Many people have commented that the ongoing scandal involving News International and the News of the World has many similarities with the Watergate scandal in the USA , some 40 years ago, which led to the resignation of President Nixon. The Watergate scandal involved: criminal activities, attempts to cover up and the knowledge and involvement of these activities at the highest levels of Government. While the current UK crisis may not be as bad, in some respects, as the Watergate scandal in some areas it is worse. For example, in Watergate there was not really any suggestion of large scale police bribery which may come out of the NoW scandal. Furthermore, in Watergate the media (in the guise of two investigative reporters Bernstein and Woodward) were the good guys who fiercely investigated and reported on the many aspects of Watergate in spite of pressure and threats from many sources. In the UK scandal many (but not all) parts of the media are now seen as the villains who have basically gone “way over the top” in hacking the phones of the families of bereaved soldiers, murder victims families etc.
At the time of writing we are still in the midst of an unfolding crisis in both the media and in politics and it is not clear how it might all end. However, a key issue for me is whether the crisis will substantially change the relationship between politicians and the media and how that might impact on public services. Over the years it appears that the media and politicians have developed something of a symbiotic relationship whereby each feeds of the other but also (and perhaps in contradiction) it appears that the politicians have become in hoc to the media and are virtually terrified of what the media might do to them if they don’t cooperate.
If the current crisis breaks or alters this link between politics and the media then maybe, just maybe, politicians will actually stand up for what is right and necessary and not just do what the media wants them to do for fear of being thrown to the wolves. This could have implications in a number of areas and just three examples are given below:-
• Those who watched the leader’s debates at the time of the last general election will recall the three of them indicating that it was imperative to reduce the size of the UK’s public budget deficit but none of them would spell out any specifics of how they would go about doing it. Presumably, each was afraid that any specific actions they suggested prior to the election would be jumped upon by the media and blown up out of all proportion
• The nature of budget deficit reduction is that cuts in spending must be made somewhere. However, whenever a particular “cut” is identified and publicised we often see the media interviewing “outraged” consumers or staff followed by Ministers explaining that it isn’t really a cut in services at all but an “efficiency” saving. The reality is that the size of the public expenditure cuts and the unsophisticated way it is being addressed in the UK means it is impossible to deliver the scale of cuts needed by “efficiency” savings alone and Ministers are just being dishonest to avoid a bad press.
• Those who have been actively involved in trying to reform and/reconfigure health
services will know the power of the media. Whatever the merits of the reform process it can all be destroyed by media campaigns to save one hospital (however old and unsuitable) and one service (however bad) with the result that the politicians cave in and cancel the reforms.
While politicians may always have an aversion to telling the complete truth because of adverse voter reaction, might it be that a changed relationship between them and the media will give them the courage to do what is necessary without fearing crucifixion in the media. We will just have to wait and see.