Was it just a matter of days ago that politicians were too fearful of the consequences of taking on Rupert Murdoch? The News International debacle has been so fast-moving that we easily lose track of time. Yet, until very recently our politicians – with very few exceptions – were unwilling to hold the press to account.
Unlike any other institution, the press were allowed to self-regulate. MPs weren’t to be trusted with such an obvious nonsense. And any MP stupid enough to take on the press were likely to find themselves a target. My personal experience is trivial, but having blogged about media acountability on one occasion I received a comment in which an anonymous journalist told me “we will get into every corner of your life and take you apart”. However bizarre, that sort of threat gets under your skin. So, it is perfectly understandable why public figures try to minimise the risk by either avoiding or schmoozing with the press.
So, just how bizarre was it today when we hear Labour leader Ed Miliband triumphantly proclaim that today the politicians have “held power to account”? Hang on a minute, the politicians hold the press to account – something they could have done for years, but were too compromised or afraid to do – and this is articulated as ‘power being held to account’?
First, it is the politicians who are supposed to be the ‘power’ that the press hold to account. This admission (was it a slip?) hides a confession of previous neglect of duty. The politicians had the power and gave it away out of fear. Or that, at least, is what it looks like.
Second, the statement removes the pretence from the press that they merely observe or expose – guardians of truth and defenders of integrity; now even the politicians are admitting that the press, as shapers of society and public opinion, have enormous power and need to be accountable. But, what a turn-around since they were scared witless by the expenses scandal (for the record, not exposed by News International) and Fleet Street reigned without challenge?
There was something unseemly about the parliamentary feeding frenzy today. Hindsight-blessed MPs stuck every knife available into someone they protected until only days ago – don’t forget the Tory defence of Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. Murdoch deserves to be exposed, but the politicians need to tell us why it took them so long. I guess the answer is that the bandwagon only came along last week.