Comment: The trouble with Tony
by Brian Cathcart
Straight back into the old groove he slipped, like he had never left it: Tony Blair’s presentational trick has always been that he does reasonable, and before the Leveson inquiry he was all reasonableness.
The papers are powerful and politicians have to take account of them: that’s only reasonable. Labour in 1997 had lost four elections in a row and didn’t want unnecessary enemies: also reasonable. Once in power it tried to put the best possible gloss on what it was doing: who wouldn’t?
The problem with Blair’s reasonableness is that it is his, and he has given us ample evidence that he is not good at adjusting it to the reasonableness of others. Even he, in other words, doesn’t know when his opinion has veered into the dangerous and weird, so whatever he’s thinking he just goes on thinking he’s reasonable.
He made very clear that he never wanted to take on the press (until two weeks before he stepped down) because it was too powerful and the fight would have been a big distraction from everything else, and you can see the sense in that. He gave a reasonable person’s account, too, of how viciously press power could manifest itself.
A little less clear is the consequence, because he argued, roughly, that instead of fighting the papers he just went ahead and did exactly what he wanted in policy terms, making only presentational tweaks to please the press. That doesn’t add up.
If you are not going to take on press power, what happens to that power? It doesn’t just evaporate. There is a kind of Newtonian law that says it must assert itself and if you don’t fight it you are compromised.
Blair insisted that he simply tried to sell his policies to editors and proprietors and get them on side. He cited in particular the example of the EU, on which this approach simply failed, but he didn’t change his view.
Well maybe. But if you think about his policies on law and order, on immigration, on terrorism and on drugs, to take just four areas, can we really believe that Blair was not affected by the power of the tabloids? They are, as we know, hysterical and brutal on these issues, and Blair policies (consult the works of Nick Cohen on this, for example) usually either failed to confront or pandered to their prejudices.
Blair also, incidentally, ducked responsibility on the PCC. He plainly knew it was a poor regulator, not giving adequate redress. And, aware as he was of the viciousness of some papers, he must have been aware that suffering and injustice was being inflicted on people less powerful than he was.
So his often-hardline policies on crime, immigration, terrorism and drugs had victims too, and they were surely, in their way, indirect victims of press power. Meanwhile the press itself was left free under him to abuse its own victims.
Blair’s policy of not taking on the press, as he characterises it, was not, therefore, all that reasonable and it certainly wasn’t a pain-free solution (though it may have reduced the pain for him). His approach had plenty of victims, direct and indirect, and they were among the most vulnerable people in our society. That makes it cruel and cowardly, not reasonable.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart