Of mice and elephants

Prime Ministers and the Media
November 26, 2004

Colin Seymour-Ure is the doyen of British scholars on politics and the media, having started research on the subject in 1962. His subject has grown considerably in importance in recent years and the media are now, more than ever, part of the environment within which politicians have
to operate.

At the same time, prime ministers, so it is suggested, have become more powerful than their Cabinet colleagues. The political scientist Richard Rose has referred to Tony Blair not
as a first among equals, but as a first without equal.

We have, then, both a powerful media and a powerful premier. Which is the dominant force? - that is the question Prime Ministers and the Media seeks to answer.

It is a more complex question than we tend to think, Seymour-Ure believes, since, “contrary
to our instincts, the impact of media is rarely that of the elephant treading on a mouse”.

Unfortunately, Prime Ministers and the Media does not really offer an answer. Nor does Seymour-Ure confront the issue of whether the much-vaunted power of the media is not a myth, with newspapers reflecting rather than creating public opinion.

Between the wars, Lord Beaverbrook’s campaign for Empire Free Trade was an abject failure, as was Sir James Goldsmith’s more recent campaign, during the 1997 general election, against the European Union.

What Prime Ministers and the Media offers, in place of an answer, is a lively set of essays on relationships between Downing Street and the press. This book will introduce undergraduates, in a painless fashion, to some of the central issues in political communication, particularly those affecting the Prime Minister’s public image, from Attlee to Blair.

The contrast, indeed, is stark. For Attlee confessed to being “allergic to publicity”, and his press secretary, Francis Williams, declared that he had never known anyone less skilled in the art of political self-presentation.

There is a particularly valuable summary of the literature on the powers of the prime minister, and also an amusing chapter on “Prime Ministers and political cartoons”, subtitled “Drawing blood?” and containing material from the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the Kent University, where Seymour-Ure is emeritus professor.

Perhaps, however, the central question posed by Prime Ministers and the Media is unanswerable; or perhaps the real answer is the one given by Seymour-Ure, almost as an afterthought, when he suggests that both prime ministers and the media are little more than
“ants beneath the hooves of history”.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

Prime Ministers and the Media: Issues of Power and Control. First edition

Author - Colin Seymour-Ure
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 0
Price - £50.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 16687 4 and 18767 7

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