Professor Howard Glennerster’s new foreword to Democracy under attack by Malcolm Dean, publishing in paperback today.
How are we to view the role of the press and the wider media in Britain today?
Does it hold politicians to account or merely scare them into submission? Does it raise issues of national concern or trivialise them? Does it trample on individuals’ privacy or save them from bureaucratic indifference? Perhaps it does all of this but if so what does it do most?
There are plenty of views, individual complaints and an official inquiry underway. But this book is different – a retrospective and carefully documented account by one of the country’s leading journalists of the part the media has played in shaping public and political attitudes to social affairs over the past forty years. Malcolm Dean spent most of his journalistic life writing about social policy, observing politicians at work and immersing himself in the policy process. Here he distils that lifetime experience. It is not just an account by an insider but by a hugely well informed insider, one with a feel for history. He looks back at changes in social policy from the 1960s on and at changes that have overtaken journalism. But above all he looks in detail at the part the media have played in shaping policy on law and order and prison reform, on drugs policy, on child poverty, vocational education, housing, health and social care. He includes the contents of numerous interviews with people others would likely not have reached and includes his own experiences. It is a unique blend. Having been involved in the policy debate myself, and the political process at times too, his accounts ring true.
Dean knows the specific academic literature that underpinned the debates, or should have done, and the day to day interaction between politics and the press room. What we learn is an arresting and sometimes shocking insight into the power of the press to shape the way politicians think and see the issues they are legislating about. It frames their world view.
Some academics have played down the role of the media seeing it as a sounding board at best or a mere form of entertainment or perversion of reality at worst. This is a much more subtle and revealing account. Sometimes the press can be more even handed and well informed than politicians think. They would have done well to show courage, drug policy is one case. In other areas like housing the absence of specialist informed reporting helped take it off the agenda. Working with a well informed press policy can be developed that will win the public over as in the case of child poverty or pension reform. But sometimes politicians are simply scared stiff by what they think the press will say and about how they judge the public will react. These detailed accounts give us all shades of grey and some glimpses of the sun too.
This will be an indispensible read for those wishing to understand the media and the policy process in the United Kingdom whether they are interested in social policy or not.