Democracy under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics

February 9, 2012

This is virtually a social history of modern Britain, told by someone who should know what he is talking about. Malcolm Dean joined The Guardian more than 40 years ago and was for many years its social policy editor; in between times he worked as a special adviser to the secretary of state for health and social services and also served on numerous social policy working parties. And it is because of his fantastic vantage point that this book makes for such depressing reading.

Not that its style is depressing: as one would expect from such an experienced journalist, it is written with a lightness of touch despite its subject matter. Dean, from his insider viewpoint, recounts the failure of most of the UK's media to properly report a range of social issues from drugs policy through to asylum issues and housing. But that is probably less surprising and less depressing than the tale he tells of just how compliant and complicit have been UK politicians, particularly Labour ones, in kowtowing to the right-wing media's every prejudice.

Dean's opening text considers Tony Blair's farewell blast at what he called "the feral media". He notes that Blair, even at this stage in his career, lacked the courage to aim at The Sun or the Daily Mail but instead focused his attack on the poor old Independent - hardly the worst of sinners when it came to distorting the reporting of social policy in support of a political line or prejudice.

Dean's analysis of politicians' lack of courage to stand up to the media chimes with what we have learned about the incestuous relationship between politicians and the press revealed in the phone-hacking scandal. But he sheds further light on the process, not just in terms of the big picture of politician/proprietor relations but also in terms of how things worked on the shop floor.

One aspect he dwells on - and here he draws on a number of personal experiences - is the way that specialists such as himself are often bypassed if politicians and/or their media advisers do not want a policy to be scrutinised too closely. In such cases, the stories are steered towards the political correspondents, who might have a very good understanding of the policy's impact in terms of political positioning but who could not be expected to apply the sort of forensic analysis that a specialist in the field could bring to bear. Occasionally this tactic could come unstuck. Dean cites the example of the Labour government's reaction to the proposal from the Runciman report on drugs to downgrade the classification of cannabis. When Labour ministers decided to play tough by rejecting any suggestion that cannabis might be downgraded, they briefed political correspondents along these lines - only to discover that even the right-wing press saw merit in the Runciman proposal.

No one could accuse Dean of bending over backwards to be fair to the media - not that there would be much justification. The final chapter is headed "Subverting democracy: Seven sins of the reptiles", which includes distortion, dumbing down, being more interested in politics than policy, hunting in packs, being too adversarial, being too readily duped and concentrating on the negative. Quite a charge sheet, but after the events of the past few months as played out in front of the Leveson Inquiry, called to investigate phone hacking and the wider culture and ethics of the press, it would be difficult not to respond "Guilty as charged" - what a depressing thought.

Democracy under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics

By Malcolm Dean. Policy Press, 432pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781847428486. Published 9 November 2011

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