9. Who rules: is there a media-political class?

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Session info
14.00 – 15.15

Supported by:
Private Eye

The close relationship between power and the media is fundamental to an understanding of how our civil liberties are framed. Never more than when Judith Miller of the New York Times became a conduit for the Bush administration’s orchestration of the Iraqi WMD scare did we understand how “all the news that’s fit to print” could be commuted to “all the news that fits”.

Politicians seek to manage the media, not least through dominating the news agenda. When the twin towers were attacked, all major news broadcasters in the UK fell in line, describing the response – in Afghanistan and Iraq – as a “war on terror”. Independent challenges to government positions need to be absolutely watertight to survive: Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies were all forced out of the BBC when the Hutton Inquiry (despite manifest flaws) found gaps in their defence.

The lobby system reinforces this mutual dependency. The weakness of original journalism in the UK – as exposed by Nick Davies in his “Flat Earth News” – makes the US press look good, despite the fierce financial pressures. Investigative reporting has largely disappeared from ITV. The concept of “balance” mutes strong voices. Even in the BBC, the battle for Saturday night ratings takes precedence over the battle for breaking news.

The likes of Paul Dacre and the Telegraph Group routinely deplore what they see as a “liberal media conspiracy” in the UK. Yet insofar as this exists, it takes the form of political correctness rather than political independence. Rupert Murdoch is not alone amongst newspaper executives in engaging with power, whether in pursuit of influence, profit, peerages or political preferences.

In most of the West, news organisations have been co-opted into the structures of power. Truly independent voices are rare, and usually marginalized. Those who look to the media as the main bastion of our civil and political liberties have never had stronger grounds for concern.

Chair: David Elstein (commentator and chairman, BPG)
Speakers: Liz Forgan (Chair, The Scott Trust)
  Simon Jenkins (author and columnist)
  Claire Fox (Director, Institute of Ideas)
  Peter Oborne (writer and journalist)