Partial transcript: Is there a Media-Political Class?

Below is a selection of talks from the Who Rules: Is there a Media-Political Class? session.

Liz Forgan: Lloyd George had breakfast, lunch, tea and supper with the great Guardian editor C.P.Scott throughout the time that he was prime minister. He told him absolutely everything – international negotiations, party in-fighting, military strategy during the Great War. The result was that  Scott was fantastically well-informed, but I think arguably hopelessly compromised on key issues like Ireland and Palestine and simply unable to see straight on the subject of Lloyd George’s great rival, Asquith. I’m sorry to say this because CP Scott is a great hero to those of us who work on the Guardian or the Observer. But I must tell you that I think he went way past his duty as a chronicler and a journalist, acting on behalf of his readers. He had become a player. “When shall you be in London again?” – Lloyd George wrote to Scott in 1917 – “Come to see me when you can, just to keep me straight.”   I can’t say I get that sort of note from Gordon, but maybe Simon does. Every serious journalist worries about the balance of his relationship or hers to politicians. As Hugo Young, the great Guardian columnist who died in 2003 wrote – “The columnist owes it to his readers to know as much as he can conceivably find out. The audience also needs to rely on us being outsiders ultimately.” But I must tell you that I think that clubbishness, cosiness and conspiracies between politicians and the media are the least of our worries. There are plenty of countervailing forces. The relationship between politics and media is a shifting and unstable one and there are plenty of media monsterings of politicians as well as cosy deals. There is lots of evidence that for good or ill politicians are basically afraid of the media. Sometimes that is a disaster. It makes them turn away from expert, evidence-based advice and their own principles out of fear of a powerful partisan press on all sorts of issues from criminal justice to asylum seekers and the pricing of car and air travel. Some people would call that a blow for freedom: not I.    

Politicians an all manner of powerful individuals and institutions also fear the media for better reasons. Now that the little policemen in our heads appear to be losing their power to terrify – notably among bankers I think – it is equally clear that the freedoms that interest the citizen are often dependent on the little policeman in Private Eye or even the Daily Mail.  Freedom of information, investigative journalism,  daily acting upon iniquity, indolence or incompetence are the healthy bacteria in our democratic digestive system. However cosy the relationship may get between media and politicians, the media are still well capable, when it suits them, of biting the hands they have been feeding with all those trips to Wimbledon or the cup final. For me, fears about undue cosiness are absolutely trivial by comparison with the continuing function of the serious media as vital guarantors of liberty. The power of the media, misused though it often is is the price of their irreplaceable, essential, infinitely precious ability to speak truth to power and do it in public. And what’s more, to the extent that there ever was a cosy Media-political class, it is undergoing rude shocks.  The blogosphere means that such a comfortable structure is constantly being tipped over and kicked to pieces within seconds of its establishment. C.P.Scott never had to face the certainty that every word he wrote in the Guardian would be seized upon, analysed and subjected not only to a range of invective and criticism, but often to the most expert and abstruse knowledge, greater than anything he could bring to bear. In its way the internet contributes to the possibility of a more honest, better-informed, cleaner information system than we have ever had in history. 

But a bigger danger looms, far more menacing than conspiracies at the Garrick. And it is that the economics of serious journalism are tottering. We absolutely require well-established media institutions, resourced, motivated and able to insist on an unpopular agenda of painstaking investigation, on challenging powerful interests and voices. But serious newspapers from the Christian Science Monitor to the Rocky Mountains News are closing every day all over the western world. Free media doesn’t buy you news gathering, investigation, first hand reporting, expert scrutiny of courts, legislation and global business. Liberty is not just the freedom to say or do what you like. It is the access to information about the way in which the society we live in really works: who pays whom, for what, where does power flow, who guards the guarders? And this stuff is tough to get at. The Guardian has recently done a huge investigative series on the tax avoidance arrangements of many of Britain’s biggest corporations. It took weeks of work. It cost a small fortune in specialist technical advice and it risked consequences that very few media organisations could or would have been able to contemplate. It couldn’t have been done in that way by a blogger: though incidentally the blogosphere comes very interestingly into its own in response to things like that: all manner of extra insider information appears. But with every day that passes, fewer media outlets are resourced or motivated to get stuck in to such enterprises. They are by no means box office; they are often a daunting read; no pictures – bad news for the ad department. But they are vitally important and the situation in which we find ourselves now is that more and more of those serious media outlets are desperately looking for help to survive, and some of them are contemplating some pretty devilish bargains. Regional news is held to be a finished matter in our life unless the government can be found in some ways to subsidise it. People ring me up every day to ask how they can reproduce the wonderful solution that the Scott Trust has found for the ownership of the Guardian and the Observer to save their organisations from disaster. The situation of the Scott Trust is absolutely extraordinary. It is that a very wealthy Manchester family – partly out of idealism and partly out of a wish to avoid death duties – gave its entire fortune into trust to preserve the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News and liberal journalism. And the clever thing they did was to give the dowry to the idealistic entity. The idealistic entity, then, has created a commercial group around it to generate the money that is needed to subsidise this kind of journalism – because subsidy is necessary. But the danger in all this is the place you look to to your paymaster who will condition what you do. The Guardian’s paymaster is there to ensure freedom and the continuance of liberal journalism. Other paymasters have different considerations. 

But my other worry is not only the tottering nature of serious journalism. It is that even when the media do expose encursions into the liberty of the citizen, the growing appetite of the state for information, for example – do we rise up in the streets? Do we sack our councillors and members of parliament? On the whole – and the organisers of today’s event obviously represent honourable exceptions – we shrug our shoulders, we mutter something about the threat of terrorism or organised crime, and we continue to pride ourselves that we live in such a free and stable society. The real danger I think, is not villa holidays in Corfu – but a decimated media and cynicism and indifference on the part of a materially prosperous society to the erosion of liberty. Tom Bingham who has just made the most wonderful speech incidentally, in the other room, only the other day expressed his frustration with the reluctance of citizens to challenge infringements of liberty such as the retention of DNA samples of innocent people. Her is the pillar of the legal establishment, all ready with his sword of justice and liberty, but no-one will ask him to wield it. He said, “ Judges are not legislators. They cannot rule on claims that litigants do not choose to bring”. Stability, prosperity and our long history of liberty are devoutly to be wished for but they do bring real dangers. Listen to the 18th century English antiquarian – a person I really like, Thomas Hollis he was called – he was  a fervent supporter of the American revolution and a great patron of intellectual and cultural life. He gave the British Museum all kinds of bits of classical antiquity, but his gift to Harvard University was a collection of the works of John Milton and it bore an interesting inscription coming from a scholar of the old empire to the firebrands of the new republic: “ People of Massachusetts, when your country shall be cultivated and adorned like this country, and your shore becomes elegant and refined in civil life, then, if not before, beware your liberties.”  

Recession is waking us all up from some very easy assumptions about stability and prosperity. Maybe it will teach us not to take liberty for granted either. There is something in the wind at the moment – and this extraordinary event, I think has caught the time – something is happening when you hear judges talking as they have been talking this morning: when you see people queuing up to get into something like this – something is happening. When Tom Bingham says, “A candle lit today may never be put out, we may fervently hope” – I think he is saying something that isn’t just rhetoric. I very much hope that it’s not.

Peter Oborne: That was tremendous Liz. Completely wrong, but tremendous. On the subject of Hugo Young – almost as sanctified as C.P. Scott -  and his characteristically solemn remark about the duties of a journalist – there is a little anecdote here which nobody yet knows, but it needs to come out! This concerns the Hugo Young Diaries, that luminous, incredible boring and unreadable piece of sycophancy to worthy politicians. Almost all politicians are allowed these worthy and very, very solemn remarks to be written about them, with one exception as far as we understand – Peter Mandelson. According to this volume, Peter Mandelson and Hugo Young, never had lunch – extraordinary omission by the great man as well! Except that they did, frequently. A friend of mine acquired the dates on which all of those lunches took place. The actual lunches and the accounts of the subjects raised in them remain veiled in top secrecy, a matter for the Cabinet Office to release in about thirty years’ time. However if you trace the date of these lunches and the column that follows, the independence of Hugo Young becomes clear for all to see. Almost without exception, the column that follows the lunch is a vicious and vile attack on none other than the current prime minister himself, Gordon Brown. I recommend that you do this – it’s a wonderful example of the independence of thought of Guardian journalists.  

Now, what I am going to do is to address the subject, which is: Is there a political-media class? I’m going to show that it exists and I’m going to connect that to the theme of this conference by demonstrating that the new political-media class represents a profound  and direct threat to liberty and the rule of law. It is a novel phenomenon. Such a close relationship, such an incestuous relationship and the common metropolitan, urban status of this political-media class is a relatively new phenomenon and very under-analysed in political science. I would recommend two very short works of academic literature (all on the left by the way – only the left has become aware of the significance of this development: firstly, the Katz/Mare thesis on the emergence of cartel politics, written in 1994, anticipated this development and showed that it already existed on the continent, but made the false assumption that conventional, traditional politics continued to exist in Britain. That has been overridden in the last few years in ways I am going to explain very briefly. The other core text is the brilliant essay by Colin Crouch, Coping with Post-Democracy. I found them utterly shattering when I started to read them because what these two texts brought back to me brilliantly was my own experience as a junior reporter going into the House of Commons in 1992, trying to make sense of the politics and failing to do so because it failed to conform to the tradition of what we used to be taught about the way politics worked i.e. that there was an opposition which held the executive to account and that what went on in the House of Commons reflected the needs and concerns of a wider society. What these two short essays reveal is that what we have now is a cartel politics in which the politicians on either side of the House have far more in common with each other than they do with the voters, and that indeed they form a conspiracy against that wider society. 

There are endless examples that manifest this from the Tory-Labour conspiracy against the voters over the Iraq war to Jacqui Smith’s thievery of public money through her expenses claims. She comes in, it having just been revealed that she is stealing 25,000  pounds a year from the taxpayer. She goes into the House of Commons, nobody complains, nobody raises it in Home Office questions. There is a deadly conspiracy of silence between the state-funded political class against ordinary taxpayers. It’s a scandal. Torture is another example. On Thursday we had John Hutton come to the House of Commons to make a fundamental statement admitting that the Government has been lying about its collaboration in the torture of terror suspects over the last ten years. He admitted this. Has anyone heard what Liam Fox, the shadow Secretary of State had to say about that? [Louder] Any word from Dr.Fox, the shadow Secretary of State for Defense in response to this stunning admission about the shameful involvement of the British state in extraordinary rendition? Not a word. And that is because both the main political parties are clients of the United States of America and dare not threaten that particular relationship. Dr.Fox – I’m fascinated that he remains in power actually -  the only manifestation of his political utility was the shameful contacts he maintained with the now discredited Bush regime. I suppose he has that much in common with David Miliband…  

So, what this new cartel politics has, what the major political parties all have in common – and of course the Liberals made a historical mistake in sticking to that coalition rather than going against it – is a hostility to the mainstream institutions of the British state: to Parliament, to the rule of law, and a desire to appropriate public space from other independent institutions, whether these are the universities, the monarchy – you can go through this. There is a case-study of this which would stretch into volumes. Instead, they seek a direct relationship with the voter and this is where the media becomes so important. They have sought to govern through the media, rather than through conventional, traditional methods such as parliament, the rule of law. This is a very, very important, novel form of governance. It is very, very menacing. And this is where we come to the hideous threat that this poses to liberty and to the rule of law. The endless attacks on judges that we have seen; the hatred of the judicial process manifested by successive Home Secretaries – always in collaboration with the press – this is a very conscious process. Do you remember Peter Hain who has recently discovered his roots in liberal democracy, but who had forgotten them for a long time – talking about how Labour would make the security agenda a vote-winning process ahead of the 2005 general election? That was a very explicit plan to fight on 90 days, abolish habeas corpus, in alliance with a populist press against the judges, against the rule of law, and against liberal democracy. John Reid – another horrible, grim, dirty, foul example. If you ever want to know why the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century emerged on the left, whether it was national socialism, or Mussolini – look at somebody like Reid, fundamentally authoritarian and totalitarian. The nastiest thing he did of all, I think, was when he decided to make an appeal to Muslim mothers to hand over their children to the police if they thought they were engaged in terrorist activity – a classic new Labour strategy, a speech in a town hall in North London, but announced in that morning’s Sun, and clearly appealing to the white working class voters rather than making this very sensitive and difficult appeal directly to the people for whom it was intended. I can tell that I’m being told to shut up! Thank you very much.

Simon Jenkins: Once again, Peter didn’t get the point. A fascinating thing happened in Norway at the end of the last century, believe it or not. They decide to celebrate the Millennium, not by building a dome, but by asking the five wisest people in Norway to tell them what Norway would be like a hundred years hence. These five people went away and spent a fantastic amount of money – they were given unlimited resources, which is a very stupid thing to do to an academic. And they wrote fifty books – this is a totally true story – all in Norwegian, and they came to a very alarming conclusion. They said that in the year 2,100, Norway will no longer be a democracy. And the reason they gave is fascinating. The constitution in Norway, they said, is such, that the way it was going, meant that by 2,100, Norway would be ruled by quite a small elite, an oligarchy in Oslo composed of a stage army of politicians never quite out of power because their system of proportional representation meant endless coalition government, shifting nuance in each general election, but not substantially, so you never really lost your job. They rule through a coalition of bankers, corporate executives, senior civil servants, “in” academics and journalists. And at no point could they see how this oligarchy could be broken. There would eventually be an underclass of about 30% of the people who had no electoral power at all, but most people were perfectly happy with the way things were and they would vote them back in with a nuance change in each election. The only way they saw this system breaking down was either literally by a revolution, or by breaking Norway up into its component regions, localities, townships and so on, such that local democracy in effect smashed national democracy. But they couldn’t really see how the latter was going to happen because the constitution couldn’t be changed without the permission of the oligarchs. 

I think anyone looking at any community in Europe at the moment can sort of see the same things developing. And when you read daily now in our newspapers about what the organisers of this conference call ‘the surveillance society’ -  every week another step down a particular road, you are left thinking, “What on earth is there to stop it?” – literally, what will stop it? There is always an argument for doing it – there will be another terrorist attack if you don’t. But there is no good argument for not doing it, other than some wishy-washy libertarian one.  Now most people gathered at this conference, I have a sneaking suspicion all agree. I wonder how many people were invited from the manufacturers of surveillance equipment… The problem, I believe is not the argument. We can all agree on the argument. The problem is the way in which you structure government such that interest groups, lobbyists, special interests will always win their way. It is exactly what Dwight Eisenhower, back in the 1950’s, in an extraordinary speech for a man who lived his entire life in the military-industrial complex or in presidency – a huge hero of the American people on the right – made this amazing speech in which he said, “I warn America – you will find that America will be perpetually at war if you don’t curb the military-industrial complex which is now more powerful than the Pentagon.” This was a hugely perceptive remark. And I personally, for what it is worth, think that you can make the same speech today about the security-industrial complex. We now apparently spend more money on surveillance equipment of all sorts than we actually spend on arms. We are getting to the stage now where there is a huge interest out there simply demanding that we spend money on this kit. Why has it proved so difficult to stop ID cards? Why has it been so difficult to stop the NHS computer – a huge intrusion on personal liberty? Why can you never have fewer CCTV cameras anywhere? The answer is that it is worth an awful lot of people’s money to make absolutely sure that you don’t. 

When asked what you can really do about this, I go back to a ‘commencement speech’ as they were called at the Columbia School of Journalism about ten years ago by the great Oz Eliot. He made his speech, and it was a very grand speech indeed to the fresh-faced young journalists who were just about to leave and go off to work in the New York Times or CBS and he said, “Now remember, all you kids, you are going out into the world with a very heavy responsibility on your shoulders. You are there as a component of the American constitution. You are going out as the informal legislators of mankind. You must be responsible. You must think seriously about your duty to the constitution of America every day of your life. Without you the constitution won’t work. You are the equivalent of any congressman.” Afterwards Eliot asked me what I thought of his speech, and I said, “I will say one thing, you couldn’t make that speech anywhere in Britain.” He was surprised, “ Why not – you’ve got wonderful journalists!” “Oh no”, I said, “the British journalist is told that he is ratfink reptile who is going out to kick a crutch from under a politician. You will never say he is the equal of any MP – he wants to kill every MP.”  The most important thing – the only sure way I believe -  if you are going to do anything to curb the phenomenon that we are seeing at the moment is by not relying on us journalists – don’t to that – but by making sure at least that the things that whatever we can do to reveal the evolution of the surveillance society is actually heard.  

I always think that it is amazing – my last point – only compare Lord Bingham’s lecture this morning with Jack Straw’s article in the Guardian, yesterday.  Jack Straw would have been standing here twenty years ago, with Robin Cook, Patricia  , Harriet Harmon – all these people would have been standing here castigating the Tory Government for introducing the surveillance society. What happened to them? Are they all actually devious, venal liars? [Audience says yes] That was meant to be a rhetorical question. Um, no. Something happens to them when they get into power and we don’t yet know what that is. If I have one plea to all the lobbyists and think tanks who write endless articles and pamphlets on this subject here -  for God’s sake stop writing about the importance of freedom. Try and find out what it is that works this poison inside government on otherwise liberal people. David Omand wrote an article yesterday – I couldn’t believe it – in which an utterly liberal person like us finds himself in Downing Street for ten years and comes out screaming that we are all doomed if we don’t buy every conceivable piece of kit you can get hold of to survey everybody, “even if it is immoral.” That’s the phrase he used. I think I am right in saying that Sir David Omand now works for a surveillance company. Was that mentioned in  – dare I say it – the Guardian or the Times? You have got to nail these people for what they are. There is operating a sort of informal conspiracy against which even government ministers are not immune. Because unless you tell Jack Straw for what he is, I am afraid that particular poison will go on operating and go on infringing our liberties. Thank you very much.

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