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Political Scandals Interim Submission
The question that I have chosen to answer for my essay is: ‘How fair and balanced has the coverage of political scandals been in the British media?’ By selecting this question I can explore the different political affiliations in the British press during times of scandal and how each news media reported on it depending on their relationship with the political party at the centre of the controversy.
Firstly, to begin my essay I will provide some background information on how the press functions in UK politics for which I have conducted some research on for the interim submission using the chapter titled Judging the Media: Impartiality and Broadcasting in the book Politics and the Media Harlots and Prerogatives at the Turn of the Millennium (chapter written by Eric Barendt and edited by Jean Seaton). I have found that it is common knowledge that UK newspapers are, of course, free to support whichever party its editor or proprietor, chooses, and to take sides on political issues. With this power they are not expected to be impartial or balanced in their coverage of contentious political matters such as General Elections and political scandals. For example, The Sun itself claimed credit for the surprise victory of the Conservatives in the General Election of 1992 with the “notorious” front-page headline “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” on Saturday 11 April 1992, according to John Curtice in his research piece: Was it the Sun wot won it again? The influence of newspapers in the 1997 election campaign (http://www.crest.ox.ac.uk/papers/p75.pdf). Because of this ahead of the 1997 election, Tony Blair in opposition assiduously courted Rupert Murdoch and the editors of his newspapers. It is unlikely that the Labour majority in 1997 would have been so large, had the Sun not decided to support it six weeks before polling day. These freedoms are essential aspects of the traditional British understanding of ‘press freedom’, also constitutionally guaranteed in many other nations including the USA by the First Amendment (http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment).
To show that I know what I am writing about and avoid misinterpretations by settling on a single understanding of key terms I will define terms such as: ‘fair’, ‘balanced’ ‘media’, ‘power’ ‘popular’, ‘success’, ‘failure’, ‘disaster’ and of course ‘scandal’. Defining terms ensures that I am talking about the same things as the reader. For example, I could define ‘fruit salad’ as containing, pineapples, yellow apples and bananas. By doing this, the reader will not object when I later write that fruit salad has vital red deficiencies. By defining ‘power’, I would demonstrate that I am aware of other interpretations of the term. It will actually often not be essential to state what the other explanations are, except if the distinction is an essential aspect of the argument.
I will be structuring my essay chronologically covering seven scandals over a ninety-one year period in Politics – from the Marconi scandal in the summer of 1912 to the Iraq War and the apparent suicide of Dr. David Kelly in July 2003. Furthermore, one of the scandals I will be researching will be an overseas scandal: the Lewinsky scandal, which involved former US president Bill Clinton. I will use the scandal for comparison with the John Profumo sex scandal.
In addition, I am going to use a wide range of sources for the essay including: books, newspaper articles, journals, academic research and blogs. All these historical scandals have their own historiography. I will look at the way that they have been written in the press over time (during the scandals and during the present day), the occasional conflicting objectives pursued by journalists and academics on them over time, and the way in which such details form peoples understanding of the scandals.
These different sources are important because they will help me:
- To gather information so that I can develop and enhance on my own political knowledge and understanding of particular scandals and how they were reported in the British media.
- To identify, build and support arguments or research in the essay which will help demonstrate the understandings that I have acquired.
I have listed the scandals that I will be covering, the scope of research that I have conducted for them, the different sources that I have referred to for my research and a provisional list of sources that I plan to use in the final essay below. Moreover, I have included a rough word count for each scandal.
- THE MARCONI SCANDAL 1912
- Centered around allegations that members of the Liberal Government, under Herbert Asquith’s premiership, had profited by inappropriate use of information about the Government’s plans with respect to theMarconi Company: knowing that the government was about to issue a lucrative contract to the British Marconi company for theImperial Wireless Chain, they had bought shares in an American subsidiary.
- The allegations included the fact that Isaacs’ brother,Godfrey Isaacs, was managing director of the Marconi company.
- Although the political repercussions were in fact minor, theNew Witnessdrew conclusions about fraud in British politics.
- SUEZ CRISIS 1956
- Anthony Eden becomes Prime Minister in 1955 – high sense of optimism. Hailsham – ‘a real post-war government, led by a PM who represented contemporary manhood, rather than the pre-First World War generation.’ Optimism about: progressive ideas in domestic affairs, his belief in property owning democracy and industrial partnership. However, all Eden’s career had been foreign affairs and not domestic politics.
- Ironically his downfall was foreign affairs – Suez Crisis. Ends in disaster, military operation called off in humiliating circumstances as Britain withdraws due to American pressure due to economic reasons.
- Political crisis – Eden seemed weak, lost in a policy he was supposed to be the master of. Came under heavy attack from Labour in parliament and sections of national press e.g. Manchester Guardian. By lying to Parliament about collusion with France and Israel, Eden had tarnished his image and prestige.
- Chancellor Harold Macmillan leading the campaign with Eden’s cabinet for Britain to abort Suez.
- Demise of Eden – never recovered from Suez (though resigns due to poor health in 1957). Replaced by Macmillan.
- PROFUMO AFFAIR 1963
- Scandal which was a personal disaster for Harold Macmillan. Given sensational treatment by the press. Political impact of the affair was actually short lived but the image of Macmillan as old and out of touch was reinforced.
- Ideal excuse for press to go after every detail
- Press became less deferential, more intrusive – previous tactics used by government to prevent publication of sensitive or embarrassing information no longer worked.
- Booker – “after years of uneasy indulgence, the people were restless and dissatisfied…wild rumours of strange and wild happenings in the country villas, of orgies and philandering…..brought the capital into a frenzy of speculation and contempt aroused by the Government in the hearts of the great mass of the people”
- LEWINSKY SCANDAL 1998 (USA) [COMPARISON]
- 1995—Monica Lewinsky hired as a White House intern.
- Series of 10 sexual encounters.
- Kenneth Starr investigates.
- Michael Isikoff, Newsweek reporter, investigates, but magazine delays publishing.
- First public report of the scandal seen on Drudge Report.
- Clinton denies allegations.
- Extremely detailed Starr Report released.
- Lewinsky allegations dismissed in Paula Jones case, but coverage is still pervasive.
- Rumors circulate on the internet.
- 24/7 cable news networks.
- Decline of gatekeeping – sensationalist journalism.
- Salience and dumbed-down news.
- Pressure on news outlets to report on rumors.
- Public’s “right to know”?
- Drawing the line between news and drama/entertainment.
- JOHN MAJOR AND SLEAZE 1990s
- Growing internal divisions in the Conservative Party after 1992
- Major – an ‘unlucky PM’?
- Exhausting battles began to drown out the positive achievements in a sea of party infighting and political setbacks.
- Between Black Wednesday and the 1997 election, Major suffered a slow political death.
- Major’s tribulations can be summed up as:
- Easy target for satirists and cartoonists: Private Eye, Rory Bremner, Spitting Image’s grey man. None of this Satire vicious and Major remained personally more popular than his party, but the image of Major as a well-meaning but bumbling and inadequate leader stuck to him.
- Blatant actions by anti-Europe elements in own party 1993 Maastricht Treaty was initially blocked by rebel MP’s. Major won the vote in the end but authority was damaged. “Do we want 3 more of the bastards” accidentally recorded – press, e.g. Daily Mail, speculating as to whom Major was referring to speculation as to whether a leadership challenge would occur. It did not but the threat was damaging enough. Major tried to reshuffle his cabinet in 1994 with little impact.
- Press speculation continued about possible challengers for leadership from disaffected cabinet members – 1995 Major called for leadership election so that he could be re-elected to do his own job (Back me or sack me).
- Sleaze – press coverage key here: sensationalist and intrusive and a contrast with Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign 1993 (call for return to traditional moral values). Examples include Yeo and Mellor (sex scandal, resigned), Scott Enquiry 1994 (illegal selling of arms investigation, Tory’s ‘economical with truth’), Archer and Aitken (perjury).
- Major became easy target, respect declined – gave press fuel. Sleaze similar impact as Profumo Affair on Macmillan 1962. Seen as out of touch, untrustworthy, too preoccupied with own traumas than those of Britain in comparison to a reinvigorated Labour. Further press and opposition hostility due to ammunition – easy target. Sleaze ran all way to 1997 election – factor in Labour’s 1997 victory?
- POLITICAL IMPACT OF IRAQ/ DEATH OF DR. DAVID KELLY 2003
- Iraq War and Blair-Bush relationship is argued to be the defining issue of Blair’s second term.
- Blair had to fight two wars over Iraq – one against Saddam Hussein – one to win over political and public opinion at home
- Media: initially supportive. Continually supportive of “our lads” but not of the governments/countries who led Britain into Iraq.
- Method: Intelligence dossier on weapons of mass destruction – idea Hussein had biological and nuclear weapons.
- Failed to convince those who though WMD had been exaggerated/overrated.
- Questions over why Alastair Campbell played such a large role in drafting dossier – ‘sexed up dossier’ (Gilligan, 2003) to exaggerate the threat from Saddam and that it was intended for political purposes.
- Accusations dossier was about political presentation rather than hard evidence.
- Impact of WMD: No WMD were found.
- Death of Dr. David Kelly (weapons expert at MoD) further damaged the governments reputation as the case dominated the national news, rocked the government, and put the doubt into the British public’s mind about whether this dossier had indeed been exaggerated.
- The role of critical and sensationalist press had a profound effect
- Lord Hutton’s Enquiry– absolved the government from blame and criticised the BBC but the damage was done.
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