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Spot The Bully – Journalism or Government?

SPS Polis 2014 journalism conference

The POLIS 2014 Journalism Conference, held on the campus of the London School of Economics, played host to a number of luminaries from the British media establishment and debated some important issues. But among the various items on the agenda – including riveting discussions on the methods and ethics of investigative journalism, an interview with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and a forum on the use of social media in the newsroom – was a slightly incongruous, strangely titled session.

In the second session of the day, the panel – comprised of chair Anne McElvoy (BBC and The Economist), Annette Dittert (German broadcaster ARD), Michael Crick (Channel 4 News) and Ed Lucas (The Economist) debated the following topic:

Journalism after Snowden: Watchdog or thug?

In the wake of the Snowden story and the Leveson Inquiry into the press, we ask whether British journalism is to supine or too aggressive? Was the publication of state secrets justified?

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Semi-Partisan Sam, attending the POLIS Journalism Conference for the first time, took the opportunity to ask the following question of the panel:

QUESTION – Given the facts: that Reporters Without Borders downgraded the UK from 29th to 33rd in the World Press Freedoms rankings for 2014;  that the British government now assumes the right to stop and detain partners and relatives of journalists at Heathrow airport under grossly misapplied anti-terror laws; that the Prime Minister last year saw fit to dispatch his Cabinet Secretary to the offices of a major national newspaper in order to threaten it with closure unless they desisted with the publication of materials embarrassing to the government; and that the government forced that same newspaper to destroy their privately owned computers and hard drives under the watchful presence of intelligence and GCHQ officers – why are we sitting here having an introspective debate about whether or not journalists are behaving like thugs when the real thug is clearly the bullying, heavy-handed British government?

The question was extremely well received among the attendees in the hall, prompting a significant round of applause from delegates. Sadly, this did not translate into a a full or robust answer from the panel, who at times had been happier to wander off-topic and waste time debating side issues such as America’s merits as a country and the proper role of the intelligence services.

The panel’s complete answer – such as it was – to the question can be seen in the video below (Semi-Partisan Sam is “the gentleman” referred to by Anne McElvoy):

The Economist’s Ed Lucas, an enthusiastic apologist for anything and everything that the government decides to do in the name of ‘security’, was obviously unsympathetic to the idea that the British government has displayed thuggish behaviour. But since even Lucas was unable to justify what the government has been caught doing without public knowledge or consent, he instead diverted attention by building up and then destroying a straw-man argument of his own creation – namely that those who speak out against government persecution of journalists who expose overreach by the security services are somehow naive pacifists who want to abolish the military and the intelligence services entirely.

Lucas said: “If you want to have a country which has no intelligence and security services, where there are no state secrets or no penalty for stealing state secrets, then fine – I guess that may be the world that the Green Party would like. I suspect it’s a minority point of view.”

This is a patently false and absurd proposition. No serious critic of the British or American governments as pertaining to their secretly allowing their security services to infringe on citizen privacy is suggestion that GCHQ, MI6, the CIA or NSA be disbanded, and Lucas insults our intelligence to cast this aspersion. The issue is not whether we have security and intelligence services, but the lengths to which we as a society are prepared to let them act in our interest.

The other fatuous argument sometimes made by apologists – and indeed by Ed Lucas himself during this same session – goes along the lines of: “Why are people so surprised that we have spies, and that they are involved in acts of spying?” Again, this is a deliberate and misleading attempt to change the terms of the debate. Citizens fully understand the need for foreign and domestic intelligence, but they also have the right to expect that the technology and bureaucracy of surveillance will not be turned inwards upon themselves. While no one expects (or demands) a list of current surveillance targets to be posted and regularly updated on the  internet, the public should have input as to the criteria for targeting through the democratic process.

It is a rather sad statement on the current status of British journalism that the only panellist to seriously engage with the question and agree that it is government – not the press – who have been acting the bully, was Annette Dittert from German broadcaster ARD.

Even the panel chair, Anne McElvoy, felt the need to reframe the question and make the unsubstantiated claim that Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, had been carrying “shedloads of secrets with him” when he was detained at Heathrow airport, and that rather than being an outrage, this was just one of the “more difficult areas” where the public “might begin to have some doubts” and feel that the government has a case to answer.

In her response, Dittert correctly identified the apathy of the British people as being partly responsible for the lack of public outcry at the Edward Snowden revelations, saying that Britain has an “almost romantic relationship with the security services” – our experiences of the fictional James Bond being somewhat different to the German experience of the Stasi.

Responding to the question, Dittert said: “I thought it was really concerning – the Prime Minister threatening in the House of Commons a newspaper and journalists … in case they go on publishing is something that shouldn’t happen in a democracy.”

Dittert then went on to describe the way that The Guardian newspaper was treated as being “entirely wrong”.

It is profoundly worrying that even at a prestigious journalism conference such as POLIS 2014, so few of the attendees (and only one of the panellists – a German television correspondent) felt able to push back against the notion that it is the journalistic profession that has become the bully and the thug rather than the British government, whose track record on secrecy, paranoia and intimidation speaks for itself.

And while the POLIS 2014 conference was excellent, the fact that the whole day passed with virtually no observance or mention of the harrassment and intimidation of the British press by the goverment will only reinforce the belief that the establishment media with their well-connected sources and comfortable positions within the Westminster bubble are, at times, quite incapable of holding to account the government that they simultaneously both depend on and fear.

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Polis Annual Journalism Conference 2014

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Semi-Partisan Sam will be attending the annual Polis Journalism Conference later today at the London School of Economics for what promises to be a very stimulating day of discussion and debate, featuring – for good or for ill – a Who’s Who of the British media establishment.

Several sessions in particular are especially relevant to the aims and objectives of this blog:

Journalism after Snowden: Watchdog or thug? In the wake of the Snowden story and the Leveson Inquiry into the press, we ask whether British journalism is too supine or too aggressive? Was the publication of state secrets justified?

Taking on the world: The Guardian In the last 12 months The Guardian has published one the biggest scoops in its history. The Snowden revelations brought intelligence officials into its offices to smash up hard-drives. At the same time it is re-inventing itself as the radical liberal journalism platform for the world. Steve Hewlett puts its editor under the spotlight.

The future of transparency journalism A new generation of journalists is emerging, finding fresh ways to hold power to account. What skills do they need? How will their work change? We bring together former top news professionals and journalism educators to debate the way forward.

Holding Europe to account As Europe prepares to go to the polls in a month’s time it is facing a political crisis. How can journalists get citizens to engage with European issues and how should they report on the growth of scepticism?

 

Stay tuned to @SamHooper on Twitter for live-tweets from the event, and to this blog for discussion and analysis of the conference after the fact.

 

Britain’s Future In Europe – Reviewing the LBC Debate

Image from BBC

The LBC debate on Europe – Image from BBC

 

Finally, the British voters got what they had always wanted – a real debate between politicians on the merits and disadvantages of Britain’s continued EU membership. The political elite and main party leaders may have snubbed the debate and thumbed their noses at the concerns and sentiments of the people, but the discussion went ahead nonetheless, thus proving that important and thorny issues will be debated and tackled in Britain, even when it does not dovetail conveniently with the news strategies of the main political parties.

This blog offered a running, real-time commentary on the debate as it took place, on Twitter.

Nick Clegg, having been nominated to begin the debate, started with the risible and misleading suggestion so beloved of Europhiles that Britain’s trade with Europe and membership of the European Union are essentially one and the same thing – that to leave the political organisation that is the EU would be to build a wall and sever all trade ties with our continental European trading partners. Of course, in reality this is simply not the case, and Nigel Farage took the earliest opportunity to swat down this false argument.

Farage continued his strong start by cunningly reversing the question and asking if Britain were currently outside the EU, and given what we all now know about the costs and flaws and drawbacks of EU membership, whether the British electorate would likely vote to join. This simple shifting of the lens on the debate is clever, and moves focus away from distracting side-issues about the mechanics of secession, looking instead specifically at the merits.

The debate then moved on to whether a referendum on British membership of the EU is desirable at all. Here, Farage did a superb job of calling out the main political party leaders for repeatedly promising referenda in the run-up to elections and then back-peddling or stalling when the time came to deliver on the promises.

Here, Nick Clegg was firmly on the defensive, continually resorting to the official line that he might deign to grant the British people a say on future EU membership, but only in the event of some future treaty change. The justification for this particular stance, at one time used by all of the major political party leaders, has never been convincingly made. People in Britain are unhappy with the EU as it is now, not with how it might be after some as-yet unknown treaty modification. So why can the debate and the referendum not take place on Britain’s current status quo relationship with the EU? As this blog observed at the time, if you catch someone stealing from you, you don’t wait until the next theft before alerting the police, you would do so immediately. And so if Britain’s EU membership has been acting against our national interests, why should the British people have to wait until the next harm is caused to the country before seeking redress?

Of course, the topic of immigration was raised, thus exposing the major chink in UKIP’s armour – the perception that the party and its supporters are hostile to immigrants per se. The fact that the question was asked by an audience member of the ‘swivel-eyed lunatic’ type appearance and then heartily embraced by Farage did not help matters. A party that aims to abhor regulation and restrictions on business and the market really needs to ask itself if continued opposition to immigration is a sound policy in 21st century Britain.

Aside from this inevitable rocky point, Farage remained combative and humorous throughout, while Clegg – despite deploying his usual tricks of staring into the camera and repeating the names of audience members as many times as possible – seemed defensive and on the back foot. There was even time for an awkward Marco Rubio-style on-camera gulp of water from the Deputy Prime Minister.

Farage landed yet another blow on Clegg when he reminded viewers of the apocalyptic doomsday scenarios laid out by pro-Europeans in the 1990s, claiming that Britain’s economy would be dealt a mortal blow if we failed to sign up for the single European currency. “Thank God we didn’t listen,” thundered Farage, to loud applause.

This left Nick Clegg scrabbling around for any remaining mud to sling at Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptic movement. In the end, he resorted to a beloved bogeyman of British social discourse, paedophilia. Nick Clegg, in his desperation to score a final point against Nigel Farage, actually appeared to suggest that British secession from the EU would eradicate Britain’s ability to extradite and prosecute paedophiles – a ludicrous argument, and basically a reassertion of the false argument that Britain would leave the EU without drawing up replacement political, trading and justice treaties with the remaining member states.

And on that damp squib of a counter-argument, save only the closing statements, the debate was over. A solid victory for Nigel Farage, one might have thought, until one witnessed the commentary on television and the internet.

Several commentators rightly pointed out that the media showed several worrying signs of institutional bias. In the buildup to the televised debate, ably anchored by Kay Burley on Sky News, at one point a panel member – a visiting university student from America – was asked if she was ‘worried’ or ‘alarmed’ by the fact that Britain was debating the topic as she landed in the country. Never mind the fact that the poor girl clearly knew next to nothing about what the EU is or how it works, the question was so leading as to be risible. Rather than painting the in/out decision in more clinical terms and asking for a comment, it was suggested to the American student that the very idea of Britain leaving the European Union is alarming and scary. Naturally, the student – on live television – agreed with the questioner that it was indeed a scary prospect. So much for objective coverage.

Peter Oborne, writing in The Telegraph, also found significant institutional fault in the way that the mainstream media handled the coverage and the issue of Britain’s EU membership in general. Oborne saw a deliberate attempt to spin the results of the debate as a victory for Nick Clegg and the pro-European side, until the overwhelming results of the post-debate poll forced them to amend their stories:

Last night’s debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg was a very good example of this phenomenon. The lobby wanted a Clegg win and … collectively called victory for Clegg the moment that the debate was over.

It was only when the YouGov poll came through showing that Farage had won the debate hands-down with the public that lobby journalists were forced into an abrupt U-turn.

I am not going to embarrass reporters by naming names. However, it is fair to hold both Sky and the BBC to account.

Oborne concludes that the UKIP and Eurosceptic-leaning side not only have to win their argument in the court of public opinion, but also overcome a second opponent in the British press:

Farage is leading a political insurgency. Last night was a reminder that Ukip’s opponents are not just the other political parties, but also the mainstream British media.

The Spectator also picked up on the media’s U-turn upon realising that their preferred narrative was falling apart in the face of the YouGov poll:

Nick Clegg had been given the night off babysitting; but, after the poll verdict on tonight’s EU debate with Nigel Farage, he may wish he’d stayed at home with the kids. As the dust settled, the Deputy Prime Minister was bundled into a car and fled the field of battle. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage headed for a victory lap at the Reform Club, where his party donors had been watching.

Backstage, Westminster’s hack-pack was necking cheap vino and Pret sandwiches after carrying out a spectacular volte face. Initially ‘the spin room’ had called the duel for Clegg, on both style and substance. But, as news of the Sun/YouGov poll filtered through to the scribblers, headlines were rewritten and awkward tweets deleted. Soon, only the BBC was left flying the Clegg flag, with the help of Danny Alexander and Tim Farron.

And even now, in the cold light of a new day, the general consensus from the headlines appears to be that that it was an honours-even draw, and that there were ‘no knock-out blows’:

The question of the hour, should Britain stay in the European Union? But the question now being asked? Who won, Nick or Nigel?

Well, it might be disappointing but both men certainly remain standing after tonight’s event. Neither was knocked to the ground and both sides will be pleased with how their leaders performed.

Given the testy nature of the debate and the fact that Nick Clegg was on the back foot for nearly the entire duration, one wonders what would have had to happen – short of either man accidentally lighting his podium on fire – for the news media to declare an actual victory for either side.

And this typifies a problem that is becoming endemic in the news media, not only in Britain but also in the United States. All too often, there is such a tremendous pressure to appear nonbiased and objective that news organisations are terrified to report on anything of a partisan nature without giving equal balance to both arguments. The compulsion to treat both sides of an argument as equally valid and legitimate – even when one is clearly correct and the other one wrong – is paralysing the ability of many news outlets to correctly report the news, even when there is no deliberate attempt to give favourable editorial treatment to a particular side.

The only news outlet with a convincing explanation (i.e. one not based on bipartisan spinelessness) for why both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats seem happy with last night’s debate is The Spectator:

Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage may have looks straight into the same camera and appeared to be addressing the same audience, but they were aiming for different listeners. That’s why the Lib Dems were happy with the 36 per cent that they polled last night. It demonstrates to them that there is some kind of constituency that likes to hear a politician being honest that he likes Europe and that he is pessimistic about Britain’s chances outside the EU.

Last night’s result also demonstrates that even if you appear a bit ratty and sweaty at times, as Nigel Farage did to those who are not instinctively his supporters, you can still win the debate, because there is a bigger constituency of voters who do agree with what you are saying, even if you’re not as polished as Nick Clegg. Thus the first of the two debates went very well for both parties: both were shoring up their own bases and motivating them to vote in elections with typically very low turnout. The real mission for these party leaders is to get their voters to go to the polling booths, not bother about people who haven’t made up their minds.

This ‘one debate, two audiences’ explanation makes a good deal of sense.

Of course, there is one further debate to take place, this one hosted by the BBC on Wednesday 2 April. Again, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have declined to participate. And once again, despite their resistance and the timidity of much of the British press, the public will continue to debate the issues in their absence.

The death throes of free speech in Russia

 

As the world’s attention remains fixed on Ukraine, less attention is paid to the final nails being hammered into the coffin containing the corpse of Russia’s free and independent press. And while the annexation of Crimea and the west’s shamefully half-hearted response (slapping sanctions on a mere handful of Russian officials and exempting Vladimir Putin and his closest confidantes) certainly deserve their column inches, journalistic independence and free speech finally died in Russia, without a shot being fired. It is only right that we acknowledge this backward step, too.

A couple of excellent columns published over the past weekend aimed to do exactly that – Julia Ioffe writing at the New Republic and David Remick at The New Yorker. Both articles come highly recommended and paint a compelling, sad story.

In his piece, Remnick mourns the backwards steps under Putin which have now erased each and every gain made for freedom of expression under the Gorbachev glasnost era, with particular reference to the Russian government’s recent interference with popular news site Lenta.ru:

In recent years, when Russian liberals have tried to sound optimistic, they have invariably said, Well, at least they haven’t cracked down on the Internet the way the Chinese have. Lenta.ru is one Web site, not the entire Russian-language Web, to be sure, but today’s firing is still an important and ominous step. Lenta.ru was getting more than thirteen million unique visitors a month, and was far more direct and critically minded than anything on state television or in most print publications. Some staff writers and editors have said that they will leave rather than work with [new editor] Goreslavsky. They have no doubt that responsibility for today’s firing lay with Putin and his circle.

Seventy-nine staffers at Lenta.ru issued a statement of angry protest, reading, “Over the past couple of years, the space of free journalism in Russia has dramatically decreased. Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through curators, and others by editors who fear losing their jobs. Some media outlets have been closed and others will be closed in the coming months. The problem is not that we have nowhere to run. The problem is that you have nothing more to read.”

Remnick notes that in today’s world and with modern technology, the domestic Russian media can be bought, manipulated and coerced very easily by Putin, with no need for recourse to any of the Soviet-era’s more heavy-handed techniques:

In each individual case, the degree of censorship and pressure is hardly Stalinist in degree. Putin’s media strategy is more sophisticated than that. (The book-publishing industry has remained quite free and unchanged in recent years.) The sophistication of it is that Putin exerts just enough control (blacklisting certain known dissident voices from state television, for example), and punishes just enough of his opponents, to set markers—boundaries of the permissible. Sometimes those boundaries are crossed, but a general tone has been set.

This is precisely the problem, and perhaps the reason why the assault on the Russian free press is getting much less attention than it deserves. In the modern age, the sheer number of cable television channels, newspapers and online news sites can easily give the impression of a vibrant, raucous and effective media, easily reflecting the views of the entire population and holding the leadership to account. However, because of concentration of ownership and endemic corruption, the appearance diversity or independence is merely an illusion – everyone toes the party line.

Julia Ioffe’s New Republic piece sees even more danger, with Russia’s authoritarian attempts to control speech and thought now reaching the internet:

Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel.

Some of the personal anecdotes recounted by Julia Ioffe are even more disturbing:

Then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.”

The Russian Writer’s Union then felt the need to write an open letter to the Kremlin throwing their wholehearted support behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

… the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

Whatever one might think of the press in the United Kingdom or United States, one cannot imagine them banding together like this to explicitly praise the leader. It is certainly true that President George W. Bush received ridiculous levels of hagiography and unquestioningly supportive coverage from the western press in the run-up to the second Iraq war, the profession as a whole did not feel the need to pledge their fealty with one voice. And though they were largely banished from the main networks, there was strong and vocal opposition. Not so in Russia today.

If there is any glimmer of hope to be had in this sorry situation, it is the fact that a sizeable number of Russians – despite their almost total erasing from the domestic news – have grown heartily sick of their country’s backward slide, and are making their views known as best they can.

The BBC reports that up to 50,000 people attended a pro-Democracy “Hands Off Ukraine” rally in central Moscow. And apparently caught off guard, Putin’s regime did not thwart the march, and mustered only 15,000 of their own supporters in a counter-demonstration:

Earlier in Moscow, tens of thousands rallied against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the biggest such protest in two years. As many as 50,000 attended the rally, with protesters shouting: “Hands off Ukraine.”

One man told the BBC he felt Russia was turning back to the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Nearby, some 15,000 supporters of President Vladimir Putin came out to support the Crimean referendum. Many of them wore identical red outfits and carried Russian and Soviet flags.

But displays such as this are likely to become far fewer as the number of truly – or even partially – independent news outlets willing to provide a non-Kremlin perspective on the world dwindles to nothing.

Regrettably, the paranoid propagandists at the Kremlin are now also being encouraged to a degree by some in the west. The usually-admirable Ron Paul, for example, clearly shows the limitations of applying libertarian philosophy to its ultimate limits, and of citing moral equivalency between Russian meddling in Ukraine and unauthorised Western invasions to argue that the West has no legitimate basis to condemn Russia’s actions. Because the United States and Britain did wrong in the past, goes this argument, Russia must be allowed to do wrong now:

Paul said Crimeans should be allowed to break away from Kiev.

“I think everyone should have right to express themselves,” he said. “It is messy, that is for sure, because two big governments are very much involved in trying to tell the Ukranians what to do.”

However he said Russia had a more justifiable basis for being involved in Crimea than the US, and no government should prevent locals on the peninsula from determining their future.

This deference toward Russia maintaining a geopolitical sphere of influence whereby it is allowed to meddle and assert special interests in the politics of its neighbours would be slightly more defensible coming from Ron Paul if he did not castigate the United States for doing the same thing when it comes to influencing America’s Latin American neighbours:

PAUL: Well, I think free trade is the answer. Free trade is an answer to a lot of conflicts around the world, so I’m always promoting free trade. And you might add Cuba, too. I think we would be a lot better off trading with Cuba.

But as far as us having an obligation, a military or a financial obligation to go down and dictate to them what government they should have, I don’t like that idea. I would try to set a standard here where countries would want to emulate us. Unfortunately, sometimes we slip up on our standards and we go around the world and we try to force ourselves on others.

If free trade and an absence of foreign meddling is truly the stance favoured by Ron Paul he should be vigorously denouncing the aggressive actions taken by Russia, not seeking to justify them by finding tenuous comparisons in recent US and western foreign policy. Ukraine had a clear choice – closer engagement with the European Union or re-embracing Russia. Until Vladimir Putin began interfering in Ukraine’s internal politics and encouraging President Yanukovych to abandon the EU deal in exchange for sweeteners from Russia, Ukraine leant towards Europe. The EU may have its imperfections, but it represents a much more liberal option than anything Putin’s Russia represents, and if anyone has subverted the will of the Ukrainian people and deserves Ron Paul’s disapproval today it is Vladimir Putin.

And while Ron Paul has led from the front in the important public debate about the nature and extent of the US surveillance state, and any curtailments on free speech in America, there is no acknowledgement from him of the grave and far more routine impositions on free speech that take place in Russia. That’s not to say that every criticism of America needs to be counterbalanced with a corresponding flaw in the rest of the world, but it is certainly the case that jumping into the debate on Ukraine without acknowledging this elephant in the room significantly detracts from his argument.

When it comes to counterarguments and balance in media coverage, Russia makes America and Britain’s own tribulations look like nothing by comparison. And while it is unfortunate that some people – particular those from the left/libertarian part of the spectrum – have felt the need to use the Ukrainian crisis as an “I told you so” moment or to burnish their own non-interventionist credentials, this is nothing more than posturing for a domestic audience. It does nothing to help the people of Ukraine or Russia.

While it is Ukraine that is currently being deprived of its territory in Crimea, the usurping Russians are also being robbed. Their loss, taking place with far less comment, is that of their independent press and free speech. And without a free domestic press to even go through the motions of scrutinising Vladimir Putin’s leadership, today’s Russia – in full paranoid, expansionist, Soviet-nostalgic mode – is not going to stop at Ukraine.

Tony and Rebekah, Sitting In A Tree

 

Democracy cannot survive without a free press willing and able to act as a check on government power and behaviour.

The relationship between the government and the media should therefore be adversarial – although it was thuggish of David Cameron’s government to dispatch the Cabinet Secretary to the Guardian’s offices to bully them into destroying their computers in the wake of the Edward Snowden scandal, rather this terrible, flagrant abuse of power than the chilling alternative of Sir Jeremy Heywood popping by every single afternoon for tea, chitchat and a list of government-sanctioned news stories for publication.

But it is this latter, far more insidious type of close, symbiotic relationship that has been prevalent between parts of the British media and the politicians on whom they report and are supposed to keep in check.

Former prime minister Tony Blair may no longer occupy Number 10 Downing Street, but the self-evident warmth of his newly revealed correspondence with Rebekah Brooks – former chief executive of News International, now on trial for her alleged role in the phone hacking scandal – shows just how overfamiliar those in power can get to those who lead the publications who supposedly scrutinise them.

The following exchange of text messages between Tony Blair and Brooks on the day after her resignation, reported by The Guardian, really says it all:

Tony Blair: If you’re still going to parliament you should call me. I have experience of these things! Tx

Rebekah Brooks: Definitely depends on the police interview first. I have Stephen Parkinson [a lawyer] here today. I have never met him but people say he is good.

Tony Blair: He’s excellent.

Rebekah Brooks: Great news. Feeling properly terrified. Police are behaving so badly.

Tony Blair: Everyone panics in these situations and they will feel they have their reputation to recover. Assume you have quality QC advice? When’s the interview?

Rebekah Brooks: Sunday probably or Monday. Cms committee. Tuesday. Stephen bringing someone called Emma Hodges and we have QC.

Tony Blair: That’s good. I’m no use on police stuff but call me after that because I may be some help on Commons.

Rebekah Brooks: Great. Will do. X

There are two issues here. The first is the impropriety of a former UK prime minister essentially offering coaching to someone involved in a very current public scandal before they are due to give evidence at a parliamentary committee hearing. While there may be no legal prohibition on this type of interaction, it seems very morally dubious. Were the subject of the hearing about anything else it could perhaps be overlooked, but since it was a hearing of the Culture Select Committee specifically on the allegations of phone hacking and the issues raised about the behaviour of the press, Blair’s offer of counsel and friendly support seems to put him squarely on the side of the alleged perpetrators rather than the victims.

The second issue is the self-evident friendship between the former news executive and the former politician. Friendships such as these are forged over time, some of which was doubtless while Tony Blair was still  prime minister. If Tony Blair’s regard for Rebekah Brooks is such that he was offering her emotional support via text message at the height of the phone hacking scandal, what other acts of friendship was he bestowing upon her while he still occupied Number 10 Downing Street? And how might the publications that Brooks ran have reflected this friendship?

Some might argue that it is unfair to question the nature of this friendship. They are wrong – it is entirely appropriate. Serving as prime minister comes with certain responsibilities and standards of behaviour. It may not be part of the oath of office, but one of those responsibilities is surely to maintain professional relationships with business and the media. If both Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks were doing their jobs properly during the period of his premiership, this would almost certainly have precluded any meaningful friendship from forming. If, however, they were behaving toward each other then as they apparently do so now, everything suddenly makes a lot more sense.

While the release of Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks’ text message correspondence doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know – that our elected leaders are sometimes far too close to the press barons who help to control the news agenda – seeing the evidence in black and white is still unsettling.

Recalling Tony Blair as prime minister and then juxtaposing this new image of “T” sending kiss-laden text messages to the woman who then edited Britain’s most-read newspaper casts that era in a whole new, sordid light. The dirty, illicit feeling that reading these messages evokes would be more at home in the television series “House of Cards” than real-world Britain.

We deserve better from our politicians, and from the news media.