Brown's Commons assault on News International showed moral fervour, but let's not forget his own cynical use of the media
By Charlie Beckett
No one who watched Gordon Brown's powerful House of Commons assault on the criminal actions of News International journalists could fail to be impressed by his moral fervour. A nation that never really loved him as prime minister has been hugely sympathetic to the ghastly personal pain he was put through all those years ago by the then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks. But while the phone hackers and their bosses were the guilty parties, Brown is still part of the wider problem of politics and press in this country.
Political media in London – and remember our national political debate is still concentrated in one small part of that city – essentially involves a battle over power carried out partly in news columns and TV studios, but mainly in corridors and bars and via phone and email. What the public end up seeing is so often the spoils of out-of-sight lobby meetings, briefings and "leaks".
But while the armies of special advisers, MPs, reporters and spinners clash silently out of public view, the real power lies on the one hand with the top politicians and especially the prime minister, and on the other, with the news executives, editors and proprietors. The most unscrupulous were, it seems, prepared to trade truth for power. A few journalists were even prepared to break the law. We rightly condemn them for random phone hacking but praise them for paying for allegedly stolen discs with information on MPs' expenses.
Now I am not entirely naive. As a life-long news journalist I realise that this is an essential part of realpolitik. In practice, journalism and politics need grey areas to operate. But I believe most people think that the culture of deceit has degenerated to a point where it has become a hindrance not a help to healthy democracy. What is interesting is that at this unusual point in history we have a chance to change the terms of trade.
Both Brown and Rupert Murdoch share (at least) one thing in common. They have both been damaged because they did not act ethically, especially in their use of the media. I think this might be a moment when we might consider that acting for "good" moral reasons might actually coincide with political and business self interest. We are in an age of greater public scepticism, combined with potential increased transparency – partly thanks to social media. So perhaps it does not necessarily pay to play by the old cynical rules.
Brown was at the heart of one of the most cynical communications operations in recent political history. To be fair, as prime minister, he was fighting for his political life during tough times. But I don't think that justified the systematic manipulation, deceit and destructive briefings that characterised his political communications. It was hardly evidence of a desire for the open, integrity-based politics that he so often spoke of in public. It did not work.
I am not trying to argue there is any moral equivalence between that kind of brutal spin and the act of gross offence by Brooks over the story about Brown's son. But I would suggest that any improvement in the media we get depends on all of us – the public included – understanding how a more ethical approach to political communications and journalism in general is the basis for recapturing public trust and engagement with those who run our government and report on our lives. It could even help foster better governance and more popular journalism.
What exactly we mean by ethics and how we enact them or enforce them is another matter, of course. This is not some pious academic question. Rules may help but ultimately it is a practical question of the choices made by journalists and politicians and especially by their leaders. The debate that phone hacking has opened up really must go beyond News International and journalism as an industry and include honest self-criticism from those who enjoy power. We need to condemn but also to look within.
Posted on 15 July 2011.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charlie Beckett. This article was first published by The Guardian.
Charlie Beckett is the Director of POLIS.