In the UK, such publications as The Sun take the cynical position as a default yet the more useful and human response is a neutral one. John Lloyd, in his book What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics, argues the out-of-control media is considerably damaging to the political process – he illustrates how the public spend more time absorbing the media than we apply to any other activity.
Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens told me the worst aspect of modern politics is how opponents are not treated like human beings. There is no respect any more, he argued. Yet two days later Hitchens wrote an article in which he consistently referred to David Cameron as ‘Mr Slippery’. I put it to him: is that treating the Prime Minister with the respect you speak of?
“To describe a Prime Minister as slippery is in the fine old tradition of English political discourse,” he said. But Hitchens is wrong to suggest a politician must tolerate such labels – a more appropriate position is one taken by veteran BBC journalist John Humphrys, who told me: “I make the assumption that my interviewees are being honest unless it is proved otherwise.” This is precisely the attitude towards reporting that we see diminishing in modern society – Lloyd suggests the collective media now assume that politicians are born liars (indeed we remember those famous words as inspiration for a method of interviewing: ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’).
Former journalist and political spin doctor Alastair Campbell recognises the damaging effects the media has on public societal engagement: “The media like to portray political communication in a very negative light and their own communication, journalism, in a very positive light. Having been on both sides, I think I know where the negativity really lies.”
Print journalists are increasingly facing the struggles of falling circulation numbers and so to combat that worrying trend they become pressed towards delivering more sensation. In 1992 The Sun epitomised the declining standards of media commentary: “Too many politicians are sad, sordid, pathetic, inadequate wimps with private lives that make ordinary people’s stomachs churn. They are not fit to hold office,” it wrote. Let’s avoid making the same mistake as The Sun and not generalise all publications (as they do politicians) as the same.
Adam Gopnik says the reporter “used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them.” But perhaps UK politicians deserve such hostility? It would not be a ludicrous suggestion – after all, they failed to change their behaviour after the most outrageous misuses of public money in the expenses scandal which did more to disaffect people with politics than ever before.
And Jimmy Carter, in his farewell address, said he “will lay down my official responsibilities in this office to take up the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”
But in order to move forward, the debate within the media should not be personal, but about policy. And until our elected representatives are treated fairly by the press, Lloyd is right: the media is responsible for the declining influence and respect of politicians.
Whatever we think of the person who holds the top job of President or Prime Minister, let’s first remember who they actually are. The public have chosen to invest enormous trust and responsibility in them – and so with scrutiny should also come a great deal of respect.