John Lloyd is editor of the FT Weekend Magazine. He has been labour, industrial and East European editor of the FT and for six years was the Moscow correspondent. He has also worked on radio and TV and edited the New Statesman.
His recently published book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics has prompted a debate on the role of the media and the quality of journalism in the UK.
A version of the introduction to the book can be read here and is worth digesting before reading the Q&A if you are not yet familar with the debate.
Harry: Your book ends with a series of suggestions for how media might change its method and produce a more fruitful engagement with politicians and with the political agenda in general. Do you see this primarily as a matter of reform within the media, led by editors and journalists, or do you see a role for greater regulation and enforcement?
John Lloyd: Primarily, and probably entirely, as a matter of reform within the media. I say ‘probably’ because I can imagine law which would have a good effect – a privacy law might be one. But in general, I think the law should yield to higher standards by the media themselves – if we can prove they are deliverable.
H: Do you see any signs that such a change in the media might actually be in the offing? Where is such change likely to emerge from?
JL: Yes I do see such signs. There is a much greater debate than there has been for many years; and there is much more interest in standards; in right of reply; in how the media represent politics; in war reporting; in regulation and so on. I think that we should try to develop an institute – a kind of think tank-cum-debating centre-cum monitoring unit – which holds the media to account. they need that, above all – because they make up a very great power in society.
H: Do politicians not also have to take a share of the blame for the level of public discourse in the UK? Do we not have an adversarial political culture in parliament, reflected, for example, in PMQ’s where rhetoric rules and debate rarely rises above attempts to ‘catch out’ opponents in just the same way as you criticise the Today programme?
JL: We do have an adversarial culture – or rather, the adversarial part of the political culture is the one that is most visible (through the media). And it is one which tends to privilege catching the other guy out. I think it could and should be made better – but a democractic system will produce more heat than light at some points, and should do so. But a larger issue is the way in which all parties now treat the media. It’s a firm belief that there is no possibility of a real debate with or on the media: everything miusdt be pre-prepared in order to shield it from challenge or scandal. ‘Spin’ is a way of describing it: and it hardly matter now who ‘started it’ – or even who is more to blame. The point is, we have a system of institutionalised hostility which we should examine.
H: One of the many benefits the internet has provided those of us with an interest in global affairs is easy access to the media outside of the UK, in particular I am thinking of the American current affairs magazines which many of us now enjoy reading. Is there simply not a market in the UK for publications of that type or is the absence of such magazines a reflection of the political culture you lament in the book?
JL: Both. The US is obviously a bigger market, and can sustain bigger circulations. But it also had a culture of news journalism at length – in newspapers as well as magazines – and this has ‘trained’ an audience in reading and responding to such pieces: as those in the NY Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Atlantic, New Republic, Harpers…and so on. Journalism is simply seen as more essential to explain the world, for many people.
H: Some of us on the left feel poorly served by ‘our media’. John Pilger, who talks of the US as the “New Third Reich”, is a star attraction and marketing asset for the New Statesman. Many left bloggers have taken strong issue with the choices made on the opinion pages of the Guardian, especially since September 11. Does this simply reflect the state of the left or is it another example of the culture of the media that the oppositionalist and nihilist voices are more attractive?
JL: I think such voices are more attractive now: I don’t know if they will
remain so. Also, the oppositionists (as against the nihilists) do reveal a lot: or at least, the best – as Nick Cohen or Mark Steyn – do.
H: In your book you briefly touch upon the impact of the internet and weblogs. Some in the US have hailed blogs as ‘citizens media’ and suggested they have the potential to change the media or offer an alternative because they broaden the conversation, check the facts and through the ability to link to source materials provide an optional wider context, allowing the reader to go as deep as they wish into an issue. In response some in the media have been more critical noting that blogs have little in the way of responsibility, don’t actually do much original reporting, lack professionalism and therefore credibility. How do you see the impact of political/media blogs now and their potential in the future?
JL: I think it is obviously right that most blogs have low standards – but then, so do many of the media. But that’s not their importance. Their importance is in allowing a larger number of people to be part of an active engagement with current affairs and with issues in public life – and thus in widening the circle. these are threats to newspapers, but may contribute to re-shaping them.
H: If someone like, say, George Soros handed you a chunky investment and
said “create a valuable addition to the UK media” what would you opt for?
JL: Doing a media institute. As I said in answer to your second question, we badly need a centre where the issues of media power and media practice are debated.
H: You were named in the New Statesman as one of “Britain’s neo-cons”.
Why do you think that was? And what was your reaction to that?
The main reason for that, as most other things in journalism, is that the writer wanted to knock off a column quickly and invented a neat package – one which he didnt check out with anyone on the list (I checked).
He put me (and David Aaronovich) in there because we, though on the political centre-left, supported the invasion of Iraq. I was angered: I knew the writer (John Kampfner) and counted him as a friend. But we’ve since made up: he apologised, handsomely.
H: Due to the Iraq war Blair is now despised by a significant chunk of liberal-left opinion and voters. Can he ever win them back?
It depends for what reasons they despise him. if they view his decision to go to war in Iraq as wrong, then many will continue to hold that against him (some may change their minds – especially as it seems Iraqis now have a chance of a better country and life). If they believe he’s betrayed socialism, they’re right – but he did it openly. Most will, I think, see that Labour has governed well – and that it’s done a good deal for the poor; probably proportionately more than any govt since those of 1945-51.
H: Does the time you spent as a communist still have any influence on your political outlook?
Yes, but not in stereotypical ways. I haven’t ‘gone to another extreme’. I was a member of the CPGB for two years, and pretty inactive – though I held some nasty views in that brief time. In part, a horror of my own past position has made me moderate and democractically-minded.