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
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
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
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