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Friday, 15 June 2007

15 June 2007

I’ll deal with Gaza in a moment, but first, forgive me if I seem to have swallowed a dictionary. It’s all because our soon-to-be-departed Prime Minister used the word “feral” in his speech about the media.

“Today's media,” he said, “hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Feral (adj.): a. Existing in a wild or untamed state b. Having returned to an untamed state from domestication.

I rather suspect that Mr Blair thinks “feral” is simply another word for “wild”. But in fact it means a bit more than that: so perhaps the key to the PM’s thinking lies in the word “untamed”.

Does he really want “tame” media? Media that take politicians’ words always at face value? That don’t question, or doubt, or criticise? Surely not.

Does he really want newspapers and broadcasters who merely listen carefully to what politicians say and report it faithfully, word for word, just as they used to do in the good old days? The public, he says, need to be properly and accurately informed – but are not well served because the media are interested only in a quick headline and a new sensation to attract the attention of an iPod-addicted generation.

I wonder if you agree. I’d be interested to know whether you think you are well served by the media, or whether you think Mr Blair has put his finger on something that needs to be addressed.

Me? He doth protest too much, methinks, although he is right to say that we do need to think about the relationship between politicians and media. Personally, I tend to go along with the American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken: the ideal relationship between us is like the one between a dog and a lamp-post. The PM, I suspect, is closer to the character in the Tom Stoppard play Night and Day: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

Sure, journalists hunting in packs is not a pretty sight. Yes, the demands of 24-hour news channels mean we sometimes get things ridiculously out of proportion. But believe me, those saintly politicians don’t always speak only the unvarnished truth. And I do wonder if Mr Blair ever asks himself why the man who used to be known as “Teflon Tony” because no muck ever stuck to him eventually turned into the battered soon-to-be ex-PM we see before us today. (A clue: try a four-letter word, beginning with “I” and ending with “Q”.)

When he talks of journalists “tearing people and reputations to bits”, I suspect he is thinking of three people in particular: his wife Cherie, his former comrade-in-arms Peter Mandelson, and his trusted envoy and fund-raiser Lord Levy. True, they have all been savagely attacked in the media, at, I’m sure, great personal cost to themselves. Were the attacks justified? Not for me to say, m’Lud.

And what about Gaza? Well, with Hamas now in control, the Palestinians are probably further than ever from realising their dream of an independent state. But here’s a thought: given how terrified Arab governments will be of a militant Islamist party in control (Egypt? Jordan? Saudi Arabia?) – and of Iran’s ever-growing influence in the region -- I wonder if they might all try to get together and convene a regional conference to try to thrash out some answers. Back in 1991, the Madrid peace conference was co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union. Invitees were Israel, Egypt, Jordan (plus Palestinians), Syria and Lebanon. Can you imagine Mr Bush and Mr Putin doing something similar now? No, frankly, nor can I.

In October 2000, at the start of what became known as the second Intifada, I wrote from Israel: “I have never felt so fearful for the future of this blood-soaked region.” I’m sorry to say I still hold to those words today.

Our colleague Alan Johnston is still being held in Gaza – it’ll be 14 weeks, 98 days, on Monday. The number of signatures on our online petition calling for his release has now risen to nearly 150,000. Thank you to all who have signed it.

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