Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Ed Curran: How media pressure has led to the sun setting on PM's career

So the Sun has gone and done it. The paper wot won it for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair has bid goodbye to the chances of Gordon Brown.

Oh the power of the written and spoken word. Who needs politicians and governments when you have editors, journalists and newspapers, never mind TV, radio and the internet.

The power of the media over the political life of this country has never been greater than today. When did you last watch or listen to an actual debate at Westminster? Have you ever felt the urge to view the vacant spaces of the Stormont Assembly and to savour the wit, the repartee, the cut and thrust of our MLAs and Executive ministers in their debating chamber?

Even the politicians themselves use other forums to reveal their thoughts and plans.

No one was more adept at by-passing parliament in favour of a leak or statement to the media than Tony Blair. He recognised the power of the media and the weakness of parliament in taking his message to the people and it is now common practice for ministers to brief political correspondents rather than speaking at the despatch box and addressing parliament first.

That's how the political system works these days, through the media, by the media, with the media, and unfortunately in the case of those who aim to work in 10 Downing Street such as Gordon Brown, only with the approval of Rupert Murdoch's family and the Sun newspaper.

The Sun has called it right for the past 30 years so I suppose Mr Brown might as well retreat to East Fife now. Maybe he spent the weekend composing his application for the chairmanship of the International Monetary Fund or World Bank or whatever grand global role is befitting his financial talents as an ex-prime minister.

The power of today's media to make or break politicians has reached a new level this year. It began in the spring with the Daily Telegraph's revelations into the expenses of Westminster MPs.

It promises to be relentless all the way through the winter until the last ballot box is opened and the next Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is declared -probably on May 7, 2010.

Here at home, the media have intentionally or otherwise become the Official Opposition to the Stormont Executive.

The structure of four parties in an enforced coalition with no collective will or team spirit is a sitting duck of a media target.

Stormont is hounded on a daily basis. Why is the minister not here to answer my questions, Stephen Nolan demands most mornings on his radio show? Hardly a day passes without the Belfast newspapers revealing the intimate detail of how ministers or MLAs spent millions on expenses or consultants' fees, or on some other political extravagance.

When our ministers and MLAs open a newspaper or turn on their TV and radio, they must do so in total fear and trepidation of what is about to befall them next.

At worst, they appear at times to have lost control and ceded authority to the media. The same can be said of Westminster where the standing of ministers and MPs in the public eye reached a new low with the expenses scandal.

Perhaps it is a measure of the derisory, disrespectable mood of the country towards our political leaders that even the BBC's esteemed Andrew Marr can question the Prime Minister about totally unsubstantiated health allegations.

What ever will be asked next? Is there any truth, Lord Mandelson, that you have a verruca on your left foot?

Any respect was once accorded to political leaders in the media exists no longer. Anything goes these days. No question is too below the belt to ask. No politician can escape the dreaded call to the microphone in the knowledge that an unadoring public are on the line baying for his or her blood.

Transparency and openness have become the two most overworked words of the current political climate. Any minister, MP , MLA, or public servant who thinks he or she can conceal the facts, or engage in obfuscation, needs to think again.

The chances of getting away with such behaviour are slimmer than ever because we live in an eternally probing world of 24-hour news. So in this media-frenzy climate, we head towards a general election. The Sun is on the side of David Cameron. The other sun, the real sun is setting in Gordon Brown's garden and the election is a foregone conclusion, or so it seems at this stage.

The future direction of the United Kingdom and its mother of parliaments seems at the behest of an Australian newspaper tycoon and his tabloid leader writer. Can there be any greater demonstration of the power of the media over politics today?

I am as critical as the next journalist about how the politicians at Stormont and Westminster have behaved and are handling their responsibilities.

But when it comes to entering the polling station, taking up the ballot paper and placing our 'X's next May, will the Sun newspaper really be the final arbiter?

I suspect television rather than the Sun or any newspaper will determine who wins in 2010.

The first head-to-head TV debates between the party leaders promise to take the power of the media to another electoral peak.

Other countries, chiefly the United States, indulge already in such TV debates and the influence they have on voting patterns is well-chronicled over the years from the black and white TV times when a young John F Kennedy eclipsed an aging Richard Nixon.

David Cameron versus Gordon Brown on TV? My money would still be on Cameron in a live debate but who knows what will happen on the night? Or indeed in the months ahead?

Right now, Brown looks down and almost out but Cameron has yet to convince us that he has as much substance as style. We can only wait and see.

In the meantime I would take the view that the Sun is not wot's won it yet for Cameron.

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