Imagine if a government had solved everything it could: would hacks back off?
Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.
This is a column about the relationship between the media and politics that will not, after this sentence, mention Leveson, nor express any view about regulations and charters. Instead, it asks – as I am asking myself as I write this – how journalists see themselves and what they consider to be their true vocation. Rules and regulations can certainly change behaviour. But so too can the subtler question of stereotypes and conventions. Professional behaviour is shaped at least as much by expectations as it is by law.
The traditional presumption that underpins the media’s self-confidence is that it serves the public by interrogating and exposing those in power. The media likes to believe that the real alliance is between itself and the public. The problem, according to this logic, comes in the form of the politicians, who are always obscuring truths and dodging harsh realities.
Hence a journalistic self-image has developed that sees itself as the personification of a fearless, relentless prosecution barrister, always picking away at the fraudulent defence of government witnesses. The ultimate hope, I suppose, is that the defence will eventually crumble and a better, alternative government will emerge.
We can all agree that if there is indeed an Establishment stitch-up, if governments are wilfully concealing from the public a better set of alternatives, then the job of the media is indeed to expose the cover-up and demand change. Perhaps this was once the case and that through sheer laziness, or because it served vested interests, politicians needed to be hounded by the media to govern in the national interest.
But here is a deeply uncomfortable question: what if today’s witnesses for the defence aren’t lying? And what if the prosecuting barrister has acquired a taste for pursuing blood rather than truth? What if, deep down, we are struggling to admit that there is no silver bullet for 21st-century statescraft?
The inevitable next question is even more unsettling. What if the honed instincts of the journalistic mindset – expose! hound! remove from office! – are less applicable to public life today than they were 40 years ago?
Just for the sake of argument, imagine that the primary problem facing mature democracies is not that things aren’t being done that could be done and ought to be done, but instead that expectations persist that can never be met. Imagine, again just in principle, that the state has already solved all the easily tractable issues, leaving only the intractable ones lingering malignantly in the in-tray.
In this situation, every government would face a harsh deficit between what the electorate expects and what it (or any other government) is able to achieve. The art of government, in this imagined scenario, would no longer demand executing policies and fairly weighing competing claims, but instead become more akin to perpetually producing a rabbit out of a hat.
Furthermore, because of a global economic downturn with roots far deeper than the mistakes of even the most culpable government, imagine that this hypothetical state has an even more fundamental challenge on its hands. It knows that the strong likelihood is not a return to rapid growth and steady enrichment but quite the opposite – gradual decline and lowering standards of living.
Here comes the difficult imaginative leap for anyone who has been conditioned to distrust politicians: what if a government came along that not only grasped these realities but also acted upon them, pursuing a combination of cautious long-term policies alongside honest political rhetoric designed to lower expectations rather than inflate them?
Leave to one side how hard it would be for such a government to win an election or cling on to power, even if it was acting wholly in the national interest. After all, politicians and their problems aren’t the point of this column; journalists are. So in our imagined set of conditions, the question arises: how should journalists behave, assuming they understand the true nature of the situation?
One of the most famous sayings about the media is that the job of journalists is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable”. It is a splendid summary. But what if there comes a point when politicians face such intractable problems that their job description no longer fits into the “comfortable” category? How would an enlightened journalist feel if he succeeded in bringing down a government that he knew to be providing, on balance, pretty much the type of government the country needed?
Perhaps these are heretical thoughts that should be suppressed. Journalism is often fuelled by a sense of righteous anger. I’ve heard countless arguments between journalists in which the government’s performance/apti - tude/intelligence is ripped apart. But it is often dismantled from opposite perspectives for contradictory reasons, the irony being that if the two conversationalists were asked for their solutions, they would enrage each other even more than the government has. It is much easier to agree that the status quo is “intolerable and unsustainable” than to disagree about how it might be improved.
How many journalists, deep down, suspect that the tricks of our trade, the artful means by which they persuade readers and listeners that they should stampede the cosy corridors of power, are no longer appropriate for our times? It is always assumed that journalistic style became more aggressive because politicians became more skilful at evading the truth. In truth, one reinforced the other.
Given the social and economic trends that face all western democracies, one day the public interest will be served by a media that explains that not all problems have easy answers, that not every politician is lying, that it is foolish to believe in perpetual growth. I’m not saying that moment is now. But I am asking whether we will even be looking for it when the time arrives.