Socialist Worker

Nick Davies: 'Is it the Sun wot wins it?'

Award-winning journalist Nick Davies spoke to Siân Ruddick about who controls the press – and whether their support can swing elections

Issue No. 2172

What will be the impact of the Sun newspaper publicly shifting its support away from the Labour Party?

When a newspaper announces its position on a general election, that actually has very little impact on its readers in itself. If it did matter much, we would never have had a Labour government – the in-built majority on Fleet Street is to the right of centre.

But what is important is that a newspaper like the Sun is essentially dishonest. And when the Sun has decided it wants to support the Conservatives, that will not be limited to its leader comment.

It will intrude into its news judgements – not just its selection of stories and selection of angles, but also its willingness to tell truths which conflict with its editorial line.

And that matters. And if you look back at what they did to [former Labour leader] Neil Kinnock, the paper did an enormous amount of damage to his standing in the country. That was not because their leader comment said “we support the Tories”, but because their news coverage consistently misrepresented what Kinnock did. That’s the danger.

What about the press and the politics of its owners and editors?

The political colour of the owners of newspapers isn’t necessarily hugely important. Even a man like Rupert Murdoch doesn’t intrude in the news coverage of his newspapers very often.

But day by day, story by story, newspapers choose to write what they write, true or false, to sell newspapers.

That is the dominant idea, and that is the source of the worst of the distortion and propaganda – pure and simple commercialism.

The owner intrudes rather rarely, but will do so on particular big issues. If we go to war you’ll see it, or if we have a general election. That’s what we’re seeing here.

I am afraid that it will cause a tide of dishonest reporting that’ll survive for a year or two into David Cameron’s administration and will then start to fall apart as he falls apart.

The other thing is that Murdoch is completely cynical with these decisions. As I understand it from people who work with him, he’s fantastically right wing – he’s so right wing it’s just a caricature.

But the political line his newspapers take is a different thing – that’s pure pragmatism. He is not making or breaking politicians, he’s just going with the flow.

Murdoch sees Labour as a busted flush, so he’s jumping ship. In the 1990s he saw the Tories were over and jumped ship and went to Tony Blair.

If Cameron looks like he’s going to lose a general election, Murdoch will jump ship again.

He’ll do whatever he has to do to win favour with politicians and to sell papers. And of course the politicians are scared of him and his impact on public opinion.

Are Labour supporters over-reacting when they rip up copies of the Sun and attack it in every speech?

If I was them that is what I’d do. If the Labour movement still had the same power it could organise a boycott of the Sun and lose it half a million readers.

That would make Murdoch change his mind – politics is one thing, but to him it’s profit that counts.

It would be wonderful if there was a mass boycott of the Sun on the grounds that its reporting will be politically-motivated dishonesty.

Labour have done the right thing to draw attention to it and it may encourage people not to buy it.

What is your vision of a different media, one that isn’t governed by profit?

I think all journalism comes with selective judgements – we can’t report everything that’s going on in the world, we’re going to choose a tiny fragment.

I think each newspaper should have clear political and moral values, and use those values to make those judgements. If that happened you would get different newspapers reporting very different stories and taking different angles.

But what we have now instead is newspapers with commercial values, not political or journalistic ones.

Even the Daily Mail is primarily motivated by commerce.

We get a consensus account of the world, where all the newspapers cluster around a tiny fraction of stories and angles, whether they’re true or false, or important or not.

This consensus version of the world is very dangerous.

Do you think the crowded middle ground in the media mirrors the crowded middle ground in politics?

We have seen a tectonic shift in the way people think about themselves since 1979. It is the depoliticisation.

In the 1960s and 1970s people would say, “I’m a trade unionist”, or “I’m a left wing radical”, or “I’m working class”.

Today people don’t think of themselves in those political terms any more. People now think, “I’m a consumer”.

The issue isn’t Third World poverty or women’s equality, but instead “Can I save enough money to go on holiday?”

Consumerism has usurped politics. The collapse of socialism in the mainstream has been very important in that.

Since political parties are essentially just managerial – they accept the existence of capitalism and think about how best to run it with tiny tweaks at the edges – people have little reason to engage in politics.

So they end up saying you might as well just have your holiday and be done with it.

Nick Davies is the author of Flat Earth News (Vintage, £8.99) Go to Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 »

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Tue 6 Oct 2009, 18:30 BST
Issue No. 2172
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