Without doubt the free press underpins our democracy and carries out a crucial role in holding people and governments to account. But the dichotomy between the public appetite for stories and their distaste at how some of those stories are obtained has never been more apparent than in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
The resulting fall-out has been astonishing. MPs still smarting from the expenses scandal (and the way in which it was broken) have leapt on the chance to strike a retaliatory blow at the press. The prime minister was quick to distance himself from the scandal and his former communications chief, while Nick Clegg announced a “once-in-a-generation chance to clean up murky relations among media, police and politicians”.
If the rhetoric results in some distance being put between politicians and the press, it is to be applauded. The fact is that for too long the media has heavily influenced government policy and the legislative agenda. Often, if an issue is not worthy of tabloid headlines, it is not given parliamentary time and the warnings of industry stalwarts are ignored. A case in point is the BPF’s empty property rates campaign. Despite winning the Public Affairs News ‘Private Sector Campaign of the Year’ in 2009, the mainstream media had little interest in the subject and empty rates are now a reality.
A further example is the ill-thought out Carbon Reduction Commitment. Whilst few would argue against the principle of reducing carbon emissions, the government, having won their green credentials by introducing the policy, has clearly lost interest in the detail. The property industry has been left with a half-formulated, unwieldy scheme which takes no account of the reality of managing commercial buildings or their ownership structures. The Industry will be cutting through the resulting red tape for years to come.
The problem is that, although vital to the economy, issues which affect the commercial property industry are unlikely to grab the headlines. Presumably, until the latest X-Factor winner has an opinion on them, they will not get the print space.
It is right that politicians legislate to address issues which concern their constituents, but it is wrong that they should allow the press to dictate what those issues are. It is to be hoped that the current disenchantment with the popular press may allow some other voices to influence the legislative agenda. The alternative is an equally murky world of American-style lobbyists who cut lucrative deals with politicians in return for extortionate fees. Perhaps the property industry could put up a contestant in the X-Factor instead?