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Here Be Dragons

Our Government Cares More About the Media Than Science

Politicians need a backbone – not a Royal Charter – if they really want to curb the power of the press.
November 4, 2013, 4:10pm

Illustrations by Cei Willis

Last month was one dominated by political memoirs. Now that I've had time to absorb them, I've noted a worrying pattern. When good policy aims come up against press demands, the latter win out every time. For all their talk of press regulation, ministers simper and crawl at the feet of the Dacres and Murdochs of this world like subs pleasing their dom.

Two books published recently give a good, if biased, overview of the current government and the previous one. Power Trip examines the last Labour government through the red-tinted eyes of Damian McBride, while In It Together, by the conservative Matthew d'Ancona, looks at the current Coalition. Both books are ridden with selective bias. d'Ancona's work manages the curious feat of acknowledging the Coalition's problems while dismissing them at the same time, like a Communist Party spokesman explaining away human rights abuses in China. Nick Cohen puts it better than I can: “There is a missing link between what [d'Ancona] witnesses, and what he understands."

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It seems almost by accident that d’Ancona’s book lays bare the extent to which short-term thinking overruled Cameron’s earlier aim to form “the greenest government ever”. Back in 2006, he was urging voters to “vote blue, go green” and talking in strident terms of a "green revolution". That bold commitment lasted right up to the moment that the Tories actually had a grip on the power that would allow them to make good on their promises. The economic crisis “focused Tory minds”, d’Ancona says – which seems to be simply a clever euphemism for “basically, they tore up their promises”. By 2012, d'Ancona notes that the “trend away from Greenery was clear”. Whatever "Greenery" is. Is it salad?

We’re told that Osborne had “always been sceptical about eco-politics", a viewpoint much encouraged by the former Conservative Chancellor under Thatcher, Nigel Lawson. In retirement, Lawson has become something of a crank, campaigning against the scientific consensus on climate change, and calling for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be scrapped. In d'Ancona's words, his book on global warming to warned of the dangers of "the new religion of eco-fundamentalism“, which is a kind review for a man who makes arguments like, "I think that the ordinary bloke has an instinctive sense that it wouldn't be too bad if the weather warmed up." Some people might think Lawson an unsuitable role model when it comes to scientific understanding, given his tendency to make absurd claims that are demonstrably untrue. But to Osborne, the old crank is a hero. Or, as a friend of Gideon told d'Ancona, “For George, Nigel is Yoda.”

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Damian McBride’s Yoda was beer, and his autobiography at times reads more like a pub crawl than a political memoir. The former New Labour spin-doctor and attack hound documents the Blair and Brown regimes in Power Trip with the enthusiasm of a man who believes his subjects’ arseholes to be stuffed with foie gras, and the reliability of someone who openly lauds his own talent for being dishonest without lying. Still, it’s an illuminating guide to the world of spin, and in particular the way evidence is constructed to support policy, rather than inform it. My friend James O’Malley wrote a review for New Statesman, highlighting the following discussion that took place between Gordon Brown and McBride when the author was still a civil servant:

“'Now what we need for the day before the PBR [Pre-Budget Report] is a 20-page report, full of charts, making the principled scientific, environmental and economic case for cutting 3p off low-sulphur petrol and diesel, and explaining how everyone will benefit. I’m told you can do that for us.'

‘Erm, yep, sure, I think so.’ He looked at me. It was the ‘This is what we’re actually doing’ moment.

‘This is very, very important. We’re not going to let people say we’re cutting duty because the Sun told us to or some truckers blocked the roads. Otherwise they’ll just do it again. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s good for the environment. And I’m asking you to write the report because I’m told you know all this stuff. Are you with me?'”

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Whether or not the conclusion was correct or not was irrelevant to Brown – to him, it was just the conclusion that was needed to satisfy the press, and the facts had to be found to support it. There are many similar examples in the book, well documented by O’Malley, and they become more disturbing when pieced together with Labour’s obsequious fawning toward the media. Gordon Brown is painted as a man obsessed with the front pages, his moods swinging wildly in response to positive or negative coverage on the news stands. One of the most bizarre anecdotes in the book comes when McBride recounts the tale of a trip to the Daily Mail HQ in Kensington. Paul Dacre had invited Brown to set out his thinking on the issue of "Britishness" and how it could be celebrated, giving a talk to a coven of Mail columnists. He lasted about ten minutes before things went awry.

“[Simon] Heffer started chuntering that he’d never heard so much rubbish in his life. Gordon ploughed on, but Heffer became steadily angrier, eventually intervening. ‘This is just utter nonsense. You’re going on about these great British institutions: the monarchy; the church; the NHS; the army. These are English Institutions, not British.’” Ed Balls apparently retorted, 'Tell that to the Highlanders at Alamein,' prompting Heffer to walk out in a huff, tossing his napkin. And then the rest piled in: Melanie Phillips explaining that the crisis of Britishness was down to Labour’s obsession with multiculturalism, and Alex Brummer explaining that people were more interested in the value of their house.”

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It would be comical if it weren’t so weird and disturbing. A Labour Prime Minister figuring out how to run the country, choosing to solicit the opinions of an insular bubble of eccentric Mail columnists about an issue – the nebulous concept of "Britishness" – that nobody in the real world gives a shit about. What the press thought about Brown's policies apparently mattered more to him than the manifesto people had voted for. Which is bizarre, because as has been pointed out again and again, newspapers just don’t win elections. They seem to have surprisingly little impact on voting at all, which makes it all the weirder that politicians are so obsessed with pleasing them.

If the government only prostrated itself before a bunch of hacks on topics as nebulous as "Britishness", maybe it would be alright. But my reading suggests that they're willing to do the same about issues that actually matter. Worse than that, when it comes to something like climate change, by following the views of idiots, they end up actively ignoring the big pile of scientific papers that is expanding as fast as the glaciers contract.

That, in the aftermath of the Royal Charter being granted by the Privy Council, is one of the big ironies about press regulation and evidence-based policy. Politicians ignore and manufacture evidence in part to satisfy the demands of the press. If politicians really want to curb the power of the press, all they have to do is stop fawning over them. They don’t, because they fail to understand that the consequences of doing so would be slight; and that’s because they didn’t follow the evidence in the first place. They don’t need a Royal Charter so much as they do a backbone.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins

Previously: The False Widow Spider 'Outbreak' is Tabloid Bullshit