Crackpot Chris
Kinnock's Top Ten Loony Tunes - I was number 8
We laugh, but there is serious side: the free flow of information is the lifeblood of democracy and yet it is almost impossible to generate a serious dialogue between politicians and the electorate when so much of our media is in the hands of junk journalists - what's more the disease is spreading and it is spreading into areas where as recently as 20 years ago we would never have dreamed possible: I refer to the impact of successive broadcasting acts on mainstream television. The digital revolution (which promised so much) has, by and large, led to a deterioration in the diversity and quality of what we see on our television with the result that our children may grow up less well informed, more cynical and more disengaged from what is going on around them than we did. That is the issue I wish to examine this evening.
Most students of the British media have long accepted as a regrettable fact of life that, with certain honourable exceptions, our newspapers are controlled by unscrupulous megalomaniacs. Lord Beaverbrook, at least, was open about it: "I own the Daily Express for the sole purpose of making political propaganda and for no other reason," he told the 1947 Royal Commission on the press. Since then it has been downhill all the way. Today's Daily Express is owned by a pornographer in whose hands it has become little more than a house journal for the British National Party. The only good news is that its circulation is in steep decline. The Daily Mirror, whose circulation is also in decline, has long ago abandoned any pretensions to serious journalism. Rupert Murdoch's Sun and the Rothermere Press, however, remain viciously effective, infecting and demoralising everything and everyone with whom they come into contact. Their editorial strategy - which in the case of the Mail has remained unchanged for a hundred years - seems to be to keep their readers in a permanent state of fear, loathing and paranoia: when someone comes to my surgery fulminating about terrorists or foreigners or both I usually ask what paper they read and the reply is usually predictable. The capture by the Rothermere Lie Machine of the London Evening Standard poses a new challenge to the proper functioning of the democratic process. Although always a Tory newspaper, The Standard - especially under the editorship of Max Hastings - usually made an effort to offer some kind of balanced journalism; occasionally it still does. By and large, however, it has become a lunchtime version of the Daily Mail which makes it especially dangerous -- because it is well-produced, widely read by opinion formers and tends to set the news agenda for the next day. What's it is more, it has more or less a monopoly across London and much of the Home Counties -- which, given that they contain a high concentration of marginal parliamentary seats, has serious political implications.
We still have some good broadsheets: the FT and The Times remain by and large papers of record. The Guardian and The Independent, though not without their prejudices, both offer a home to good quality journalism. The Daily Telegraph has always been, and remains, slightly doo-lally and, in the past at least, not above committing the odd fraud on its readers: when I first went to Vietnam, in the final years of the war, I was surprised to discover that the Telegraph's Saigon correspondent, whose reports appeared regularly under the by-line John Draw was not John Draw, but Nguyen Ngoc Phac, an officer on the staff of General Cao Van Vien, the chief of the South Vietnamese army. It wasn't that his reports resembled the official version of events, they were the official version of events.
By and large, however, we have come to accept our national newspapers for better or for worse. We are well aware of their prejudices. We make allowances for them and we have long ago decided that any attempt to regulate them by statute would be more trouble than it is worth. As I said, I did once entertain the hope that we might pass a law limiting national newspaper ownership to one daily and one sunday per proprietor and requiring that everything else should go on the market, but my political masters decided that caution was the better part of valour, opting to appease rather than take on Mr Murdoch. And they may well have been right given that success was not guaranteed and that wounded he would be far more dangerous than had he been unmolested. What's more, when one looks at the queue of unsavoury multi-millionaires that forms on the rare occasions that a national newspaper does come on the market, it is hard to argue that forcing Murdoch to sell the Times and the Sunday Times - those are the two he would dispose of - would lead to the slightest improvement. I do believe, however, that there is a case for requiring the Rothermere press to part with the London Evening Standard on the grounds that it enjoys a near monopoly which it is clearly abusing.
Whatever we think about our national newspapers, Broadcasting is supposed to be different. From the earliest days it was recognised by people of all political persuasions that control of the airwaves could be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Steps were taken to ensure that the BBC had a mandate to inform and educate as well as to entertain, that it should be politically impartial and publicly accountable. By and large this arrangement has worked well. So well that when ITV came into existence 30 years later there was no serious resistance from any part of the political spectrum to the notion that it, too, should be regulated and regionally based to ensure maximum diversity. And that worked well for another 35 years. Competition from ITV made the BBC less stuffy and less servile towards the Establishment while the standards of broadcast journalism that the BBC had pioneered were maintained across all channels.
It was not until Mrs Thatcher's Broadcasting Act that things began to go seriously wrong. Conceived, it seems, in a fit of pique following Thames Television's documentary "Death on the Rock," it required the ITV franchises to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Initially, money was to be the only consideration, but as the Bill passed through parliament, wiser counsels prevailed and some - albeit limited -- quality criteria were belatedly inserted, but the damage was done. Some companies put in insanely high bids in order to retain or win their franchises with the result that, having won, they lacked the funds to fulfil their promises and embarked instead on endless rounds of cost-cutting and takeovers. Even companies like Granada, which retained their franchises on relatively low bids fell victim to the cost-cutting culture. Any pretence at quality production, public service or commitment to regional broadcasting rapidly evaporated in the search for ever greater profits without any consideration of the long term. This has been compounded by the arrival of digital television, competition with which has provided an excuse for yet more rounds of cuts and lower standards. As a result we face a future not of more choice, but of less. We are heading down the American road: a hundred, two hundred, three hundred channels and nothing worth watching on any of them. An unending diet of vulgar game shows, vacuous soaps, unchallenging detective series and bland or violent movies, mostly bought off the peg in America. Our capacity for domestic production is being steadily eroded. The industry is being remorselessly casualised and increasingly exploitative. Independent Television News, under the stewardship of Mr Charles Allen - the philistine who destroyed Granada - is a shell of its former self: big on presentation, low on content. A reluctance to invest in foreign reporting. An increasing tendency to conduct long and often pointless interviews between an anchorman in Grays inn Road and a correspondent sometimes no more than two or three miles away.
I regret that the virus is beginning to infect BBC Television News, especially the earlier bulletins. Newcasters are gradually turning into shock jocks. The agenda is increasingly tabloid. A diet of murder, mayhem, cynicism; increasingly introverted. Instead of news plain and simple, undiluted we now get News with Attitude. Newscasters instead of remaining in their seats and calmly reading the words on the autocue, now waltz around the studio, emoting.
I exaggerate, of course, but the trend is unmistakeable and we ignore it at our peril. What I fear most is not political bias, but the steady growth of junk journalism - the trivialisation and demeaning of everything that is important in our lives, and its consequent effect on our culture. In the long run there is a danger - I put it no higher - that with the increasing concentration of ownership and progressive abandonment of standards, television well become fertile ground for demagogues, offering simple solutions to complex problems. One has only to look at the rise of the religious right in America, or to Italy - governed until recently by a man who owns three major television stations - for a clue as to where the future may lie if we are not careful.
All this is compounded by local newspapers which these days seem to be owned by companies that are determined to squeeze every last drop of profit from their assets and staffed almost entirely by aspirant Sun reporters and sub editors
What is the impact of all this? Is it making people happier? On the contrary, I sometimes think we are a society being driven towards a collective nervous breakdown. Are we better informed? I don't think so. To be sure, for those prepared to make the effort, the world is their oyster. But for those dependent on mainstream newspapers or television channels, the world is shrinking. It is becoming a mean and nasty place in which everything is bad and getting worse. Where most people believe that crime is rising, whereas it is in fact falling. Where surveys show that, among those with recent experience of the NHS, satisfaction levels are far higher than among those who merely rely on the media for information about it. Where most people have a low opinion of politicians as a class and politics as a profession and yet, oddly enough, they have a reasonably high opinion of their local MP who is likely to be the only MP with whom they had had personal contact.
There is a growing range of issues -- refugee and asylum policy, council tax reform, the impact of car ownership, the management of sex offenders, the prison population - on which it is almost impossible to have a rational debate without mass hysteria being organised. A couple of years ago a mob of screaming, shaven headed News of the World readers laid siege to the home of a paediatrican because they were unable to tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. The tabloid headlines which greeted the publication of the Stern Report on climate change earlier this month gave us a flavour of what we can expect if we every get serious about saving the planet. "SECRET TAX BLITZ" (Mail on Sunday); "I'm saving the world and you lot are paying" (The Sun)….and so on. Increasingly politicians, who after all depend on votes for a living, are reluctant to take difficult decisions because they are afraid of tabloid-induced hysteria.
Tabloid culture requires a constant supply of victims. They are not choosy. Anyone will do. Soap stars, footballers, politicians or just ordinary folk behaving badly or down on their luck. We politicians have fairly thick skins and I do not invite you to sympathise, but there is a sense in which politics in this country has become a game of GOTCHA. Scarcely a month has passed in the last fifteen years without a feeding frenzy being organised around some hapless government minister. It usually starts in the tabloids but rapidly spreads to the broadsheets and onto the broadcast media - the BBC is as bad as any. Sometimes the prominence given to such stories is justified. Sometimes there is a germ of truth in what is alleged. But usually the coverage is out of all proportion to the alleged offence - if indeed there is any. Sometimes the outrage is entirely bogus - who remembers the row about whether Tony Blair had manoeuvred himself into a better seat for the Queen Mother's funeral? It flared for several days and then stopped instantly, as though someone had flicked a switch. Perhaps they had. I suspect word came from the Palace that the Queen was not best pleased and the dogs were called off.
Who now remembers the ferocious row over the presence in the government of my colleague Keith Vaz, once a junior minister at the Foreign Office? It cost him his job, but I defy anyone looking back to tell me what it all that was about. And who now recalls that, a few months back, we were being told - not quite in so many words, but it was the implication -- that the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly had plans to put a paedophile in every classroom?
We laugh, but there is a serious point beyond merely the ruin of individual lives or careers. With every new assault, public confidence in our political institutions is eroding. There is a growing and pervasive undercurrent of cynicism about politics and politicians. The suggestion that everything is bad and getting worse, that nothing can be done about anything, that all politicians are in business for themselves is both false and corrosive. In the long run it has implications for the future of our democracy. There will be a price to pay. Indeed that price is already reflected in falling election turn-outs and a growing reluctance to join or to support political parties, let alone to stand for their local council or even for parliament. Who knows where we shall end up if this trend continues? As many people in the world can testify, there are far worse alternatives than the political system and the way of life we have in the UK. Is it too much to ask that those whose job it is to report our way of life and those who train them should reflect for a moment on where all this is leading?