Director of Communications describes unhealthy relationship between government and the media

11 July 2011

On the day that David Cameron's former Director of Communications Andy Coulson was arrested for involvement in the News of the World phone hacking scandal, one of Coulson's predecessors in the No. 10 Press Office, Lance Price, shed light on the unhealthy relationship between the media and the UK government, in a workshop investigating the influence of the media on courts and politics, held at Queen's College on 8th July.

Lance Price, who worked as a special advisor for Alastair Campbell from 1998 and became Director of Communications for the Labour Party'€™s 2001 General Election Campaign, described the Labour government'€™s relationship with News International, Rupert Murdoch, and his editors, in which a combination of bullying and promises of political access were used in order to effectively dictate to the press tomorrow'€™s headlines. He argued that David Cameron had an opportunity to break this unhealthy alliance between government and the press pack when he came to power, but, by employing Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications and befriending Rebekah Brookes, he chose instead to follow the model of media manipulation set by New Labour.

The workshop was held as part of the FLJS programme investigating Courts and the Making of Public Policy, and featured a range of presentations from academics and judges examining the influence of the media on judiciaries and legislatures in the UK, US, and Europe.

"it is essential that judges maintain their impartiality and reputation for incorruptibility, particularly at a time when public faith in politicians and the media has been seriously corroded

Political Scientist Professor Richard Davis opened the workshop with a presentation on the increased media profile of the Justices of the US Supreme Court. This was followed by former Appeal Court Judge Sir Mark Potter, who drew on his experience of opening up the Family Courts to the public, to give a detailed insight into the influence of the media on the UK judiciary, concluding that, while judges remain largely unaffected by media reporting, juries may indeed be influenced by the increasing media coverage of high-profile cases.

Sir Mark conceded that judges do rely on the "responsible media"€™ to reflect public opinion in regard to sentencing policy, but that it is also essential that judges maintain their impartiality and reputation for incorruptibility, particularly at a time when public faith in politicians and the media has been seriously corroded, as evidenced in the calls for a judge-led public enquiry into the phone hacking scandal.

Professor Raymond Kuhn gave a timely analysis of the effects of media ownership and competition on political elites, assessing the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s political interventionism on successive Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher to the present day, and concluding that regulatory reform of the media is called for in the wake of the revelations of ongoing illegal practices at the News of the World.

Law Professor RonNell Andersen Jones drew on her experience both as newspaper editor and clerk at the Supreme Court to critique the less than ideal relationship between the US Supreme Court and the media, which, she argued, is characterized by misinformed reporting on the one hand and wilful obstruction of the press by the Court on the other, and which ultimately prevents the People, the press, and the courts from fulfilling fundamental democratic ideals.

A particularly illuminating European perspective was then brought to the discussion by Professor Daniela Piana, who outlined the media landscape in Italy in relation to courts and politics. She described how, since 2002, the Berlusconi family owned 90% of the media, resulting in huge erosions to press freedom and little or no public trust in the media. The situation has led both public prosecutors and politicians to manipulate the media in an attempt to gain public legitimacy through self-promotion, rather than through the integrity and impartiality of their actions in office. In an age of increasing judicial power throughout Europe, Professor Piana concluded that it is more vital than ever that the media keep judicial actors answerable and accountable.

"in his meeting earlier that day with Tony Blair, they had discussed Blairâ€'s speech of 2007 in which he had warned that the media can act like '€˜feral beasts'€™, and that the relationship threatened politicians' capacity to take the right decisions for the country

The workshop was brought to a close by the presentation from Lance Price, who described how, in his meeting earlier that day with Tony Blair, they had discussed Blair's "Feral Beast"™ speech of 2007 in which he had warned that the media can act like "feral beasts"€™, that the relationship threatened politicians' capacity to take the right decisions for the country, and that reform of the regulatory system was required.

Mr Price found during his time in office that too many politicians lack the confidence that they reflect public opinion, and become captives to the idea that newspaper owners such as Murdoch reflect, or indeed drive public opinion more effectively. Despite this, he argued, there has recently been a distinct diminution of the power of mainstream media to influence public opinion since the rise of the internet. In addition, increased competition from free online news sources and 24-hour televised news had heightened the pressures on journalists to such an extent that they are now more susceptible than ever to manipulation by political spin doctors, who are able to feed them synopses of government speeches or reports to ensure that they are reported in a favourable light.

The workshop was attended by over forty members of the public, including students from the FLJS Summer School in Law and Society. A full programme for the day and participant profiles are available to download from the links on the right.