Spinning out of control

October 10, 1997

Media and cultural studies: party political PR, film, video and the net in an age of media domination

THE slick packaging of Tony Blair and New Labour may have been scrutinised to death, but less attention has been focused on journalistic resistance, or lack of it, to the new sophisticated marketing of politicians.

The journalistic impact of manipulative techniques employed to such effect by political parties in the late 1990s is now under investigation by Steven Barnett, senior lecturer in communications at Westminster University. Mr Barnett, an expert on the BBC, is testing a gloomy hypothesis signalling the death of political journalism as we know it, thanks to modern political practice.

"I shall be quite happy to be proved wrong," he says. However, the pressures Mr Barnett has uncovered may prove to be almost impossible to resist. They come from two often conflicting directions. The first is dictated by the journalistic hierarchy, the editors and proprietors who Mr Barnett suspects are "more influential than in the past". Secondly, political journalists are now having to contend with political parties, in particular New Labour, which has marketing and presentation down to a fine art.

"New Labour probably has the most professional party machine in the world. Add to that the government's parliamentary majority and you have powers which are very difficult to resist.

"We are now entering an extremely interesting period for political journalism and the question is, can a democratic deficit be avoided?" Mr Barnett said.

For the political journalist to condemn the present government takes a particular brand of courage and intellectual robustness, he adds.

"They need to be prepared for a pretty severe backlash."

While the withdrawal of favours from journalists who step out of line is nothing new, the scale of it is different today. Newspaper exclusives are carefully targeted while politicians presume to exert influence over broadcast news journalists, seeking to control the running order of bulletins and whether the interviewee should be allowed to have the last word.

As a necessity, he says, the BBC has been forced to adopt a more cautious approach.

"This is the reality of state-funded broadcasting. Even with the BBC's rigid neutrality, in the real world you have to trim your sails. It may not amount to censorship, but there is plenty of evidence of self-censorship and internal caution. There's always next year's licence fee to worry about."

Mr Barnett believes critical and independent political reporting is more difficult today than at any other point in our history.

"This is a unique time. The almost messianic fervour which is gripping the country has not been witnessed before in other Western European countries," he said.

The shift in the formal party allegiances of many national newspapers, from staunch Thatcherism to upfront New Labour, has been astonishing. But to what extent is the shift a reflection of what readers want, rather than the whim of media proprietors, or the impact of better marketing? Mr Barnett is endeavouring to find out through a series of "off the record briefings" with senior print and broadcast journalists.

"No one has looked at these influences before, and while the answer is unlikely to be black and white, it may well be uncomfortable," he predicts.

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