Breathes there a PRO with soul so dead who never to himself hath said:
‘That journalist I could cheerfully strangle’? Only those who have
patrolled the frontier between power and authority and the media know
how tense it can become.
Yet it is not until PROs get close to the centre of Government that they
have a chance of exercising any decisive influence over the framework
within which the media - press, radio and television - operate. It is no
coincidence that for decades Governments have preferred self-regulation
to legislating against the media and that newspapers are still not
subject to VAT, even though there is no logical case against its
There is a respectable case for curbing intrusions of privacy, while
retaining a public interest defence, and requiring the media to admit
its mistakes more readily and prominently. I can even see the
presentational attractions of a Freedom of Information Bill as well as
reform of our discredited libel laws to sweeten the pill of a package
destined to curb abuse. But the press is still drinking in David
Mellor’s Last Chance Saloon.
There are two broad reasons for this. Sensible governments don’t
gratuitously provoke the media. Nor do they readily interfere with
freedom of speech.
It has always been assumed that a Labour, rather than a Tory government,
would be more likely to legislate, although I shall believe it when I
see it. I am no more convinced that it would after the latest outburst
by Peter Mandelson MP, who will run Labour’s election campaign. In a
recent TV programme he said: ‘If they [newspapers] are seen to affect
the outcome of the next election in the way they have in the past, I
think the pressure for change will be almost unstoppable.’
I shall take a lot of persuading that the press, rather than Labour’s
policies, leaders or trade union connections, influenced the outcome of
any of the 14 elections since the war. Mr Mandelson evidently thinks
differently. But let us look at his logic. In practice what he is saying
is that, if Labour loses the next election, even with probably more
press support than ever before, newspapers would bear responsibility and
that the public would demand it should be reined in.
But Labour would not then be in any position to reform the press. And
they are unlikely to be in a position to do so unless, for once, they
tell us how a policy would be implemented. On that Mr Mandelson is
silent. Would he require newspapers to be evenly balanced in their
political stance? If so, who would buy the boring things?
Mr Mandelson clearly has a lot to learn. You can’t have a free society
without a free press which is free to mug you. And if you can’t stand
being mugged, you shouldn’t be in politics - or PR.
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express