Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Image politics and Britain’s free press

Prime Minister David Cameron is in political trouble because of his close association with journalists who have used phone hacking to increase sales of the now defunct News of the World.  He wants desperately to share his embarrassment broadly, proposing a government commission to look into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British press.

Like any run-of-the-mill narcissist, Cameron insists that everyone in journalism and politics has participated in his mistakes. Cameron declared, that “we” have all been in this together, “Yes, including me.”

And then he got serious:

“Of course it is vital that our press is free,” Mr. Cameron said. “That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life. But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law.

“While it’s vital that a free press can tell truth to power, it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.”

This is trite and dangerous. The prospect of government “reform” only makes great journalism less a sure thing.

Politicians cozy up to the press because they want a tame press, not a free one.

Governments don’t necessarily tell the press the truth. The journalists that democracies rely on verify what governments claim to be true. That is an adversarial responsibility. It is not informed by empathetic dinner parties.

(As the cynic Sir Humphrey Appleby in the satire “Yes, Minister” warned, “You can’t believe anything, until the government denies it.”)

Being exposed for hanging out with hustlers and sucking up to a press baron, of course, diminishes Cameron’s image. However, they are exactly what image-obsessed Prime Ministers do. His discomfort provides a learning opportunity, not an excuse for his government to “reform” Britain’s free press.

1 comment:

  1. Then there was this exchange between Sir Humphrey and PM Hacker and his private secretary:

    "Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers' prejudices.

    Jim Hacker: Don't tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers.
    The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country.
    The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country.
    The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country.
    The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country.
    The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country.
    The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.
    Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
    Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don't care *who* runs the country - as long as she's got big tits."