Fisking Tony Blair

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2007

I’m usually a fan of Tony Blair’s speeches. They combine rhetorical, oratorical oomph with persuasive, linear logic.

So his speech today to the Reuters Institute on ‘public life’ was a disappointment. It’s not that what he said was wrong, it’s that much of it has already been said before by many media commentators:

  • “The media world – like everything else – is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology.”
  • “… the forms of communication are merging and interchanging.”
  • “The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Yawn. All this is true, and the acceleration of blanket media coverage is certainly changing the world we live in, and not always for the better. ‘Twas ever thus.

But Mr Blair’s analysis is just that – a cross-section of how things currently operate, with no conclusion, no proposal for how either the media or politicians can or should change things in the future.

There is a brief round-up of regulatory measures, either current or forthcoming – a vague (albeit quite correct) plea to the media “to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment” – and that was it.

I was left thinking – is that really all you’ve learned about the interaction of the media and politics after a decade as Prime Minister? I’ve gleaned most of that just from browsing MediaGuardian.

There was one paragraph of the speech, though, which I’d like to highlight for being utter bilge. It’s classic Blair-speak, the invitation to his audience that he is taking them into his confidence, combined with the suggestion that he is being almost recklessly dishonest. In reality, it is totally disingenuous:

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity.

What on earth is he talking about? This isn’t a secret. It is a truth universally acknowledged that media management is a huge issue across all professions – show me an organisation or institution that doesn’t have someone whose job is concerned with communications. An hour after Mr Blair concluded his talk, an e-mail pinged into my inbox inviting me to a conference:

Planning for and Reacting to the Worst: From student binge drinking deaths and athletic scandals to campus violence and natural disasters, campus crises seem to be in the national news each week. To be prepared for the inevitable, your institution should have a comprehensive plan that is tested and ready for execution at the most inopportune times.

Two points where I do agree with Mr Blair, and which, even if not original, are worth re-emphasising:

1. The Independent is a juvenile pile of toss, a travesty of its founders’ intentions. Its self-consciously screaming, preaching, preening front pages are a lamentable development in a supposedly quality paper, and one which has been curiously imitated by its more popular rivals. By selecting just one news item to lead the front page – and always SHOUTING about it – the supposedly serious press is increasingly giving up on showing the range of urgent and important news items which daily compete for our attention, and making a choice for us lest our delicate brains be confused by the arrray of stories on offer. It is a peculiarly British trait, and deeply unattractive.

2. “… it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual grey is almost entirely absent. ‘Some good, some bad’; ‘some things going right, some going wrong’: these are concepts alien to today’s reporting. It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is ‘a crisis’. A setback is a policy ‘in tatters’. A criticism, ‘a savage attack’ NGOs and pundits know that unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shouldn’t venture out at all.” No journalist should lightly dismiss these words. Mr Blair is 100% right, and the trend he describes is a deplorable one for the quality of discourse in public life today.

Update: my boss, Tim Gardam, has written an in-depth analysis of Mr Blair’s speech here. Well worth reading. (And, no, I’m not paid to say that.)