The media: watchdogs of democracy?
Journalists' debate: how can newspapers hold politicians to account, when nobody else does?
‘It is newspapers that form the political opposition’, said Steve Richards, political columnist for the UK Independent on Sunday. ‘Parliament is toothless’ said Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts; ‘Question Time doesn’t hold politicians to account’, said Guardian policy editor Jonathan Freedland.
These political journalists, speaking at Watchdogs of Democracy, a Fabian Society debate on the UK media and the general election in London on 14 March 2001, gave a damning – yet fair – assessment of the dire state of parliamentary politics in the UK. In the midst of public despondency and a fractured and pathetic Tory party, the media seem to be the last men standing with any hope of keeping politicians on their toes – hence the badge ‘Watchdogs of Democracy’.
But how much can the media really hold the government to account? In the UK, said Steve Richards, the media ‘make the political music – this government is shaped by the newspapers’. The cautious policies of the Labour administration are less down to party politics, than because Labour has been concerned about ‘passing the Sun test’. ‘If we had a written constitution’, said Jonathan Freedland, ‘[broadcaster Jeremy] Paxman and [radio presenter John] Humphrys would be in it’.
This is ‘all a bit grandiose’, protested Quentin Letts. ‘The press take themselves far too seriously….I haven’t been elected; I am just a hack.’ He described as ‘weak leadership’ the way the UK prime minister is constantly playing to the media, and asked: ‘Why is he so worried about what the Sun thinks? Politicians should be a bit more arrogant.’
However terrible the state of parliamentary politics, and however great the influence of the media, the fact remains that at least politicians are elected – and journalists are just employed. Mary Ann Sieghart of The Times claims that the media are ‘far more accountable than government’: if you vote for the government, it has ‘three years to sort things out, whereas if you don’t agree with The Times you just don’t buy the paper’. But deciding whether or not to buy a paper is hardly the same thing as voting in a general election.
As Steve Richards says, he buys the Sun because it is ‘fun’ – nobody would say the same for casting their vote. Personally, I buy many papers for many reasons – none of which include enfranchising its writers to make decisions about hospitals, the economy or schools. Yes, the demise of politics is frustrating for journalists – but we should be careful about expecting newspapers to fill the void.
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