The media misses the mark

by Stephen Tall on December 8, 2005

Look at today’s front pages, and there’s only one story in town: the virginal David Cameron’s deflowering of Tony Blair leads almost every front page.

‘You were the future once’ gibes The Daily Telegraph, picking up on Mr Cameron’s slighting of the Prime Minister. It’s a measure of our low and falling expectations of the British political media that its obsession with yesterday’s theatrical detrita should seem so unremarkable. For sure, Mr Cameron done good. He looked reasonably confident, read out his questions just fine, and remembered a couple of the ad libs he’d prepped. But that he and Mr Blair were debating reform of our schools was a triviality apparently beneath the reporting dignity of Fleet Street’s finest.

Lest we forget, the issue was the admissions policy of this country’s secondary schools. The Tories want all schools to be free to set their own criteria: a de facto return to selection, most likely according to academic ability. This is a policy vigorously opposed by Labour, and by the Lib Dems, both of which reject any suggestion that the 11-plus should be exhumed. It’s a big political debate, the outcome of which will affect all current or prospective parents with school-age kids.

Which is what makes the abject and pathetic coverage by our media of yesterday’s PMQs so depressing. Did they subject the statements of either Mr Blair or Mr Cameron to any critical analysis? Did they tease out what their positions meant for their parties’ respective education policies? Did they assess what effect such policies would have on the lives of our children, parents or teachers? Of course not. Because that would be hard. And it might be boring. Then people would switch off.

This is perhaps why Charles Kennedy’s crucial questions to the Prime Minister have been under-reported. Mr Kennedy put Mr Blair on-the-spot about the USA’s seemingly routine deployment of so-called ‘extraordinary renditions’ – transporting suspected terrorists from the US to a third country for further questioning, interrogation and (the widespread fear is) torture in covert CIA prisons.

Once such accusations might have been dismissed as European paranoiac fantasy. But the scandalous abuses perpetrated at Guantánamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib lend credence to these disturbing allegations. Mr Blair blandly reassured the House of Commons that, “The practice of rendition as described by [US] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years…. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice’s assurance that it has been.”

When Mr Kennedy then followed-up – to ask if, and when, Mr Blair was told about the 400 rendition flights through 18 British airports which has been documented by the Mail on Sunday – the PM dissembled bafflement: “In respect of airports, I do not know what the Right Honorable Gentleman is referring to.”

This was a sneaky lie, glibly told in order to dodge a tricky question about a fundamental issue of human rights. As this week’s Economist punchily notes: “snatching people off a foreign country’s streets and holding them incommunicado in an undisclosed place without charge for months, even years, without even their families’ knowledge, is unlawful, whether or not torture is involved.” Yet Mr Blair stayed silent, and the media stayed schtum – because concentrating on gladiatorial personality politics is just so much easier than having to place three syllable words like ‘rendition’ within the context of international law.

Indeed, the media might – if they had been feeling at all interested in thinking hard – have asked the new Tory leader his opinion of the US’s practice of rendition. For, as Jonathan Freedland noted in yesterday’s Guardian, Mr Cameron and his Notting Hill henchmen, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, are all vigorous cheerleaders of the invasion of Iraq, and fully signed-up to the neo-con agenda of forcibly exporting democracy. Yet the media are so in love with their own love-in that they have chosen deliberately to ignore Mr Cameron’s policy weaknesses. It simply doesn’t fit with their current agenda, which is to project the image of a messianic leader capable of socking it to New Labour, and injecting a bit of dynamic competition back into politics now they’ve tired of Mr Blair’s decade of dominance.

Writing in the Financial Times Magazine last week-end, its former editor John Lloyd proposed a five-point plan to rescue the media from its present pitifully parlous predicament. Though a bit of a curate’s egg, his last paragraph at least struck me as bang-on-the-money:

“[Journalists] should always be aware – and seek to make readers, listeners and viewers aware – of complexity. Few things in public life are easy to solve, to reform or to conclude. The debates we have as a nation are always made cruder by being simplified, and though it’s hard to keep that in mind and also keep an audience, we have to be true to that if we’re being true to our profession.”

It’s a noble clarion call to his colleagues, all of whom will turn a deaf ear to its plea, content instead to plaster their front pages, or pollute the airwaves, with schlock-fest politicking.