LONDON — The British prime minister’s chief of communications has publicly accepted that the overuse of “spin” in government has led to cynicism and that the emphasis should now be on policy and delivery. Most British observers would agree. But government ministers, who have spent much of their life trying to manipulate the media to favor them and what they are trying to do, find it very hard to change their ways. They believe, probably incorrectly as only a minority take their political views from the papers they read, that they will only be re-elected if the media is on their side. The British media is not easily manipulated and obvious attempts to do so are usually counterproductive.
No one can doubt that a free press, television and radio are essential for a healthy democracy, but politicians in particular want the media to be “responsible.” The problem is to define the term “responsible.” To some politicians this means that the media should make “the national interest” a paramount consideration and accordingly should do their best to support the policies and actions of the democratically elected government.
This interpretation is potentially dangerous. It may not be clear where the “national interest” really lies, and the policies of a democratically elected government may cease to reflect the views and needs of the electorate. Elements within government may have become corrupt and inefficient. Manipulation of the media may therefore be antidemocratic and damaging to the national interest.
The British media is far from perfect. The British tabloid papers generally seem to prefer sensation to fact and emotion to reason. The Daily Express, now owned by a publisher of pornographic magazines, is popularly referred to as the “sexpress.” The Daily Mail is called by jokers “The Daily Snail.” The Mirror and The Sun seem to vie with one another to appeal to the baser instincts of their readers.
The broadsheets are a bit better but are generally biased. The Daily Telegraph, owned by Canadian Conrad Black, is known to many as the “Torygraph” as it is consistently to the right of the Conservative (Tory) Party. The Times, which in the 19th century was called the “Thunderer” for its condemnation of policies of which it disapproved, has increased its circulation under Rupert Murdoch but has lost its place as the voice of the establishment by espousing the prejudices of its owner and pandering to populist attitudes.
The BBC, which used to be known as “Aunty” because it was so staid, has been accused by many of “dumbing down” in order to retain its audience ratings and accordingly to justify the license fee that keeps it going. Few British papers except The Financial Times give adequate and objective attention to foreign affairs. Yet it has to be said that in international comparisons the British media come out quite well. The press in the United States strike me generally as being even more parochial than the British, and there are plenty of sensational papers in France, Germany and other European countries.
There is much emphasis everywhere on the human right to privacy. I do not dispute the importance of privacy, but anyone in a position of trust must be prepared to accept that the public has a right to know whether they really can be trusted. This means that investigative journalism is an essential element in ensuring that those in authority are not corrupt. A media in which investigative journalism is unreasonably constrained ceases to be a bulwark of democratic government. The British media, including the BBC, has often been criticized by those in power of “irresponsible” investigations and of “hounding” political figures. Such accusations tend to confirm that “there is no smoke without fire.”
The latest example of “spin,” which has damaged the British government’s prestige, once more involves the “disgraceful Mr. Byers,” the transport minister who finally and much too late recently recognized that he was a liability and resigned. “Mr. Byers, the liar” was apparently embarrassed by allegations (which he, of course, denied, though no one believed him) that he had revealed to victims of the Paddington rail crash his intention to put Railtrack, the infrastructure company, into administration some time before this was publicly announced, thus creating a false market in the company’s shares. An e-mail sent by one of Byers’ political advisers recently came to light. It tried to find out if the leader of the victims group was politically motivated and could thus be smeared. In Tokyo this may seem very unimportant, but using the government machine in this apparently underhand way to try to discredit a critic who had suffered serious burns in the crash has aroused anger here and forced all concerned to apologize.
The Blair government has used various methods to ensure that the government “message” is “properly” understood. The “parliamentary lobby” briefings, “off the record” meetings with selected correspondents thought to be “friendly” and careful cultivation of influential editors and media owners have meant that the government message has been put over effectively, but those concerned are now trying to come to terms with the fact that the “medium is not the message,” and that delivery of policies will count more than spin.
The Japanese media strike many foreign observers as both dull and tame. The contents of leader columns are so predictable that there is rarely any need to read more than the headline and the first and last sentences. The leading stories tend to be pretty similar and few articles contain facts not in other papers. Rare and embarrassing stories about Japanese affairs tend to appear first in foreign media.
The blame for this situation rests with the exclusive Japanese “kisha kurabu” (press club) system. Spoon-feeding of information, efforts to limit competition by eliminating scoops and the cultivation of cozy relationships may simplify the lives of politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, but they do not make for healthy media that can bolster democratic practices.
For the sake of Japan’s democracy, Japanese journalists need to become more competitive and less tame. They should pursue investigative journalism with more vigor and without fear or favor. How many of the recent scandals that have involved Japanese politicians and bureaucrats have been unearthed by investigative journalists? How many more scandals are there waiting to be revealed by diligent investigators?
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