One of the functions of a free and independent media which we so
seldom encounter in Britain today - free maybe, but independent? - is a
certain scepticism about power. Reporters have always viewed authority
with suspicion. Lord Acton confirmed they were right to do so when he
said that ’power tends to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt
After 50 years working half and half on either side of the
media/Government divide, I am sure our nation is cleaner for the media’s
But over the last 30 years, that scepticism has often turned into
cynicism as conspiracy theory has come to drive our journalism. I am not
sure a conviction among reporters that those who wield power are
inevitably up to no good is beneficial to society. A presumption of
guilt about the actions of its governors is not the mark of a healthy
nation, but the symptom of a sick one.
It is of course, difficult to argue that all is well with European or
American government even though they are held up as examples to the
I need mention only William Jefferson Clinton, Jacques Santer and Edith
Cresson to make my point. And that is but a selection of contemporary
Western political personalities who have left something to be
Closer to home, Labour rode to office on the back of Tory ’sleaze’ and
has since proved to be far from as pure as the driven snow.
But I never expected it quite so brazenly to invite media cynicism as it
has done over its approach to our privatised railways. Here at home,
Labour has given the clearest impression that privatisation was a
disaster for the traveller, even though seasoned rail customers like
myself beg to differ. Only six months ago, John Prescott said their
performance was ’by common consent a national disgrace, with service
reductions, falling performances and increased fares’.
But how is the DTI and Foreign Office trying to flog our railway
expertise abroad? Why, their sales brochure says Britain’s engineers and
operators - those who run the ’system which is breaking down’, according
to Mr Prescott - have had their capabilities ’strengthened’ by
privatisation. Our railways have ’experienced a revolution in thinking
as well as massive new investment’ with ’new energy and enthusiasm in
the industry’. The result of privatisation ’is an innovative environment
as well as a cost-effective one’.
Feeling charitable, you may think it is time Mr Prescott talked to his
colleagues, Stephen Byers and Robin Cook, who have put out the
Being realistic, you will certainly expect our 25 train operators to
quote extensively from their testimonial. But, being honest, you will
find it difficult as PR persons to blame the media for their cynicism,
which, incidentally, affects your ability to do your job, too.