Hyperbole is a useful tool for columnists so perhaps Polly Toynbee’s assertion today that the British press is the “worst in the west” should be left to rest. Perhaps, it is best to celebrate the variety of voices in the pages of the Guardian, including Max Hastings who she castigates for an article in the Daily Mail, John Pilger and Harriet Harman as well as Toynbee, and pass on.
Yet there is something about the venom with which Toynbee writes that does need comment. Here is her final paragraph:
What is so squalid about these newspapers is their use of figleaf sermons to cover their real business, done with corrupting chequebook, threat, intimidation, invasion of privacy, paparazzi aggression and vicious cruelty. Labour should use this disgrace to reign in chequebook tell-all by public servants, from those at the top such as Christopher Meyer to those at the bottom such as these sailors. It’s time to look again at privacy legislation, a quid pro quo for the Freedom of Information Act the press abuses with petty assaults on government. The media is in danger of making government by any party impossible.
Without examples she accuses the press of abusing the Freedom of Information Act and suggests tougher privacy laws. The Government â€” present and future â€” would love that. It is in line with her recurring theme in recent months that the media is being unkind to the Blair ministry.
And she singles out from among those civil servants, ministers and military officers who have been criticised for writing too soon after the event, Christopher Meyer, our former ambassador in Washington who wrote DC Confidential.
Why is he the one person named if it is not because he is now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the print media’s self-regulatory body? Possibly some explanation has been edited out.
As for the claim that we have the worst press in the west, it is a sweeping statement. There are probably no reasonable criteria on which it would be possible to draw up a table of countries with the best and worst press.
British newspapers are highly competitive because of the predominance of a powerful London-based national press. This commercial pressure does lead to unseemly behaviour. Toynbee is right to point out the hypocrisy of papers that failed in their bids to interview sailors and marines held in Iran and then attacked the government for allowing the interviews.
Few other countries have a similarly dominant national press. The idea of a national press is scarcely known in the US and in France the two biggest selling nationals, Le Figero and Le Monde, together are outsold by Ouest-France, based in Rennes.
Our system results in some nasty battles over stories but it also provides the competitive environment in which government is held to account. And yes, the FoI Act is one of the very valuable tools for which we can praise the present Government (provided it gives up the plan to restrict its use).