British Tory leader David Cameron is now calling clearly for a radical redistribution of power in the UK. His redefining of the relationship between the people and the political elite is a cogent and intelligent response to the House of Commons expenses scandal that has been roiling British politics for several weeks now. “I believe there is only one way out of this national crisis we face,” he said. “We need a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power. From the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability, we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.”
Stirring stuff. But one of the big questions is why Cameron took so long to engage in this way. He has been more nimbled-footed than Gordon Brown in trying to get out ahead of the crisis and pressured his team to come clean about their expenses and to get them sorted. But why wasn’t he much tougher on offending Conservative MPs and instead of just telling them, for example, to explain themselves to their constituency parties, withdrawing the Whip from them? After all, many of them are not his allies and he could have used this crisis as an opportunity to crush his right-wing opponents and mold the party more into the centrist image he would like. A lack of political courage or intellectual forethought?
On his more general point that a redifintion of power is needed, again there is a sense here of a lack of foresight. Back in 2006, I argued in a Cato podcast that Britain was crying out for a civil libertarian mesage — that ordinary Brits were getting sick and tired of the Big Brother state created by New Labour. At last a “freedom” message is coming from the Conservatives.
The lament in today’s Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Stroehlein, the communications chief at the International Crisis Group, about the disappearance of experienced foreign correspondents and the consequences of that for our understanding of global affairs is pretty spot on. As a former foreign correspondent, I am pained about what is not being covered and horrified frequently at the nature and qualityof the reporting of foreign events that are covered. Stroehlein cites the puerile and simplistic US coverage of the piracy off the coast of Somalia. “We were stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of miles away,” he rightly sniffs.
He points out that as international news coverage decreases, the traffic to the Web Sites of organizations like ICG’s increases as people search for reliable information. But he points out that “non-news organizations have neither the capacity nor the aim to provide daily news” and so they can’t replace the disappearing foreign correspondents.
I agree with him that they can’t replace, but they can supplement the news and inform more than they already are doing. It is a point I have stressed to NGOs, universities and international organizations I have worked for or advised: Think-tanks and universities, NGOs and charities have all experienced massive increases in Web traffic with a lot of it coming from search engines. Visitors have a thirst for news and information that they find hard to secure from the official news sites. So whether they like it or not these knowledge-based organizations are becoming news producers and serving as news platforms. They should embrace it more and start to learn to develop this function more thoughtfully and systematically. More resident journalists should be employed. On Capitol Hill there is a debate about allowing newspapers to become non-profits. I would argue that some non-profits should develop specialist news arms.
It would be a public service and is clever marketing and allows these knowledge-based organizations to help shape news and political agendas. Would they be objective in their coverage? Have newspaper reporters been objective? The best you could hope for from old-fashioned foreign correspondents was some fairness and balance — and I don’t mean of the Fox News variety!
Of course, it doesn’t solve all the problems of the disappearing foreign correspondents. But the past is past. In the future we will get our news from a variety of sources and be able to be our own news editors. NGOs and non-profits are going to be one major source.
Maybe it will seem unsympathetic to some if I question why anyone should be guaranteed a job for life. I admit I am sitting on the terrace of my small house in Italy enjoying a vacation. But I worked damn hard for this house and never had a job guaranteed when I was a newspaperman. As some of you will be aware, the Boston Globe’s Newspaper Guild looks like it will agree to a demand made by the paper’s owner for the end of lifetime job guarantees. Apparently, 190 members enjoyed that privilege. The bigger question — not one being asked by US newspapers as far as I can see — is why they had those guarantees in the first place. It reminds me of the nonsense in the UK during the 1980s and earlier when the print unions and the National Union of Journalists controlled the British newspaper industry — to the detriment of the economic health of newspapers.
Poor old newspapers – challenged by the Internet and let down by managements and unions.