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Pete Hoskin

Peter Hoskin: The media is battling to stay relevant and trusted — as should politicians

“They now need us more than we need them” — so sayeth one adviser about the relationship between the press (“they”) and the politicians (“we”). It’s a dramatic claim, perhaps even one exaggerated for effect, but the thinking behind it is understandable enough. With the hacking scandal blending into the Savile scandal blending into the current mayhem at the Beeb, there’s a sense that the journalistic media are gazing over a precipice. Some politicians want to help pull them back from the edge. Others want to kick them, and send them tumbling down, down and down. Who needs whom, indeed?      

In truth, this is a question that some advisers were asking during the run-up to the last election. This was, you’ll remember, a period dripping with incident and with newsprint. There were the allegations of bullying surrounding Gordon Brown and his team; a major brouhaha about party funding; the whole Gillian Duffy episode; and numerous other stories to set the press corps’ typewriters ablaze. And yet did any of it move the polls? Rarely in any way that stood out from more general trends, and certainly not by as much as the excitement would have suggested. In the year up until the election, the only real shocks to the opinion polling data came from the expenses scandal, which hit Conservative and Labour ratings equally hard, and the first televised debate, which gave a short-lived boost to Liberal Democrat hopes. This was considered, by some, as evidence that the press holds an increasingly limited sway over hearts and minds.

But if that was true then, how much worse has it become since? After all, the media have had to struggle on two battlefronts over the past few years. The first is the battle for relevance. Even in just the past twelve months, six daily newspapers have seen their headline circulation numbers decrease, in percentage terms, by double-digits. And while some newspapers have developed world-beating websites in the meantime, or seen increased subscriptions to their digital editions, this shouldn’t obscure the challenges facing traditional news organisations and the reportage they engage in. To take just one factoid from a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only 37 per cent of people in the UK regard news about domestic politics as important to them, compared to 63 per cent in the US.

And the second is the battle for trust, which, despite the latest edition of the well-respected Edelman Trust Barometer, I’m not sure the media are winning. This survey suggested that, despite the commotion over phone hacking, trust in the media rose by 15 per cent in the UK over the past year; a finding that prompted a thousand cries of “A-wha?” at the time. But this figure was distilled from those respondents who met several conditions — such as that they “read or watch business⁄news media at least several times a week” — and was weighted away from those who are voting with their wallets and remote controls, and choosing not to consume the media’s product. Perhaps a YouGov poll from last year is closer to the truth of it. It found that three-quarters of people think the media sometimes or frequently lie to their audiences.

And now the BBC has been plunged into this bitter stew, with its own trust ratings plummeting from 62 per cent in 2009 to 45 per cent a fortnight ago, with worse likely to come. This is significant because Auntie has, for some time now, occupied an exalted position in Britain’s media pantheon; widely trusted and even more widely viewed. If even she can fall, then what hope has everyone else got?

At which point, I should say that I’m someone who believes in the traditional press and in its capacity to overcome. Ever since Gutenberg, it’s evolved to keep pace with technological change; it’s absorbed crises, scandals and monumental cock-ups. But, against today’s backdrop, is it any wonder that politicians are starting to get sceptical? For many of them, the future lies beyond the Andrew Marr show. This is clear in everything from Nadine Dorries’ involvement with I’m a Celebrity… to David Cameron’s conversion to Twitter. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s appearance on This Morning was surely another attempt to reach out further than the national newspaper readerships, even if it ended up fuelling the media bonfire.   

In many respects, this ought to be a welcome development: I’m generally all for politicians stepping out from the oak-panelled confines of Westminster and widening the spread of democracy. But there’s also much to be wary of, including the potential for cheap sanctimoniousness all-round. Yes, great wrongs have been perpetrated by sections of the media; much needs fixing. But it’s still darkly hilarious to hear some Parliamentarians talk about “trust” as if the Commons doesn’t still have trust issues of its own. And it’s downright perturbing to witness how eager some of them are to erode press freedom. These calls will probably intensify, even as some of the least edifying examples of crossover between politicians and the press — such as negative briefing against colleagues — continue.  

My guess is that, even more so than in 2010, we ought to brace ourselves for 2015: The Anti-Media Election. In which case, can I recommend in advance a particularly elegant paean to the press; Samuel Fuller’s 1952 film Park Row? One of its characters writes that “the press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it”. Something similar, we shouldn’t forget, could be said about politics.


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