25 January 2011

Does this government have the courage to communicate?

The dust is settling and the thousands of words written on the Andy Coulson’s resignation are now heading for the recycling bins, so where does this leave us? Has anything changed?

I think so. When I started following the Coulson story, back in 2009, the power of the Murdoch Empire, the damage that his papers could do to individuals, the way in which it exerted influence over political parties was something that was spoken about in whispers. Steve Bells Cartoon from September 2010 shows us very clearly just how menacing it all felt.

It has taken a lot of courage and a lot of persistence to ask the very difficult questions, that bring us to where we are now.

We have moved from the point where hardly anyone knew about the phone hacking story – or understood its relevance, to the point where it dominated the press and BBC for days on end. I know this makes a difference to me. I know that there are many thousands of people who now see what I see and feel pretty much as I feel.

It is still not true to say that everyone now knows about this. The tabloids still appear nervous about this, for obvious reasons, as you can see from this scan of the front pages from 22/01/11.

As News International begins going through its emails with a fine toothed comb, new court cases are being prepared that will raise the same questions in a range of other tabloid papers. Journalists are rattled, as well they might be. There is the real prospect of individual journalists being jailed for actions which they know to have been widespread throughout the industry.

Why are we so bothered about the hacking, this game that everyone was playing with scarcely a second thought? Jackie Ashley in her article –“The Andy Coulson affair raises the question – who runs Britain?” touches on it. She paints the picture of a dark network of private snooping, with no more noble justification than providing stories that will help to sell newspapers. This is something that has penetrated so many parts of our society, and touched so many people with fear that we do not have a defence against it. MPs, Judges, the Police, political parties, are all powerless to act.

We used to roll our eyes in horror at the idea of an East German State with its army of snoopers, but here we have rich and powerful men who have used their skill at story telling to wield power.

For anyone who is in the public eye, the knowledge that some minor slip, or even no slip at all, can be used at the whim of some journalist or editor to wreck their reputation and destroy a career is always there, exerting its influence, constraining the decisions that they make. We should not console ourselves that this is confined to the important people. Any one of us may by some accident of fate find our self an object of interest to the press.

The focus has been on hacking, but even if the practices of hacking, and entrapment can all be stamped out, then this does not get us to the root of the problem. The article by MagsNews points to wider problems with the Press Complaints Committee, the body that in theory currently protects us from other forms of misreporting, and the structural reasons why it is currently so hard for us to trust it.

Hacking is covered by one small part of the editor’s code. There are many other problematic areas of the code, accuracy, public interest, harassment, intrusion into grief.

There are many good decent journalists with the interests of their communities or country at heart, but there are also strong inducements for members of the press to turn predator. When they chose to do so then the code, or the way in which the PCC enforces the code, does not seem to be strong enough to protect us.

But there is more. Beyond all this there is the matter of how people at the top of politics think, and the way in which influence is brought to bear on their decisions by the Murdoch Empire and by other newspaper editors. Whilst politicians continue to believe that electoral victory is in part in the gift of the tabloid editors then the relationship between the press and the parties will continue to bring us the very worst of politically driven tabloid journalism.

The departure of Andy Coulson is not and cannot be the end of the story. His replacement is being sought. We are at a time when the government is already feeling that they are under attack, and the temptation will be there to use the papers in the ways that Coulson did so effectively. The vision that set the frame for “Broken Britain”, “benefit scroungers”, “the death tax”, “non-jobs”, “Labour’s deficit”, “floods of immigrants” and so much more will probably still wield its influence. The government may still chose to fall back on this lazy option of using the media to divide us against ourselves.

Andy Coulson’s last days in no 10 brought us something valuable. It has brought us information about how this relationship between the Conservative party and the press works.

We can see now it is about codes of friendship and mutual advantage. The cosy picture of Christmas as Chipping Norton tells us all we needed to know. For David Cameron it would probably never have crossed his mind that he could be criticised for having a pleasant dinner with his friends, Rebecca Brookes and James Murdoch. Maybe he did not even see himself how it would be perceived by other friends who have to make these very tricky decisions about Mr Murdochs commercial interests .

He needs to see how he is seen.

Mr Cameron is not a details man, I am sure he would seldom bother to read the stories produced by his friends papers. He just knows that it is useful to him that they continue to do so. He should look, -really look, at some of the articles peddled in his name and see the damage that this does to some of the more positive aspects of his own vision.

Mr Cameron has a choice. The distrust that people felt towards politicians during the expenses row has not gone away, it has changed. We were bothered about the hobnobs, but the distrust now goes far deeper. It is about broken promises and the failure to consult or listen. This is actually about a failure of communication, and a failure of respect. David Cameron thinks very highly of Coulson's talents, but, under Andy Coulson’s watch the media was used to manipulate and persuade. It was not used to communicate clearly and respectfully.

If the replacement for Andy Coulson offers us more of the same then the last of the respect we may feel for a government that so clearly fails to respect us will be lost.

What I believe people really want is a government that offers meaningful dialogue and creates the means for us to work with each other. The tools for this exist. Does this Government have the courage to use them?