The benefits of unmediated communication

An <a href="">illustration</a> of how people take in the anti-politician attitudes of the mainstream press comes from the BBC News site. They showed <a href="">Tony Blair's conference speech</a> to a group of A-level (17/18 year-old) students in North East London, and asked them what they thought.

The students are surprised by how genuine and heartfelt the speech is, but still suspect everything contrary to the media presentation is 'a publicity stunt'.

One of them, a Melanie Stevens says:

<blockquote>"I didn't know what to think of him before because we've been presented with all the negative aspects of what happened in the media".</blockquote>

Well, quite.

Journalistic standards – a comparison

<a href="">Boris Johnson</a> – the editor of the <a href="">Spectator</a> and <a href="">Conservative</a> MP for <a href="">Henley</a> – provides an interesting example of how media ethics vary in the US and the UK.

Exhibit A: Mr Johnson's<a href=",7558,1313243,00.html">article</a> in the Guardian's media section yesterday. In it, he mounts a defence of Andrew Gilligan (the journalist whose report on the <a href="">Today Programme</a> set off the chain of events that led to the <a href="">Hutton enquiry</a>). Following the principle that the best form of defence is attack, the article attacks any journalist who has had the temerity to criticise Mr Gilligan – who was strongly criticised by Lord Hutton and later sacked. Mr Johnson's argument is a fairly common one in the print media, and goes something like this:

<blockquote>Sure, Gilligan's story wasn't true in exactly the way it was expressed, but the concerns in it were true in a general sense. After all, there <i>were</i> some people who were concerned about the Iraq intelligence although Mr Gilligan didn't know the extent or level of those doubts. The intelligence has since turned out to be wrong. And that Tony Blair, he just seems a bit dodgy, doesn't he? He's a politician, he must have been knowingly deceitful.</blockquote>

For me, as I have said before, this argument just doesn't wash. Mr Gilligan's report was wrong, and accused the Government of bad faith on no evidence. That Mr Gilligan's report was somewhere close to something like true, and that the Government's deceitfulness is now generally assumed, does not change the fundamental fact that Mr Gilligan's report was inaccurate. Journalists are not there to reveal essential verities – we can leave that to the novelists – they are there to reveal true facts.

Exhibit B: The controversy around CBS's report of the falsified memos concerning President Bush's service in the Texas National Guard. Here, <a href="">Dan Rather</a> made a report based around memos which were later revealed to be forgeries. Outside the political parties and their proxies, the details of Mr Bush's service in the Guard, along with its deficiencies, are not seriously disputed. And yet Mr Rather – a highly respected journalist – is facing a career-marring disgrace on the basis of his story, and a <a href="">high-level investigation</a> has been launched.

The standards applied to Mr Rather, which Mr Johnson is unwilling to apply to Mr Gilligan, are high. Perhaps, for such a long-serving journalist, they are harsh. But they are right. I would not want to fly on a plane with a pilot who would more or less hit the runway. I would not want to go to a surgeon who had a general idea of where the appendix is. Journalists have an important and privileged position in a democracy, and their accuracy matters too much to be shrugged away. Nearly right is not right, despite Mr Johnson's political or personal vendettas.

Incidentally, Mr Johnson is Mr Gilligan's new employer. I leave that revelation right to the end of the piece, just as Mr Johnson does.

Carter attacks Floridian election process

In an <a href="">extraordinary article</a> in today's Washington Post, former president Carter attacks the Florida state election procedures in terms that leave no doubt he thinks it worse than many third-world countries'.

Politics and the corporation

I'm currently taking part in an interesting discussion on the role that corporations play in American politics. It's on an open conference on the Well called <a href="">inkwell.vue</a>, and anyone can post without being a WELL member.

Floggings will continue until morale improves

Don’t like banging your head against that brick wall? Why not try banging it even harder?

The BBC reports that the Metropolitan Police have backed a campaign to have the drinking age in Hampstead raised to 21. Their article (in their slightly frothy magazine section) quotes “psychologist Colin Drummond” in support of a general move in that direction, and reasonable noises from Alcohol Concern and the Portman Group in opposition. The reason – having the limit at 18 isn't preventing people under 18 from drinking.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that this ban has absolutely no chance of ever being enacted (18 year olds can vote, after all), and it’s a lovely case study of how failing legislation can be pushed into failing harder by people who can’t think outside the box.

Incidentally, I used to live near Hampstead, and something tells me that any ban is probably related more to the socio-economic group of its inhabitants rather than its non-existent status as party capital of North London.

Battle is joined in Blair’s war on conservatism

Today the House of Commons votes on the banning of hunting with hounds – the fox hunting ban. The arguments on both sides have been rehearsed ad nauseam over the last few years, and the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance are currently (early evening) winding up a large rally in front of Parliament, protesting at the ban.

The Government have said that if the House of Lords reject the ban – as seems likely, given their previous record on this issue – that they will force through the ban by means of the Parliament Act.

Fox-hunting (and farming and countryside issues more generally) have been taken up strongly by the Tory press, notably the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The irresponsible end of that spectrum, the Mail and the Express, have used this issue as another example of the perfidy of Labour’s crypto-communist campaign against all that is good and holy about British society. The leftish press, particularly the Guardian, have presented it as the last hurrah of the landed Establishment.

The class colouring of the debate is misleading, however. For the people who are going to vote on it this evening, it seems mostly to be a matter of animal welfare versus the right of people to carry on doing what they have always done. For all the rhetoric of the Mail, that something has always been done is no reason why it shouldn’t be stopped.

We shall see what happens when the ban comes into force, which may be several years away. The Countryside Alliance promises widespread civil unrest, and (echoing the Sinn Fein of old) insist that anything bad that happens will be the Government’s responsibility. Noteworthy was one small incident from the paranoid fringes: the leg of an electricity pylon in Cumbria was sawn through by a group calling itself the Real Countryside Alliance – a name echoing the Real IRA, and hence facile and offensive at the same time.

Are we going to see a rebellion of the Establishment? If so, when is the Prime Minister going to declare victory over the scattered forces of conservatism?

Update: It’s already begun!