Blair backs new online journalism regulator

London Telegraph | June 13, 2007
By George Jones

Tony Blair hinted today at new restrictions on internet journalism, saying online news coverage had become "more pernicious and less balanced" than traditional political reporting.

In a farewell lecture on public life, he said that much of the British media behaved like a "feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits".

But he had particularly harsh words for non-traditional media outlets, particularly the internet.

"It used to be thought - and I include myself in this - that help was on the horizon," he said.

"New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media.

"In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five."

The emergence of internet-based news and 24-hour television news channels meant reports were "driven by impact''. He said that there was a need for the distinction between news and comment to be reasserted.

With newspapers increasingly moving online, he said the regulatory systems for papers and TV needed to be revised. Currently they are monitored by separate watchdogs.

"As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way," Mr Blair said.

The outgoing Prime Minister said senior figures in public life had now become "totally demoralised" by the completely unbalanced nature of reporting.

He conceded that relations had always been fraught, but said the situation now threatened politicians' "capacity to take the right decisions for the country''.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that he had "contributed" to the deteriorating situation with the media by "spinning" too much in the early days of New Labour.

''We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media,'' Mr Blair said in a speech to Reuters.

''In our own defence, after 18 years of opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.

''But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.''

While insisting that he was not complaining about the coverage he gets as Premier, Mr Blair claimed there was less balance in journalism now than 10 years ago.

Mr Blair insisted that there was still a genuine desire for impartial news coverage among the public.

"At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact,'' Mr Blair said. "I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair.

"The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.''