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Thirst for impact spoils political coverage

Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair labels the UK media a 'feral beast'

MY attempts to improve media access to government were to no avail, not because these things aren't right but because they don't deal with the central issue: how politics is reported.

There is now, again, a debate about why parliament is not considered more important and, as ever, the Government is held to blame.

But we haven't altered any of the lines of accountability between parliament and the executive. What has changed is the way parliament is reported, or rather not reported. Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered.

Except when they generate major controversy, they aren't.

If you are a backbench MP today you learn to give a press release first and a good parliamentary speech second.

My case, however, is this: there's no point either in blaming the media. We are both handling the changing nature of communication. The sooner we recognise this the better we can then debate a sensible way forward.

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st-century communications operate, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims.

The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by impact. Impact is what matters.

It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

The consequences of all this are acute.

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as, or more than, light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.

Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, the new technique is commentary on the news as being as big, if not more important than the news itself.

So, for example, there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them saying it.

In turn this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is, a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so as a matter of course.

In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine.

The final consequence of all this is that 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.

It used to be thought that help was on the horizon. New forms of communication would provide new outlets to bypass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced and more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.

But here is also the opportunity. We are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact. Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing but the thirst for news being real news is not.

This is an edited extract from a speech delivered this week at a Reuters function.

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