7.3 What is the media doing to our politics?
In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused the British Prime Minister Tony Blair of publicly lying. Gilligan stated that Blair used claims from a dossier he knew were inaccurate to justify a war in Iraq. The central, disputed claim was that Saddam Hussein could launch missiles against British targets within 45 minutes. This began a battle between the BBC and Blair government in which the Director General of the BBC lost his job; a scientist advising the government, David Kelly, took his own life; and a major enquiry into the build-up to war was conducted (the Hutton Enquiry). The case is interesting because the BBC is funded by the British state (or its taxpayers), yet must demonstrate its independence. It did so here by playing an oppositional role to the Prime Minister himself. In his book What the Media are doing to our Politics, John Lloyd, a Financial Times journalist, gives an account of the news broadcast, and argues the BBC was guilty of poor journalism.
Activity 26 What the media are doing to our politics
Please read the extract from Lloyd’s book now.
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You should consider the following questions while you read. When you have finished reading, take a look at the discussion.
- Based on Lloyd’s account, do you think Gilligan should have withheld this story until he had more firm information?
- Given your knowledge of political debates in the UK in 2002–03 in the run up to the Iraq War, could Hallin’s indexing model explain why Gilligan felt confident criticising the British government so openly?
- Does this case demonstrate that journalists do have power to resist government ‘spin’, or that they only have power when they (deliberately or accidentally) break the rules and conventions of their professional culture?
- Does responsibility for such a news story lie with the reporter, or with the ‘environment’ that conditions what a reporter thinks is normal, professional journalism?
- Lloyd returns to the radio presenter’s phrase, ‘Does any of this matter now?’ Is the reporting of reasons against a war relevant once the war is underway or over?
- Lloyd quotes Martin Kettle: ‘modern journalism is prone to behaving like a child, throwing its rattle out of the pram because it has not got what it wanted’. Is it fair or accurate to speak of modern journalism as a single entity? And what might Gilligan or the BBC here have ‘wanted’, apart from delivering professional news to a presumed audience?
- This is a subjective question and will depend on how convincing the reader finds Lloyd’s perspective that following procedure matters more than the consequence of the story (e.g. that it turned out to be correct).
- It could. Political dissensus meant that Gilligan could feel reasonably confident that criticising the government would not be deemed out of line, since many politicians were doing the same.
- It suggests that journalists are in a conflicted, difficult situation. If Gilligan had more clear information then he could have ‘resisted’ on very safe ground. Hence it is possible for journalists to have power, provided they gather reliable information.
- The reporter worked in a competitive news environment in which a scoop can deliver quick rewards to an ambitious journalist, and in which news organisations are under pressure to deliver ratings – even a public sector broadcaster such as the BBC. However, the reporter can withhold the report, and professional norms would suggest Gilligan should have withheld this report unless the information it was based upon was verifiable.
- Debates about whether a war was ‘just’ matters even once a war is underway, since any subsequent decision to increase troop numbers or begin another war will be evaluated in light of the reasons for the original war. Hence it does matter for practical policy reasons, as well as for reasons of general trust in the media and in politicians.
- Kettle is suggesting the BBC had a political agenda: to undermine the Blair government’s case for war. While the BBC depends on the UK state for funding, it is required to demonstrate its independence, and opposing government policy is one such way. However, we must be careful to distinguish the journalist, the news programme, the news organisation, and the media culture within which it operates. There is enormous variation in each of these respects, even within the UK.