We live in a world where, if someone starts up a campaign, they don't head to Westminster, but Fleet Street. An individual politician does not have the same popularity, respect, or credibility that an individual newspaper has. A rambling speech in the Commons is dwarfed in influence when compared to a single phrase on a front page. Whether an MP's power is dwarfed by that of a paper's is debatable, but it is indisputable that the modern British press has enough strength to tap into that of parliament.
The cosy relationships between political parties and media barons may have been broken last summer, but the fact they previously existed shows something. It shows that both sides understood how the media can make or break the career of a politician and success of a party. Gone are the days when journalism just acted as a middleman between an event and the public. In their place is the modern era of reportage. Today the mainstream press is fully aware of its impact, and it uses it to its advantage.
One piece on one day in one publication can change history. Think back to 14 February 1997. The Daily Mail did not report the inquest into the death of Stephen Lawrence; it involved itself in it. By publishing the names of five men it believed to have murdered a teenager in Eltham four years beforehand, it fundamentally altered the criminal investigation. This isn't writing about the news, this is writing the news. Some journalists don't just incorporate their judgements into the text of the story; they attach their opinions to the story itself.
There are certain areas that the press regularly uses these methods to affect. General on-going examples include the running of the BBC, Britain's European membership status and even the lives of celebrities. Recent topical examples include super-injunctions, the safety of social networking websites, and bankers. I want to talk, specifically, about the final instance.
The banking crisis of 2008 left the global economy in tatters. We are still feeling the consequences today, and the seas aren't expected to calm for a number of years. At the height of this crisis, the Royal Bank of Scotland received a multi-billion pound bailout from the Treasury. At the helm of RBS at the time was its chief executive, a man by the name of Fred Goodwin.
Goodwin's expansionist attitude quadrupled the bank's assets over his seven-year executive tenure. It was his policies that saw him awarded a knighthood in 2004 for services to banking. However, many argued that it was the same aggressive approach that eventually brought RBS to the brink. It would have been a balanced debate, if it wasn't for the one-sided press coverage. It wouldn't have mattered if Goodwin was a knitting enthusiast who enjoyed nothing more from life than a cup of tea in front of Countdown; the newspapers were gunning for him, and their target was hit and destroyed.
The water droplet effect meant that the stigmatisation of Goodwin placed the entire banking industry under just as much scrutiny. After over three years of constant picking from the press, being a banker has become almost socially unacceptable. When was the last time you read about a banker working a 14-hour day and earning peanuts? Don't tell me it doesn't happen; it does. It just doesn't fit into the convenient stereotype.
All this is currently significant due to slight hints at looming events from the likes of Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston. With the uproar over the proposed bonus for incumbent RBS CEO Stephen Hester still fresh in our minds, we are now told to expect larger rewards for other top-tier bankers.
I should stress that I, personally, am against excessive bonuses for any executives whilst Britain and the outside world stumble through a recession. However, if Kuenssberg and Peston are correct and the bonuses are handed out, I don't plan on using any news or analytical report I write about the action to voice this view. That's not telling the news; that's manipulating it.
Such a divisive event should be met by an intelligent debate, not a witch-hunt. When the front pages latch onto someone, they will persist until the person is brought down. Russell Brand, Ryan Giggs, Lindsay Lohan, Stephen Hester. Quite a contrasting list, with one underlying thing in common; the British papers obsessed over criticising each of them, and they all fell on a sword in their own way.
I wish the best of luck to any banker who is to be offered an extortionate reward. I don't sympathise with someone for obtaining a multi-million pound pay packet, but I do sympathise with someone if they are bombarded with a constant stream of abuse on an unfair basis. For a subject dissected in such detail for so long, I find it odd that a fundamental factor of bonuses is so often confused; they are awarded, not requested. I'm not denying that they are probably expected within the megabucks city culture that exists today.
However, when the next ginormous bonus is uncovered, Britain has a choice. Should we allow our press to spoon-feed us emotions of outrage and scandal, leading to an outcome dictated by the opinions of a few writers? Or should we have a rational discussion, which would lead to a compromise created by the opinions of our entire nation?
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