Blair bites the hand that feeds too late in the day
I WOULD have had considerably more respect for Tony Blair's attack on the "feral beast" that is the media if he had chosen to do so in the earlier days of his premiership. It's really not quite so brave to attack when you have little time left in office. But, let's face it, he was never going to do that. Who can forget the then national heritage secretary David Mellor's attack on the media and threats of regulation? They were, he said, "drinking in the last-chance saloon".
He was later to be driven from office after a press campaign which highlighted his adultery and choice of football kit. No Prime Minister wants to take on the media. It is a battle they simply won't win.
Blair stated that he had made his speech after much hesitation. Getting his defence in first, he went on to state that he knew his comments would be rubbished in some quarters, but that it needed to be said. And therein lies a paradox.
Blair has led an administration where political correctness dictates that things are not said and indeed legislated to make it an offence to say some things. While his government has introduced the Human Rights Act, enshrining the principles of freedom of expression into UK law, at the same time there is a fear to express an opinion on matters that could lead to accusations of homophobia or racism. The Conservative Party failed to address the issue of immigration at the last election for fear of just such accusations.
But some of Blair's comments are indeed perceptive. He talked of how the media had now moved on. He is right. If ten years ago in Mellor's time they were drinking at the last-chance saloon, they have now left there, been to the nightclub and are in the kebab shop on the way home.
Blair talks of newspapers needing to break stories because of the saturation of 24-hour news coverage. There is a strong hint from him that accuracy is of secondary importance to the sting of the story: a sort of never-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way approach. But what he fails to consider, other than a side-swipe at the Press Complaints Commission, is that if there are failings on the part of the media, there must be remedies to those aggrieved - and indeed there are. The problem is those remedies are becoming more diluted.
More than that, those remedies - as a result of legislation that Blair's administration introduced through the Human Rights Act - are weighted in favour of the press and interpreted in that way by the courts. The introduction of such principles in the libel courts as Reynolds privilege, when it doesn't really matter that the media got it wrong provided they got it wrong acting responsibly, is a prime example of weighting the law against the wronged party.
Likewise fair comment just about covers everything nowadays. As long as the journalist had it in mind that he was thinking about a particular wrong-doing at the time the article was written, even although he doesn't mention that wrong-doing, then he has a defence to the action.
Likewise, the principles of a public interest defence have been stretched so far that they now include idle tittle-tattle and gossip from the tabloids. In short, anything that interests the public.
But is that not what freedom of speech is all about - being able to express yourself without fear of reprisal?
Then again, maybe some things are best not said.
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