Michael Gove has described the decline of the local and regional media in the UK as “one of the sadnesses of my adult lifetime” and himself as a “journalist gone to the bad” in a speech to industry professionals.
The Environment Secretary, who started his career as a trainee reporter at the Aberdeen Press and Journal in the 1980s, backed his “bedraggled” but “noble” former trade “because the pursuit of journalism is the pursuit of truth and without truth democracy dies in darkness”.
Gove also worked for the Times between 1996 and 2005, when he left to become an MP. He has since returned to the newspaper, between bouts in Government, to write columns and interview US President Donald Trump.
Speaking at the Journalists’ Charity’s Scottish Press Lunch in Glasgow on Friday, Gove said: “I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher. I’m a dog who has become a rather bedraggled lamppost.
“In making the switch from reporting to politics I left a profession that I loved and admired for a complex of reasons.
“But one of the reasons why I love and admire journalism is that politicians, rather like nappies, have to be changed often and generally for the same reason.
“But while politicians are dispensable in a democracy, one thing is indispensable and that is a free press.”
He added: “One of the sadnesses of my adult lifetime has been the decline of the local and regional media in this country.”
Gove spoke about his former title – “the newspaper in which I cut my teeth” – as being “often caricatured for its provinciality”, picking out two of its most infamous headlines.
He quoted the Press and Journal’s headline on the day World War One broke out as “Giant neap found in Edzell” and on the day the Titanic sank as “North-east man lost at sea” – although three years ago the paper debunked the latter as an apocryphal story.
But he added: “Laugh though we might, The Press and Journal’s closeness to its readers and its communities gives them a voice.
“The fact that those newspapers have been progressively undermined and see their market model eroded by technology, competition and digital invaders is a source of sadness to me.
“You can’t turn back technology and nor should you try. But there’s a responsibility to do all we can to keep local media vital and to ensure that people have a voice.”
Earlier this year the Government launched the Cairncross Review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK. A consultation period closed in September and a report is expected early next year.
Gove, who is married to Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, also defended the media’s right to be “savage and vicious, partial and biased”, particularly towards politicians.
He said: “Another truly indispensable thing that the media does is to hold power accountable.
“We’ve seen all too many occasions of politicians drunk on arrogance or convinced of their own righteousness and have needed the voice of the media or the investigative power of journalists to bring them back down to earth and to bring our democracy back to health.
“I know sometimes newspapers and commentators can be savage and vicious, partial and biased but so they should be. The only way that our democracy remains healthy is if we have a range of voices contending.
“If we have different newspapers, different TV channels, different sources which you can turn to and be challenged, or to confirm your opinion, in order to ensure that our democracy remains vital.”
Picture: Reuters/Russell Cheyne