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Columnist calls UK press ‘worst in the west’

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 — present and future — 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).


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  1. Kristine says

    I tend to favour this argument, by Norwegian Oxford professor Stein Ringen:

    “Compared to anywhere else in Europe and beyond, it [British press] is informative, lively, varied and pluralistic, entertaining and often funny, politically vibrant – and it is independent, critical, irreverent and, thank God, intrusive. It does its job… No one who has been outside of Britain and seen the tedious and inept press most democracies are burdened with would, in their right mind, want that instead of what we have. ”

    (From this article: http://www.bjr.org.uk/data/2003/no3_ringen_printable.htm , British Journalism Review 2003)

  2. Nigel Barlow says

    When I opened the Guardian this morning and saw the headline on Polly’s article I was amazed.She makes very valid points about the scramble for the sailor’s story.

    I think that the hypocracy of the Mail and the Express in trying to buy these stories is quite appalling.

    However where I disagree with Polly is that the route cause was a bad decision by the MOD in letting the sailors sell the stories in the first place.

    Where Polly goes wrong is then to use this as a tirade against the British Press in general.Whatever we may think about our press,it is still free and democratic and as you quite rightly point out it holds the government to account.

  3. Best of the journalism blogs says

    11.40am: The Armenian journalist, Gina Khachatryan, is on the Air Malta plane bound for Valletta at the beginning of her unwanted journey back to Armenia. (See Protests over Armenian journalist’s d… Columnist calls UK press ‘worst in the west’ 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 v…