Lack of media accountability is now an international concern

Our formal purpose at last week’s Coca Cola-McDonald’s worldwide executive seminar in Palm Springs was to debate international affairs - but the underlying theme was discontent with the media.

Our formal purpose at last week’s Coca Cola-McDonald’s worldwide

executive seminar in Palm Springs was to debate international affairs -

but the underlying theme was discontent with the media.



One after the other, our lecturers betrayed their concerns: Congress

speaker Newt Gingrich with the media’s negativism; ex-Senator Sam Nunn

with its preoccupation with ’sleaze’ which was discouraging Congressmen,

in a notoriously insular country, from travelling to discover the world;

foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski with its trivialisation of

international events; and ex-President George Bush who confessed relief

at not having to be polite any more to TV interviewers who were out to

stitch him up.



I am, of course familiar with the politician’s love-hate relationship

with the media. After all, I served both Labour and Tory Governments who

believed that the same BBC was either a bunch of right-wing

reactionaries or Trots with technology. It is easy in or out of office

to feel beset by a media whose definition of good news is bad news and

for whom the best news is putting the boot into politicians. But our

democracies would not be worth much if it was all quiet on the Western

front between media and government.



It may be that American politicians have, in a perverse way, more to

grumble about than our own. Their newspapers are piously worthy to the

point of slumber and their television is mind-numbingly parochial and

insubstantial. And the very fact that they have President Clinton for a

second term suggests that they apply different standards to Democrats

and Republicans.



But I found myself echoing much of what was said about the media in

California last week. This will not surprise those British journalists

who think I am marked for life by my 11 years at No 10. But that does

not dispose of the problem. The truth is that our media are an

institutionalised hypocrisy.



They demand, even supply, accountability for everyone else while

rejecting it for themselves.



Even now, having been instrumental by their ’sleaze’ campaign in

panicking the Commons into trading in its self-regulation for an

external Commissioner for Standards, they would brook no interference in

their affairs beyond their own complaints machinery. This cannot last.

If the media claim, as they do, to exercise power, and many consider

that they are abusing it, then sooner or later someone will seek to curb

it.



You may think it is taking a long time since Baldwin applied Kipling’s

’power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot through

the ages’ to the press. But they should watch out when such eminently

reasonable retired presidents as George Bush start openly worrying about

their accountability.



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