Tony Blair delivered a parting gift to Gordon Brown by suggesting he examines whether newspaper journalists should be brought under the same state control as broadcasters.
But journalists were divided as to whether Blair’s parting shot, delivered at a meeting for journalists at Reuters in London, just days before his departure from 10 Downing Street, would ultimately help the new prime minister or ensure future problems in his relationship with the press.
The Government has repeatedly rejected demands from Labour MPs to replace the PCC with a state regulator with members appointed by the government. But Blair’s speech on public life caused astonishment at Westminster since it amounted to a complete U-turn on the policy the Government has followed during Blair’s 10-year premiership.
Blair, who admitted he began his premiership with a reliance on spin, said TV and newspapers had ‘degenerated”during his 10 years in office. Commentary was mixed with fact, stories were driven by impact and scandal and controversy had replaced straightforward reporting, he said.
He then asked whether the newpaper industry’s right to self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission should survive.
‘As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have difference systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.”
Blair admitted the issue was one for his successor by adding: ‘I’m not in a position to determine this one way or another. But a way needs to be found. I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair.”
Kevin Marsh, who was editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme during the Hutton inquiry which followed its reporting of the Government’s ‘dodgy dossier’claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said Blair’s speech could shed light on Gordon Brown’s future strategy in dealing with the press.
Brown has already mooted the idea of a written constitution – one which could possibly enshrine a place for journalism within it.
‘Whether this idea of a written constitution would include some sort of compact with the press, I don’t know,’Marsh said. ‘The thing is, once you have something that looks and feels like a written constitution, you get to a place where the fourth estate has actually got a place within the constitution.
‘Everyone knows that the relationshipbetween politics and the press is a complete mess at the moment, is an absolute shambles and everyone would like to improve it in some way – Blair is right about the idea that there’s a big debate to have. And I think Gordon is absolutely determined to have that debate.”
Kevin Maguire, political editor on the Mirror, said: ‘I thought the sourness undermined the legitimate point about the competitiveness of the media in a 24/7 era. He’s done more to undermine trust in politics and politicians than any newspaper, radio station or TV channel. He lived by spin he died by spin, he created a media manipulation machine. I think it’s more of a settling scores speech than clearing the air.”
Press Complaints Commission director Tim Toulmin said: ‘I don’t think people should be too alarmed about Blair’s comments, this type of analysis has been going on for some time. There is no escaping the fact that the media are converging and that clearly has a knock-on effect to the type of regulation that is appropriate.
‘There are ongoing informal conversations between the PCC and Ofcom. Clearly the press and broadcast are very different and are meant to perform different functions and I think it would be wrong to use media convergence as an excuse to introduce greater restrictions on the press.”
Charlie Beckett, director of the journalism and society thinktank Polis said: ‘Blair, in the wake of Iraq has already tried to depoliticise and despin his media operations and Gordon will continue to do that. But if you look at his advisors, they probably share New Labour’s distaste of journalists.”