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Johnson: I felt alienated by my colleagues
When high-profile journalists make the switch from the newsroom to the back rooms of government, it causes consternation among former colleagues and some members of the public, who seem to view this switch as some kind of betrayal. Andy Johnson who worked at a high level in some of this country’s leading media organisations became the head of the Government Information Services under the People’s Partnership Government in 2010. He has subsequently said he felt “excommunicated by my colleagues from the fraternity of journalists.”
A man who feels some sympathy for Johnson is British writer Lance Price. Price had been a journalist for 18 years, working as a political correspondent for the BBC, reporting on all sides of the political landscape, when he took up the position as a media adviser and spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998.
The former UK Labour Party communications director was in Trinidad for the International Press Institute World Congress, which took place at the Hyatt from June 23-26. In an interview with the T&T Guardian, Price defended the role of journalists in government. “There’s nothing wrong with journalists making the switch and going into political communications.
“It’s absolutely legitimate for politicians to employ people who understand the media to help them put their message across—and in fact, I think it’s healthy for democracy, because we aren’t going to be able to speak to a minister every time, so it is right that there should be someone who can speak on their behalf.”
Price recognised that, when he accepted the position at Downing Street, it would be a tricky transition from working for an impartial broadcaster to exclusively representing one side’s point of view. “I’d seen some of my friends make the switch to political communications and it hadn’t gone very well, or they hadn’t been very happy, because they hadn’t recognised that you can’t wear two hats at one time.
“You have to decide what job it is that you’re doing and do that job,” he stressed. “When you go into political communications and speaking for a political party, prime minister or minister, then that is your job. It’s a very different job to being a journalist.
“You keep the journalistic knowledge and understanding of knowing how to spot a story, your ability to read the media—which is very important for the politician you’re working for—but you’re not a journalist any more. Once you can remember that, then you can do ok.” He was keen to point out, however, that once a journalist had gone over to the “other side,” it was unlikely they could slot back into mainstream journalism.
Despite not being a mainstream journalist, Price is happy in his role as a political pundit, based on his experiences with the Blair government and the Labour Party. He’s also written several books, including Where Power Lies, in which he explores the relationship between British leaders and the media over the last 100 years.
“It’s like losing your virginity: once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back. You can’t get your impartiality back, you can’t get a reputation for being impartial and objective back once you’ve signed up to a political party or government, and you have to accept that when you make your decision.
“But the media isn’t just about impartial news, it’s also about comment, political comment, and that’s one of the things that makes journalism and the media fascinating. “It’s perfectly legitimate, then, once you’ve stopped doing a job like that, to carry on being involved in the media, but it is always going to be from a political perspective, no matter how hard you try. And although I’ve written books, one a very political book and the other a history book which was very balanced, most of the time when I’m invited to comment on politics, it’s from a Labour perspective because people know that’s the mast I pin my colours to.”
It’s easy to gauge Price’s passion for politics, and clearly he enjoyed his busy and exciting job as a government media adviser. But at the start of his three-year stint with the Blair government, he decided that while he wanted to experience working at the heart of government, being on call 24 hours was not going to be his long-term way of living.
“It’s an all-consuming job. It takes over your entire life. You can’t go to a dinner party. If you go to the cinema, you have to sit in an aisle seat because your pager is going to go off and you’re going to have to get up and take a call. So it makes life very difficult. “I said to my partner that I’ll do it until the next election, and we stuck to that.
“Basically, I was always a journalist at heart. I’d been an observer of politics and the opportunity to see first-hand what it was really like from the inside was just too good to turn down. “But it was never going to be my entire life. I decided right from day one that the last day would be the day of the next general election, and that was what I stuck to.”
Although he’s a labour supporter, the 54-year-old Price has not been afraid to criticise the failings of the party since he left it. At the IPI Congress, he was critical of the way that facts had been stretched by labour spin doctors, especially in cases like the Iraq war, where it is felt that the claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were exaggerated to make the case for a war.
His refreshing honesty about this was welcomed by delegates. In a recent column for the London-based Independent newspaper, he questioned testimony given by his former boss Tony Blair at an inquiry led by High Court judge Justice Lord Leveson into the culture, ethics and practices of the British media.
Blair sought to clarify the widely held perception of the excessive influence that Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News International media group had on Labour government policy. The former prime minister said he never changed policy to win favour with News International publications like The Times and The Sun.
But in a tersely written piece, Price wrote that Rupert Murdoch was “the 24th member of the Cabinet,” and in major issues, Tony Blair took Murdoch’s view into account. Current UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s close ties to Murdoch have also been under scrutiny. Price believes media moguls have far less influence than they’re credited with.
“I believe that power is exaggerated. I don’t believe the public is that stupid. I think they can see through it when a newspaper is trying to swing their opinions, and I don’t think the so-called ‘power of the press’ is anything like as great as Tony Blair or David Cameron thought it was.”
Of course, Price is sympathetic to the journalists who go into the field of political communications, and he also understands why ex-colleagues and the public find it difficult to accept them. He puts this down to the unique role the media has in a functioning democracy.
“I’ve given advice in different countries, like Russia, or some African countries, where, come election time, most journalists seem to be bought up by one side or the other, and then they go back to being journalists afterwards. “It’s as if the dividing line between a journalist and being politically committed can be crossed willy-nilly when you feel like it.
“For an effective democracy, you need a free and independent media, and as a journalist you can cross the line once, but you can’t keep re-crossing it. “That is the only way I think it works and that’s the only way the public will have faith and trust in their journalism. It’s very important.
“If the public feels journalists are contaminated by all sort of political alliances and loyalties they’re vaguely aware of, then they can’t trust what’s being written in the papers, and they can’t trust what’s on the broadcast media, because they don’t know the motivation behind the journalism. “Then you’re in trouble as a democracy. You have to be able to believe that your journalists are journalists and they’re trying to find the truth, trying to be as fair and objective as they can be.”
Lance Price’s life
• Joined the BBC as a trainee after graduating with first-class honours in philosophy, politics and economics from Hertford College, Oxford University.
• Has been the BBC’s foreign and defence correspondent, as well as political correspondent
• Worked with Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labour Party from 1998-2001
• Lives in the south of France, where he has his own radio studio
• Has written three books: Where Power Lies, The Spin Doctor’s Diary, and Time and Fate
• Co-author and principal photographer of the Berlitz Guide to Iceland
• As a travel photographer, his work has appeared in Rough Guides, Bradt Travel Guides and Berlitz Guides
• In 2011, he founded the Kaleidoscope Trust to help uphold the human rights of LGBT people globally and became its first executive director.
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