Ewan Crawford: The pressing matter raised by political control

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was called to the Leveson Inquiry today. Picture: AP
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was called to the Leveson Inquiry today. Picture: AP
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TONY Blair’s appearance before Lord Leveson highlights difficulties in legislating relations between the press and politicians, writes Ewan Crawford

AS A political strategist trying to get the press on your side it’s probably not the best idea to shout out in anger at a journalist’s question during a live media conference given by your boss. Unfortunately that was the course of action I once took while working for the SNP.

The shout was involuntary and, I hope, only really heard clearly by my surprised colleagues standing alongside me at the back of the room.

At the time I had made the transition from journalist to political adviser and therefore probably should have been able to handle and understand the reporter-politician relationship. But most of the time I was, technically speaking, rubbish at talking to journalists.

Part of this was the frustration I felt about what I perceived to be the unfairness of the coverage we were receiving and also at what I believed to be the failings of political journalism.

I almost certainly found myself in a minority of one in the SNP in sympathising with Tony Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, who despaired of the press’s inability, as he saw it, to cover any political story not categorised as a “gaffe”, “humiliating U-turn”, “split” or “politician under pressure”.

What I found particularly difficult was the way journalists would chat happily in the corridor, and then pop up the stairs to slate us in print.

All this came to my mind while watching Mr Blair at the Leveson inquiry yesterday, as the first in a series of high profile politicians called to give evidence.

You could be forgiven for forgetting that the inquiry is an investigation into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press” because in reality it has become primarily an investigation into the ethics of politicians in which the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been a much more prominent figure than the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is surely regretting his decision to establish the inquiry, even though at the time it must have seemed a convenient device to stave off difficult questions about his press secretary and ex-News of the World editor, Andy Coulson.

The main focus has been on what has been termed the “cosy” relationship between newspapers (in particular titles owned by Rupert Murdoch) and politicians, and the damaging implications of this relationship for a healthy democracy.

Certainly e-mail exchanges and text messages have been embarrassing and Mr Hunt’s position is looking extremely precarious as he prepares for his appearance before the inquiry on Thursday, at which he will seek to refute the charge that he was cheer-leading, rather than refereeing, News Corp’s bid to take over full control of BSkyB.

In Scotland of course the Sun’s decision to back the SNP at the last election has caused a great deal of excitement, and apparent resentment, among those ill-disposed towards Alex Salmond. It is worth remembering though that there can have been few newspaper/political party relationships quite as close as that between the once mighty Daily Record and the Labour Party.

Part of the Leveson Inquiry’s remit is to make recommendations on the future conduct of these relations between politicians and the press. It is here that it seems to me there is some difficulty.

My main issue while at the SNP was that I didn’t like what, and how, journalists were writing. But so what? In some respects that is probably the way the press-politician relationship should be: awkward and fractious.

The bigger issue under the spotlight at Leveson is more to do with the situation when parties are actually happy with what is being written about them and the lengths they will go to secure such favourable coverage.

But it is unclear to me what additional measures can reasonably be put in place to govern this key relationship. Political leaders have already agreed to publish details of their meetings with senior newspaper executives and owners which is an important and overdue step. People can now judge the extent of the contacts and questions can be asked accordingly.

There is, however, nothing inherently wrong about political parties seeking to persuade newspaper editors of their case. The mass media is still the means by which voters learn about political parties and of course parties are going to seek to influence how they are reported and commented on.

There is also nothing wrong – although I grew to loath the practice – of politicians speaking to journalists anonymously.

In the aftermath of Labour’s defeat at the 2010 Westminster election, various ex- advisers and ministers came clean on the reality of the political war that raged between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These memoirs broadly confirmed stories that only came to light previously because sources knew they would not be identified.

The real issue is that in the UK, unless publishers learn how to make money from the web, there is likely to be a further concentration of newspaper ownership as circulations decline.

This then potentially puts even more power in the hands of even fewer proprietors, exacerbating many of the problems uncovered by Leveson.

Despite this power, no-one is seriously arguing newspapers should face statutory “due impartiality” requirements such as those imposed on broadcasters. Ultimately some of the measures suggested to improve relations between politicians and the press raise as many issues for democracy as they seek to solve.

Perhaps most importantly, looking ahead, we need to ask ourselves how much we value, and are willing to pay for, the sort of journalism that exposed the malpractices and illegality that led to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry in the first place.

• Ewan Crawford is a lecturer in broadcast journalism and was private secretary to SNP leader John Swinney.