Tony Blair and I used to have a deal. He'd handle matters of state and I'd handle press criticism. Earlier this week, he went back on our arrangement in a 2,800-word speech denouncing the tawdry and sensationalizing media.
The press deserves its beatings, but not this one, and certainly not from this pain-giver.
After asserting early on that a "free media is a vital part of a free society," and that his "reflection is not about 'blaming' anyone," Blair gets busy disdaining the freeness of the free media—that is, media that expresses itself in ways that he does not approve—and blaming the responsible parties for the decline of the press.
Ever the self-aware fellow, Blair first assesses blame on himself and New Labor for "courting, assuaging, and persuading" the press hounds in an effort to end what he calls its "ferocious hostility." Exactly how this courting damaged the news-gathering process, Blair doesn't disclose. He seems to be implying that he regarded the press as a pack of mad dogs when he became prime minister, taught it a few new tricks, and got it to behave for an interval, but now the institution has regressed to its snarling and foaming ways.
Blair acknowledges that the British press has treated prime ministers as chew toys for a century and a half, but he insists that new competitive pressures—hundreds of TV stations where there were once only three, 24-hour news channels replacing scheduled newscasts, newspapers fighting over smaller audiences, and dat ol' demon da Internet (blogs, podcasts, etc.)—have altered the media landscape for the worse.
He much prefers the old order, in which information could be more easily managed by the government. Labor previously kept the press hounds sated on one issue a day. It now must provide three meals, he complains. Labor once got away with answering press inquiries in its good time, he says, but now it must respond in "real time." I gave the press everything, he moans—briefings on the record, published minutes, monthly press conferences, a freedom of information act, and more. But still the press was not satisfied. His government did not get a fair shake, he believes.
Blair asserts that senior people in business, the military, law, sport, and charities feel as he does about the "constant hyperactivity" of the media, but they're too afraid to say anything. What crap. I imagine my colleagues in Britain are at the pubs tonight laughing tears into their ales at the ridiculous images of CEOs, generals, barristers, and soccer coaches recoiling in fear from press cameras and notebooks.
Blair laments the escalating language of the press in which every problem becomes a crisis, every setback becomes a policy "in tatters," and every criticism is "a savage attack." He describes reporters hunting in packs like feral beasts, "tearing people and reputations to bits," and contributing to cynicism. He even bawls about bombastic pundits. Having watched Blair hammer the Tories in dozens of "Prime Minister's Questions" performances with his wit, hyperbole, and sarcasm, I can't take his paeans to civility and understatement seriously. Once in the arena, Blair is a blood sportsman supreme—teeth flashing, eyes dilated, drool pooling in the corners of his mouth.
The sketch Blair draws of the press is a self-portrait. If he's extra sore about the media today, it's probably because the BBC and the Guardian busted him on June 7 for terminating an investigation of bribes allegedly paid to Bush buddy Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan by a U.K. defense contractor.
Why did he spike the investigation? At the Group of 8 summit in Germany, Blair offered words cold enough to make the hardiest newsman shiver, saying: