There’s a common view that the national press affects the outcome of elections. A view held not least by the newspapers themselves. Remember: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”? That was that paper’s crowing front page after its hatchet job on Neil Kinnock apparently helped John Major into Downing Street in 1992.
The biggest-selling papers certainly have a relentless anti-left agenda. You only have to glance at the newsstands on any day to confirm that. It undoubtedly gives the political right an advantage – and the left a ready-made excuse for electoral failure. But how much effect do the papers really have?
The Sun sells just under two million copies a day – little over half the 3.6m it enjoyed in 1992. The Daily Mail sells around 1.7m. It sounds a lot, but between them those two biggest sellers are bought by just 7% of the adult population.
So does the rancid propaganda that pours off those pages really matter so much? It does – and there are three chief reasons why.
The first lies in the industry’s rule of thumb that each copy sold has three readers. Which brings that 7% up to 21% – not so far short of the 24% of the electorate whose votes put the present government in power.
Then there’s the cumulative effect of those front pages, on public display every day. You don’t have to buy the Sun or the Mail to be aware of the splash headlines, and perhaps have your thinking swayed by them. Even if you think you’re immune (and most people do).
Finally – more insidious and more serious – there’s the way the papers drive the national news agenda. Which is, of course, as much about what is not reported as what is.
Another common view is that the BBC has a left-wing bias. It’s an idea constantly put about by the Tory party and the right-wing press. And it’s rubbish.
Neither is the BBC the neutral voice of reason most of us like to believe it is.
Threatened, like all our national institutions, with enforced commercialisation, Auntie Beeb is now dancing more than ever to the government’s tune. It maintains the pretence of objectivity and “balance” - whatever that really means. But compare how often the BBC broadcasts the opinion of City analysts or financiers with that of trade union leaders, for example. And how those opinions are presented – one as “fact”, the other as controversy.
And look who gets the top news jobs.
Nick Robinson, formerly BBC political editor and now presenter of the influential Today programme on Radio 4, is a former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
Jeremy Paxman – self-described “one nation Conservative” – was replaced as Newsnight presenter by Evan Davis, a crosser of official picket-lines who was on the team that devised the Poll Tax for Margaret Thatcher and has written a book calling for the privatisation of all public services.
Andrew Neil, host of The Daily Politics, was a right-wing editor of the Sunday Times under Rupert Murdoch. And so it goes.
I’m not suggesting these gentlemen aren’t all honourable and professional in their work. But everyone has a slant on life. Everyone has their own idea of what is worth telling. And these all lean the same way.
Robert Peston, now with ITV News after nine years with the BBC as business and economics editor, is no one’s idea of a leftie. But he found it “most frustrating” the way BBC news “is completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers”.
He’s not the only one. It’s an obsession that puts far too much power in the hands of two or three newspaper owners, who don’t even live in Britain.
There’s a reason why one of the first places to be taken over by the rebels in any modern revolution is the national radio or TV station. Most people, most of the time, believe what they are told by those in authority over them. Whoever that is, and however they came by that authority. Josephs Goebbels and Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Mao Zedong all knew that well, and so does the government in Westminster.
The BBC, still the prime and most trusted source of news for 75% of the British population, is still seen as the voice of the nation. That shouldn’t make it the voice of the government of the day. Or just a loudspeaker for what used to be Fleet Street. It should be big enough to have its own voice, to set its own agenda.
The Crown Prosecution Service has announced there will be no further charges arising from the phone-hacking investigation. So ends an operation that took four years and 10 months, cost almost £50million, brought the arrest of 34 journalists… and nine convictions.
The gnashing of teeth comes not only from the Hacked Off group, denied vengeance against Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. Murdoch himself, and senior executives such as the reinstated queen bee, Rebekah Wade, may claim the whole thing was a waste of time and money.
Yet unorthodox methods of investigation were never the worst of that organisation’s sins.
It should be the job of the press to maintain vigilance over those who govern us. And those authorities have never been shy about using every surveillance tool available to keep an eye and an ear on anyone they take an interest in – including journalists.
As I see it, the crime – if there was one – was not in the hacking of phones, but in the choice of which phones were hacked. There is a great difference between revelations that are “in the public interest” and those “of interest to the public”. Sadly, it is not a difference most of the national press has ever been very clear about.