Blair Likens News Media to 'Feral Beast'

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

LONDON, June 12 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that the news media, driven by increasing competition and pressure from fast-changing technology, have largely abandoned impartial reporting in favor of sensation, shock and controversy, which he said demoralizes public servants and badly serves the public.

"The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack," Blair said in a speech two weeks before he steps down after a decade in office. "In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."

In a speech hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Blair said the news industry has become fragmented with the proliferation of blogs and other Internet-based sources of information and 24-hour television news programming. As newspapers "fight for a share of a shrinking market," he said, they face pressure to publish news on their Web sites today rather than in their newspapers tomorrow.

That new competition, combined with increasing demands to produce news instantly, has placed unprecedented burdens on news organizations, which have responded by "unraveling standards" of journalism and stressing "impact" over accuracy, he said.

"It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed," he said. "Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact." In that environment, he said, "something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. . . . A problem is 'a crisis.' A setback is a policy 'in tatters.' A criticism, 'a savage attack.' "

Blair came into office in May 1997 as a media darling, the leader of a revitalized party known as New Labor. He was routinely portrayed as a dynamic reformer and gifted orator who represented a shining new era in British politics. Now, he is criticized daily in the British news media, largely over his handling of the Iraq war and his close relationship with President Bush. Blair has announced that he will step down June 27, allowing Gordon Brown, the country's finance minister, to succeed him.

Roger Alton, editor of the Observer newspaper, called Blair's speech "a highly perceptive and shrewd tour of the media horizon, with hardly anything in it that is not being discussed constantly in newspaper and media offices all over the land." Alton's comments were published on the Guardian newspaper Web site.

Matthew d'Ancona, editor of the Spectator magazine, said the speech showed that Blair was obsessed by the media. "He says he's not playing the blame game, but it's hard to see how calling the media a 'feral beast' can be interpreted any other way," d'Ancona said on the Spectator's blog. "New Labour was very happy to tango with the media until it went wrong," he said, adding, "I don't think . . . the proliferation of new media is bad for politics: quite the opposite. It may be bad for the present Government, but that's not the same thing."

Bernard Ingham, who was press secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said in an interview: "There has undoubtedly been a tabloidization of the British media; they are much more concerned with trivialities than they used to be. But Tony Blair is the last person who should complain. He elevated the media by running after them, and by bribing them and corrupting journalists with promises of exclusives.

"He was only too happy with the media when they were fawning on him. It's only when they realized what a terrible prime minister he's been that he starts whingeing and whining."

Blair said his assessment was not a complaint about his own treatment in the media, but rather an argument that the relationship between the media and those in public life had become poisonous and needed to be repaired. "We are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact," Blair said. "Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians."

In his speech Tuesday, Blair said he was partly to blame for helping create the current media climate during the early days of New Labor, as the movement he led within the Labor Party became known. "We paid inordinate attention during the early days of New Labor to courting, assuaging and persuading the media," he said. ". . . Such an attitude ran the risk of fueling the trends in communications that I am about to question."

Blair said the growing intensity of the news media had changed, for the worse, the way all people in public life make decisions.

When he took office, he said, he and cabinet ministers would often debate a serious problem for two days before announcing a position. "It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day," he said.

Blair said a "vast aspect" of public life today is "coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity."

"At points, it literally overwhelms," he said. "Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today -- business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organizations, and they will tell you the same."

Blair said he initially believed that fast-evolving technology would improve the situation by providing "new outlets to bypass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media." However, he said, "the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five."

Blair said it was not for him to suggest changes. But "the damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief," he said. "It undermines its assessment of itself, of institutions, and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company