Friday, July 13, 2007

Cry Media!

David, David, David. What are we going to do with you?

First, there's the title. Don't blame Campbell. It was the media's fault. David doesn't come up with any suggestions for reforming the media - as far as I can tell, he thinks all journalists (possibly bar himself and a couple of mates) are incorrigible scallywags: shallow and lazy and mendacious and greedy. But by pointing the finger at everyone, nothing gets done. The media is just rotten, so what do you expect?

First off, I think the comparison between the books by George Tenet ('Director of the CIA till the summer of 2004') and Richard Clarke ('former counter-terrorism boss') and those of Christopher Meyer and Alastair Campbell is specious. I've only read the Clarke one, and he is hostile toward Cheney and Rice, while admiring of Clinton and Gore, but his reasons for this are to do with policy: Rice ignored him until September 2001, despite al-Qaeda attacks on the US (the first World Trade Center; the USS Cole; the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya). On the other hand, Christopher Meyer wrote about 'second-class politicians ... being seen in their underpants' which concerns the book-buying taxpayer somewhat less than whether she is going to be murdered in her bed. Campbell is no better than Meyer:

The next day "another Austin Powers moment", Mr Campbell went upstairs at No. 10 to find Mr Blair wearing yellow/green underpants and nothing else, "what a prat he looked".

The best bits in The Blair Years.
There seem to be two sorts of disclosure - one of policy-making in camera as it were, and the other of cheap scenes from a stage farce. (See Bob Dylan: "But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked.")

I agree with DA that the argument that politicians and civil servants won't be able to trust each other if the latter is allowed to publish is unconvincing - but provided civil servants stick to the Clarke-type memoir, not the Meyer one. DA then turns to a second - and in my opinion straw - objection: 'since [Campbell] had left stuff out, his diaries would be almost worthless'.

It is true that Campbell has left out some of the great Brown-Blair arguments, but that doesn't make the diaries unvaluable, it just means that any scholar of the period will bear his selective reticence in mind - as you do when assessing any historical document.

One would hope that 'any scholar' would actually try to get her hands on the manuscript diaries, not the edited version. DA seems to think that these are the only criticisms of Campbell. But there's a better one; not that they're compromised, but that they're trash.

So Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton and Alastair Campbell walk into a McDonald's on a desolate Blackpool sidestreet, late at night, in the rain ... There isn't a punchline to this joke, but it's entirely representative of Alastair Campbell's diaries, and, in its way, it tells you a lot about the diarist and the government in which he served. There's the self-satisfied revelling in power ("the staff were gobsmacked when we trooped in") combined with childlike awe at being in Clinton's presence. But above all, there's the sense, which leaps from every page of the diaries, of government as one continuous mistake: a frenetic, shambolic, unplannable, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute botch job.

Guardian: Alastair Campbell's victims bite back. While the Times has been critical itself, Aaro finds a rival to blame:

Monday’s editorial in The Daily Telegraph described Campbell as an "enormity", a “notorious bully” who had, with Mr Mandelson, "effected the debauching of our democracy with an ethic of pathological deceit", variously using "distortion", "outright mendacity" and "intimidation". "It damns the Blair years anew,” the Telegraph concluded, "that such men continue to prosper from the defilement in which they conspired."
You might say all this about Reggie Kray, but once you interrogate the sentiments behind such fruity language applied to a press officer, however senior, you are left with some questions. Who exactly was “intimidated”? What did they fear? How precisely was democracy debauched? If journalists were reasonably robust and did their jobs properly, how could “spin” make any real difference?

(That editorial is here. I'm impressed that they used 'enormity' correctly.)

But one blow Humphrys did land was to remind Campbell of his own ancient discourtesies as a journalist towards John Major. Watching the disgraced former Mirror Editor Piers Morgan abusing Cherie Blair in last week’s BBC documentary was to be reminded of the extraordinary, unbiased gittishness of much of the British press. No wonder the one great falling-out between Tony Blair and Campbell, as revealed in the diaries, was over Cheriegate. Mr Blair, who had never been a tabloid journalist, felt that the animal destructiveness of the media frenzy could not be appeased. Campbell later discovered how right he was.

I like 'gittishness' and 'animal destructiveness' and admire the mental gymnastics that allow DA to write this without ever thinking than his pen, as it were, is pointed at his foot. I can't stand Piers Morgan, but in the Guardian piece linked above he does explain his argument with Cherie Blair.

"There you have, in Alastair's own words, absolute confirmation that the Daily Mirror - the vociferously Labour-supporting newspaper - had done the dutiful thing, going to them with a sensitive piece of information very early in the day, and taking them into our trust. And they responded by handing our scoop to our immediate commercial rival to fuck us over! I don't necessarily blame him, because it was his partner and Cherie that did it, but how can you have a relationship of trust after that? He underplays the bit about Blair, actually. Tony was pathetically apologising for what his wife had done, which was really embarrassing and demeaning."

Who's gittish there? And this is what Campbell thinks of the press (from the same article):

TB was doing an interview with David Baddiel at Millbank, which was excellent. It was a more reflective interview than usual and TB put a lot more of himself into it. Ulrika Jonsson [TV personality] was doing Major for the same series [hilariously entitled The Enormous Election with Dennis Pennis]. TB said to Baddiel: 'How come I get you and Major gets Ulrika?'"

There's the Campbell ideal interviewer - a comedian or a whatever-it-is-that-Ulrika-does. Its good point? "TB put a lot more of himself into it". No policy; just personality. Dumbed-down entertainment. DA earlier:

In any case, far greater frankness is now demanded from public institutions than 30 years ago, as the publication of otherwise classified documents during the Hutton and Butler inquiries proved.

Why is 'greater frankness' demanded now? Couldn't be the media could it?

If journalists were reasonably robust and did their jobs properly, how could "spin" make any real difference?

Journalists are not robust. Spin clearly has made a difference, and all the smoke and mirrors in the world can't change that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was something similar on one of the crookedtimber threads recently, where the success of intimidation was blamed on those intimidated:

7/13/2007 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

The wholoe "blame the press" thing is laughable anyway.

First, there has surely been no Labour goernment which has had such a favourable press for so long, not even Attlee when there were more "natural" Labour papers.

Second, this was an administration which considered the lobby correspondents more important than the Cabinet. They loved the press, far more than they loved their own party, and it's a bit bloody late to find out that they're not always on your side.

Third, who was it who went grovelling to Dacre and Murdoch? Who built their domestic policies round their demands? And who never said a word to the effect that the Mail and Sun are a disgrace to a civilised society?

I've said before that Aaro is a courtier. His gripe, and that of John Lloyd, is that the media didn't stay on-message: the complaint of people who thought everything could be controlled and found out in the end that it couldn't. The complaint of insiders, that not all the insiders played the game.

7/13/2007 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

And Campbell's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Rupert by his side come hot from Oz,
Shall in these confines of blue-pencill'd crap
Cry 'Ofuc,' and let slip the hogs of Bore;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

7/14/2007 12:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's cast our minds back 5 years. You couldn't open a newpaper without seeing a picture of Saddam next to a picture of Hitler accompanying articles that were liberally sprinkled with words like "appeasement" "1938" "Munich" "threat". And then there were those articles that said that the US was beefing up the defences of Israel and Turkey because Iraq might attack them (and not mentioning that this was preparation for an attack on Iraq by the US). And then there was the way that the press lapped up the "certainty" of the intelligence in the souped-up dossier.

How did all that happen? Because there was an incestuous relationship between the Sofa Government and certain sections of the press. They egged each other on. They both wanted another nice, little war like the Falklands.

So it's al a bit odd watching the press and the spin-doctors pointing fingers at each other. The victims were the public who were bombarded with false information: both the press and the sofa-government and its spin-doctors were guilty.

7/17/2007 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You couldn't open a newpaper without seeing a picture of Saddam next to a picture of Hitler accompanying articles that were liberally sprinkled with words like "appeasement" "1938" "Munich" "threat".

Not saying I disagree with the general thesis, but I don't remember ever opening a newspaper and seeing a picture of Saddam next to a picture of Hitler, let alone these liberally-sprinkled articles alongside. Crank down a tad.

7/17/2007 12:56:00 PM  

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