Media tips from a departing premier: Keep news and views distinct

There's a market in providing serious, balanced news.

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My principal reflection ... is that the relationship between politics, public life, and the media is changing as a result of the changing context of communication in which we all operate. No one is at fault. This change is a fact, but it is my view that the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted and that we need at the least a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future in which it is in all our interests that the public is properly and accurately informed....

The relations between politics and the media are, and are by necessity, difficult. It is as it should be. The question is: Is it qualitatively and quantitatively different today? And I think, yes....

The media world, like everything else, is becoming more fragmented, more diverse, and above all transformed by technology.... Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market.... News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge.... The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it moves in real time....

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In the 1960s, believe it or not, the government would sometimes, if there was a serious issue, have a Cabinet meeting that would last over two days. It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day....

...How many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered? Except when they generate controversy, they aren't. If you are a backbench [Minister of Parliament] today you learn to give a good press release first and a good parliamentary speech second.... The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st [century] communications operate, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not actually the masters of this change, they are in many ways the victims.

The result, however, is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by impact. Impact is what matters.... It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unraveling standards ... making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be, but an impulsion towards sensation above all else....

The audience needs to be arrested, held, and their emotions engaged; something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.

And the consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment.... Third, the fear of missing out means that today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack.... Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more, important than the news itself.

So for example, there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of [him] actually saying it. ...[T]his leads to a fifth point, which is the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism, but it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible....

...And the final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life's usual grays are almost entirely absent. Some goods, some bad, some things going right, some going wrong. These are concepts alien to much of today's reporting. It is a triumph or a disaster, a problem is a crisis, a setback, a policy in tatters, a criticism, a savage attack....

Now is this becoming worse? Again I would say yes. In my 10 years [as prime minister] I have noticed all these elements evolve with ever greater momentum.

Now it used to be thought – and I include myself in this – that help was on the horizon. New forms of communication would provide new outlets to bypass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five. But here is also the opportunity. ...[T]here is a market in providing serious balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing, but the thirst for news being real news is not.

The media ... need to reassert their own selling point in this new communication age, the distinction between news and comment. ...I do believe this relationship between public life and the media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief, it undermines its assessment of itself and its institutions, and above all it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future....

Tony Blair is the British prime minister. These are excerpts from a speech he gave at Reuters headquarters in London on June 12.

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