Blair says New Labour spent too long wooing media

LONDON (Reuters) - The Labour Party spent too much time trying to influence the media in the days after its 1997 landslide election, Tony Blair accepted on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister, who is due to hand over to Chancellor Gordon Brown in two weeks’ time, said he agreed with critics who believe that the focus on courting the media had fuelled cynicism about media management and spin.

Speaking in London to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Blair acknowledged the part he had played in the process but insisted that the debate about the relationship between politics and the media was “more than about just me”.

“We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting ... and persuading the media,” he said.

“In our own defence, after 18 years of opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.”

Blair insisted he was not complaining about the coverage he had received, acknowledging that for the first few years of his premiership he had had a “pretty benign media”.

He pointed out, however, that managing the media’s interest in public life means that people in the public spotlight find it becomes a major part of their day-to-day activities.

Related Coverage

“A vast aspect of our jobs today, outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else, is coping with the media -- its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.”

Blair cited the development of 24-hour news channels and the preponderance of blogs and Internet sites as reasons for the upsurge in competition in the media which in turn, he said, had brought a decline in standards.

“The result, however, is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by ‘impact,’ he added.”

“Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course, the accuracy of a story matters, but it is secondary often to impact.”

Blair said the reason he had raised the issue of declining standards in the media and the unrelenting pressure on politicians to deal with the media was that as he neared the end of his term in office, it was “the right time” to do it.

“I do believe the relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair,” he added.

“The damage saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.”