Comment: Self-pitying politicians are terrible judges of the media

A moan from a journalist about politicians moaning about journalists
A moan from a journalist about politicians moaning about journalists
Alex Stevenson By

Politicians of every ideological flavour are united by one thing: their self-pitying sense of victimisation at the hands of the press.

Whenever things are going wrong the tendency is to look for excuses - it's a natural reflex of every human. Unsuccessful sporting teams will often shrug off responsibility by blaming local factors. So will failing businesses. So will failing governments.

Sometimes these reasons are legitimate. At other times they are just moaning, plain and simple. Embattled politicians usually moan.

The two or three Labour party conferences before the last general election were classic examples of this miserabilist tendency. New Labour was on its last legs, hammered by the voters and on the brink of losing power. Rather than becoming mobilising forces to cheer up the party and motivate its grassroots, Labour's conference turned into a festival of sorrows-nursing. An atmosphere of bitter, betrayed hostility pervaded the place. They were all in it together, on the receiving end of cruel and unjustified punishment.

This mood has never really subsided; in fact, it had never really gone away. It was just that the pain of electoral defeat made the intensity of the moaning worse.

Nor is this restricted to the left of British politics. You might think this sort of behaviour would be limited to Labour, given the broadly right-wing preferences of the national print media. You would be very, very wrong.

As Boris Johnson's article in the Telegraph shows today, this is far from the case. The re-elected London mayor has called for a Tory director-general of the BBC to reform its "overwhelmingly biased" lefty views. Is this a carefully considered policy proposal? No. It is a transparent kneejerk response to the Beeb's coverage of the London contest. Boris sometimes felt like his "chief opponent was the local BBC news", he moaned. Even in a candidate who won his election, the antagonism generated by his warped view of neutral coverage had risen straight to the surface. This messy eruption of aggrieved victimisation was the result.

It's not that contagion is spreading from left to right. This problem is endemic among politicians. They are all convinced the media is out to get them.

They are all partly right, of course. Different sections of the media do write to different audiences. But a politician will usually take this unavoidable truth and uses it to distract themselves from legitimate journalistic criticism. A negative story can never be because a politician has done something negative, or has a view which is open to question. A negative story is all too easily blamed on the view of the publication, instead. Politicians usually get it wrong when they making that assessment.

I'd be surprised if a single politician reading this article agrees with that statement, of course. This is because they are universally convinced their view of life is the correct one. It follows from this that their view of who runs our society is also rigidly fixed. Their outlook shapes everything: the attitudes which affect whether you back the public or the private sector also impact on your view of that section of British society which actually gets things done. Power in this country isn't just in the hands of politicians, as the Leveson inquiry is making obvious to the uninformed. Politicians know this, and they resent it.

Each party has its own view of the elite establishment cabal of the City, Fleet Street and Westminster. To the Labour party, it is a force of conservatism to be fought by winning elections against Conservatives. To the Tories, it is a bastion to be defended against those parts of Britain which are not yet wholly right-wing.

Whatever perspective they are coming from, these politicians are convinced their attitude is correct. It is no surprise these victimised views are most common among the real ideological politicians, the ones whose view of the world is most firmly entrenched from a particular viewpoint.

All this whingeing is irritating to political journalists, but it does not matter. It is inconsequential. Only when politicians decide to do something about it does the meaningless moaning start to take on a more dangerous edge.

For this is the problem with politicians: for all their failings, they do hold - as a political class - a fair amount of power. The right-wing independently-owned media is fairly robust. It has managed its own affairs, via the Press Complaints Commission, for years. Through the Leveson inquiry it faces assault. Through the appointment of the director-general, as Boris has so spotted, the BBC also faces a challenge to the status quo.

The result is a climate in which politicians' ability to make a difference to the way the British media operates is unusually promising. The media does need shaking up, of course, as the present system of ownership and regulation is being exposed as hopelessly flawed by Leveson. That does not mean it should be latched on to by politicians whose self-pity blurs their ability to see the big picture.

The coming months will see more and more politicians break ranks to demand this reform or that revolution in the media. Whichever suit it is standing up in front of you, bear in mind that in a little part of their brain festering resentments have been working away for years. 'The media is biased against me', a little voice is telling them. When they demand changes, don't just nod limply. Ask a simple question: has their victimisation complex warped their thinking beyond repair?


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