Gorkana debate: Q. Is the press losing its influence? A. On society yes, on politicians no

Speed 21 June 2012

All newspapers have seen massive falls in print circulation in the last decade. In any other business it would surely be game over?

That was former BBC Director General Greg Dyke’s opening shot at a lively debate last night organised by Gorkana at the Millbank Media Centre, London. The discussion among a panel of veteran media execs set out to determine whether the press is losing its influence.

British newspapers lead the world
Publisher and broadcaster Andrew Neill accused Dyke of counting the wrong things.

“The reach of the UK media has never been bigger. But new audiences haven’t been monetised yet. The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Economist and The Financial Times all have global audiences,” said Neil.

Sue Douglas, former deputy editor of The Sunday Times, agreed with Neil. Douglas is currently hatching the launch of a new Sunday newspaper.

“The news business isn’t about newspapers, it’s about the stories. We need to look at the distribution of stories in a new ways on new platforms. That’s never going to go away irrespective of the channel,” she said.

The UK newspaper business isn’t a conventional market. It is distorted by the ego of wannabe proprietors. Unfit newspapers don’t die.

“Bad newspapers don’t get close down. They get bought by someone that wants to join the British establishment” said Neil, citing The Daily Express and The Independent.

Leveson: regulation unwelcome
The panel was unanimous in its agreement about the Leveson Inquiry. “It’s become a grudge match for every politician that’s had a run-in with a journalist,” said Neil.

The change in the relationship between the media and politicians began during the Tony Blair’s administration.

“Following the media’s treatment of Neil Kinnock [in the early-90s] New Labour changed its relationships with the media forever. Blair’s Government created wide and deep interlocking relationships with News International,” said Neil.

A decade later Cameron repeated the strategy. “Andy Coulson was Cameron’s Alastair Campbell,” said Douglas.

But the panel was unanimous in agreeing that press regulation would be wrong. MP David Davis argued that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story shows danger of an overregulated press.

French privacy laws meant that reporting of the former IMF chief’s alleged involvement in a legal case was censored until it was broken by international outlets.

Political influence remains as strong as ever
“MPs still believe that newspapers have a huge influence. They still live in an analogue world,” said Neil.

But then maybe media executives do as well to some extent. Neil was the only member of the panel with an account on Twitter.

“The influence of newspapers is in decline and it would be happening a lot faster if politicians realised what was happening,” he added.

The local media and the BBC are the key routes for MPs to communicate with their electorate said Davis.

But increasingly MPs are using digital channels.

“MPs are turning to Twitter to communicate with their electorate. But it comes with a large overhead in time,” said Davis.

Newspapers have a drip, drip, effect on the electorate but their influence is exaggerated said Davis.

“Every newspaper in the last election but three called for th
e electorate to vote for Conservative. Two called for the LibDems and one for Labour. But it didn’t help the Conservatives secure a majority,” said Neil.

The influence of the press on society is changing of that there is no doubt, but it is seemingly as strong as ever on the political classes.

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