» Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Prime Minister’s Lecture

Asked if the Prime Minister would have any idea about his successor should do about regulations, as mentioned during his speech this morning when he talked about the PCC, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that if people went onto the next page, the Prime Minister actually said that he was not in a position to determine it one way or the other. What was important was that there was an analysis of a problem that the Prime Minister thought was there. Part of that problem, as he said, was that he did not want to apportion blame, but the real problem was that the technological context had changed. Part of the consequence of that was increased competition between all forms of communication. That resulted in the distortion towards impact, rather than reportage. However, that change in the context also meant that the old distinctions between broadcasting and print were disappearing. The Prime Minister recognised that there would also be different roles in terms of who was free to comment and who was not, but he did believe that in terms of regulation, the old distinctions were increasingly meaningless.

Put by Sky that when the Prime Minister spoke about cynicism and launched what he described as a savage attack on the media – the PMOS interrupted and asked the journalist at which point did the Prime Minister say "savage attack" – the journalist replied page five, a phrase the Prime Minister used in quotations. The PMOS continued on to say that that was a precise example of what the Prime Minister meant! The Prime Minister did not in any place say that he was today launching a "savage attack" on the media. The PMOS then asked the journalist if the Prime Minister had actually said that. The journalist said: no. Sky then continued to ask that when the Prime Minister launched his "whinge and his rant", the PMOS asked again if the Prime Minister launched his "whinge and rant" or rather, did he say that it was NOT a "whinge and rant"?

The journalist went on to say that in the speech, in which the Prime Minister accused some of the media of cynicism, why then when a reporter asked a question did the Prime Minister’s spin doctor say that the question and the answer given by the Prime Minister should not be broadcast, the PMOS replied that the reality was that we had learnt that from all the speeches the Prime Minister had given in the series, that people asked questions more freely if they did not believe that it was part of a televised Question and Answer (Q&A) session. People might not like that, but that was the reality, and it had been the same rule which we had applied to each of the speeches in this series.

Put that the person who asked the particular question would have been only too happy for it to be broadcast, the PMOS said that given that the person in question was a television journalist, that was probably true. However, there could not be a rule that said that the cameras could be turned on for this person, but not for that person. It had been simply through experience that we had learnt that overall, the audience asked better and more honest questions if they believed that the cameras were not on.

Asked by the Independent how we would square the Prime Minister’s apparent desire to see a new regulatory framework, and to tell journalists what sort of stories they should be putting on their front page with his description of his support for a free press at the start of the speech, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister did not actually say that he should tell journalists what they should put on their front pages. Rather, what he did say was that the Independent started out saying that it wanted to be independent, and that it wanted to separate news and comment.

The PMOS said that nobody would describe the front pages of the Independent as anything other than comment at the moment. That was a simple reality and a fact. In terms of the free press, the Prime Minister fully recognised that there was a free press, but underneath the simple headlines, there was a serious problem. An example of this was when Nelson Mandela was speaking in South Africa recently, but people could not hear what he was saying because there a reporter standing in front of him doing a piece to camera. That represented a serious problem. We either pretended that that was not a problem, or we recognised that there was a problem that should be addressed.

Put that the Prime Minister had said that both politicians and the media had to take their share of the blame, but was it right to think that the only thing that politicians did wrong was to take the blame when they should not have done, the PMOS replied that the question had party political elements to it, so he had to be careful. The Prime Minister at the top of the speech made certain admissions about his own party’s role in this. The important thing was that we either recognised that the essential analysis, which was that in a very competitive market, there was a premium on impact, rather than on reportage. We either disputed that, or we did not.

Asked if reportage was instead of accuracy, the PMOS said that reportage was about accuracy as well. That was what people had to take on board as the core of the argument. It came down to whether what people put the premium on. Was it impact or was it reportage?

Asked if this speech was something that the Prime Minister had been wanting to get off his chest for some time, and also, what role did the PMOS think he had played in relations between the media and the Government, the PMOS said that with regards to the latter point, that was more for others to judge, rather than he. He hoped that people knew the spirit in which he had approached the lobby encounters, but it was for others to judge as to whether he had or had not succeeded in them.

With regards to the Prime Minister’s assessment, he had reached a point in his premiership where he could give an honest assessment of where he thought things were. He personally had nothing to gain from a speech like this, as there was much more of an incentive NOT to give a speech like this, rather than to give it. He was not a fool, as he knew the sort of reception that it could quite likely get from the media, therefore, why did he volunteer to do it? That was the reality. However, what the Prime Minister believed was that there was a serious issue here which in some way did need to be addressed. Therefore, what he wanted to do was quite consciously deliver a speech which he knew would not be exactly popular, but which was his honest assessment of where we stood.

Asked how often did the Prime Minister read the newspapers, the PMOS said that he was fully aware of the content of the papers on a very regular basis.

Asked by the Herald what would we say to someone who said that it was a bit rich of the Prime Minister to start lecturing people about this, when this Government had been responsible for a "whole climate of spin and leaking", the PMOS replied that firstly, people should look at the Hutton and Butler inquiries, the FAC and the ISC, all of which were attempts to objectively assess the situation. Equally, people should look at the way in which those were discounted, because it did not quite fit in with where people’s beliefs systems were. Secondly, if people looked at how we had tried to conduct affairs, people would reach their own judgement, and that was the right and proper thing for a free press to do. The PMOS said that what people should address was: was the Prime Minister’s assessment of the impact of the competitive nature of the media actually a valid assessment or a wrong assessment? That was the serious question which we should ask ourselves.

Put that there was an argument that one of the reasons people were so critical of the Hutton Report was because people were able to watch it live and could make their own minds up, the PMOS replied that the person who was charged with reaching a judgment was Lord Hutton. He reached a judgment and either people believed that that was a process which was right and proper, or they did not. However, if they did not believe that their judgement of a very well respected judge like Lord Hutton was right, then that said something very serious about people’s willingness to accept the overall judgement in other cases, too.

Asked to what extent was the Prime Minister’s view on the media a reflection of the way he saw their reporting of the cash for honours case, the PMOS said that to reduce it to that was a simplification of a gross kind.

Asked if the Prime Minister had consulted the Chancellor before he made the speech, and did he advise the Chancellor about not making the same mistakes about spin, the PMOS replied that he did not know the answer to either question, nor would he expect to.

Put by BBC24 that there were several senior former members of the BBC who felt that they had responded in a proper way to the outcome of that report, and their careers were affected by it, and there was the sense that the Prime Minister had "chucked" everything into this pot, and they were the ailments of the media as a whole, for example, the case about the journalist doing a piece to camera was more about someone not being in the right place, and that others might say that it was not about competition and more about newspapers saying that they wanted to do something different and to provide a prism for readers to consume the information, so were all these things a bad thing, the PMOS replied that as an ex-news editor he believed there did have to be a judgement.

For example, on the 10 o’clock news, that judgment had to be whether the job was to tell the story of the day, or whether that job was to worry more about what was in the next day’s news and to compete with other broadcasters. Depending on the outcome of those judgements, was a judgment about how well the public was informed. Most of the public did not follow 24-hour news, and therefore, the judgement at the end of the day was about how much people saw their job as being to service the public in terms of informing them, versus whether to constantly believe that they had to be at the forefront or cutting edge of hard-hitting news. These were judgements which people made on a daily basis, and the Prime Minister’s point was that because of what was felt to be a competition, or the need to compete, people were more and more keen to make an impact, whether it was as a bulletin or a paper, etc, rather than thinking it was their job to inform the public. These were not matters in which easy judgements could be made, but they were matter in which a reflective debate could be had.

Asked if Alastair Campbell had anything to do with the speech, the PMOS said that the prime Minister wrote his own speeches.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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