The Power of Newspapers

People often think that the most powerful people in the country are politicians.

They make the laws that rule us all. Despite their power, they are elected by us, the people and we can throw them out of office every five years. There are more than 60 million of us in this country. If most of us want something, a politician hoping to be elected will probably promise it. If the government oversteps the line, there are potentially 60 million people to scare the living bejeezus out of them by violently smashing through their police lines and then queuing politely for their turn to sit around peacefully in Fortnum and Masons.

So, perhaps it is us, the people, who are most powerful. But how would people have protested against the Iraq War if they didn't know it was happening? In the most part, we got that information from the news industry. If they hadn't reported it, or if they'd reported only the pro-war arguments and none of the anti-war arguments, then how many would have turned up to that protest?

This is the bluntest of tools the news industry has at its disposal. They have other, more subtly sharp ones, all the more effective for being less noticeable.

It would have been difficult for the media to suppress the flaws in the stated arguments for the Iraq war, because they were quite obvious and so a lot of people would have noticed them and passed them on by word of mouth or the internet.

But not all flaws in arguments are so obvious, and some things do go unreported.

Recently, the press ran several days of coverage on the issues surrounding equality - equal pay, equal opportunities, and so on. Between their news pieces, editorials and comments they covered almost every aspect of the issues. Except, in all the excitement, they somehow neglected to mention that the government was running a public consultation on exceptions to the age discrimination laws (or if they did, it wasn't very prominent - I didn't see it and I was actively looking for it). This consultation was published on the government's Central Office of Information website, which I'm guessing journalists must check regularly for government press releases. Or perhaps they rely on press releases via email, I don't know. There are now less than 10 days left on this consultation.

The consultation is open to anyone, so if it was widely publicised it could have a real effect on future laws, an effect driven by a democratic process. Instead, we risk the debate being dominated by major companies and charities.

Does that collection of big players fully represent your interests? Let's hope so, because as past experience shows, discrimination laws can seriously damage your wealth.

The role of the news industry should not be to filter news, or at least, its role should be to filter out the irrelevant and make the relevant interesting and understandable. Admittedly, sometimes the line is blurred. Perhaps the financial deals in football reveal something interesting about the world of business to people who wouldn't otherwise take notice? Perhaps Jordan's love-life reveals something about human nature and the credibility of the magazines that report it? Perhaps.

One thing is for sure, the news industry can exert a great deal of control over the people of this country, and therefore, over our politicians who make our laws.

You don't have to look very far to see the truth of this statement. Governments can stand or fall on the basis of newspaper support. The Blair government was very keen to cosy up to Rupert Murdoch, for example. Alastair Campbell's diary backs this up. Interestingly, in his book, The Blair Years, Richard Stott is reported as describing Murdoch as follows:

...the thing you have to understand about Murdoch is he basically hates politicians. He sees them as obstacles to his commercial interests.

If you accept that newspapers are in the business of influencing public opinion, and that politicians are supposed to be a democratic extension of the will of the people, then that's quite chilling, really. However, as I hope I've demonstrated earlier in this article, it's not just the tabloids that are in the business of influencing the public.

As a final thought, think about the referendum on Alternative Voting. The various politicians sought to confuse the issue in various ways, with many ridiculous arguments on both sides. The press dutifully reported the arguments but offered little clear analysis. After the result was known, one Newsnight journalist gave a post-mortem of the result, and suggested that one of the weaknesses of the 'Yes' campaign was that they couldn't find a short, compelling argument in favour.

The argument in favour was this: It would have almost certainly turned the electoral system from a 2-horse race into a 3-horse race in the short-term, and in the longer term it might have opened the field to new political parties and independent candidates. It would have stopped Labour and Conservatives being the gatekeepers to political power, and in doing so it might have reduced the power that political parties have over their MPs in favour of making MPs more accountable to the people they are supposed to represent.

In short, it would have given more power to people.

Assuming my analysis is correct it is very sad, but undeniably neat, that the electorate either decided they did not want more power, or demonstrated that they are so easily misled by the press that they weren't fit to have more power. But It's very easy to be misled if you don't have time to properly research the issues. That's why we need the press to do the work and report their findings in a neutral and balanced way.

Regardless of the AV referendum outcome, the real power remains in the hands of the press. Those same, unaccountable and non-elected angelic guardians of our fate who couldn't be bothered to give us a simple analysis of the effects of AV and who somehow forgot to mention there was a consultation on age discrimination.