Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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Feb 11

In defence of party leaders’ TV debates in elections

Interesting arguments and data last night from Professor Stephen Coleman, giving the first David Butler lecture, supporting the case for continued televised leaders debates in general elections, begun last year. (You have had these already for a long time in other countries? We are a little behind here).

Coleman was taking aim at the grumbling which attested to the success of the debates. Gordon Brown, who was going to lose the election irrespective of what happened in the debates and who did not perform well in them, complained that the televised jousting “clouded” the issues. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News (who was not invited to moderate one of the debates) kvetched that the British system was turning presidential and spoiling the campaign.

These were transparently silly arguments when they were made, but Coleman demolished them with a handful of arguments and figures from some research just out from the Reuters Institute in Oxford. A selection:
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Apr 10

Dead Man Walking

What tests a political leader in an open system is how he or she reacts when something goes pear-shaped, as it always will. On the campaign trail, endless, intense, tightly-scheduled days when the candidate gets increasingly tired and hoarse, things go wrong more often.

When a missile struck the Barrack Obama campaign, what happened? Hardly an eyelid moved. He was Doctor Cool. The message is not just one of calm purposefulness to the world in general but to the candidate’s team. Obama’s body language said to those closest to him: nobody even thinks about blinking. We deal with it, whatever it is, then we stop dealing with it and move on. Saying little and saying it only once takes nerve.

The small tragedy of Gordon Brown’s reaction to the voter from Rochdale was not what happened when the Prime Minister climbed into his car but what followed after his “bigot” remarks had gone global. The Labour campaign have agonised about getting the “real” Gordon Brown across to voters; attaching a lapel mike was one small way of making that happen. Brown’s ticking off his aides for the “disaster” was recognised by his team because they knew it was the truth. “Authentic, at least,” said one long-suffering Brown aide familiar with mood swings from the Prime Minister. A fit epitaph.

And then Brown could not even exercise the self-mastery to keep his apology short. This mistake is well caught by Matthew Parris in this morning’s Times.

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Apr 10

Rebekah and James go postal

The stresses and strains at the top of NewsCorp are beginning to look like King Lear in slow motion. When will ageing

James Murdoch

James Murdoch

King Rupert let go the reins of power and who will be best placed to benefit?  The tension burst into view when the heir-presumptive James Murdoch and News International’s Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks invaded the offices of The Independent to complain in person to Editor-in Chief Simon Kelner about a recent front page knocking Murdoch.

Michael Wolff of Newser is sometimes offbeam on Murdoch and NewsCorp, but this analysis of what’s at stake in the British election seems right on the nail.

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Mar 10

Elections upside down

We’re tumbling down the timetable slope to the sudden-death slugfest that is a general election in Britain. Here is one perspective on voting which political journalists very seldom give you. Continue reading →