The press has long been in debt to Thomas Jefferson. When offered the choice of government without newspapers or newspapers without government, the great man ?would not hesitate to prefer the latter?. Most people are glad things never came to that.
Tony Blair?s Britain is testing Jefferson to destruction. It is becoming newspapers without government. Under his leadership the cabinet gives every impression of reacting to a daily news agenda rather than concerning itself with sound public administration. It converses not with the nation but with the press. Flattered but bemused, the press responds.
This month?s obsequiousness of the prime minister and John Reid, his home secretary, to a misguided tabloid campaign on paedophilia culminated in Blair?s ?Our Nation?s Future? speech on Friday. It was almost all mood music and platitude, but as a capitulation to a media campaign against government policy it was humiliating. Blair found himself attacking judges for enforcing precisely the sentencing laws he had himself passed. He demanded asset seizure, which he had introduced unsuccessfully in 2003. Space in his speech was even offered to journalists so they could ?welcome? it afterwards.
Meanwhile, Reid jumped to attention when ordered by a tabloid to publicise the addresses of former convicts. He immediately sent a minister to America to see what happens there, as if nobody in his office knew. He demanded to be filmed taking part in an anti-illegal immigrant raid, a publicity stunt of breathtaking crudity.
Blair talked of ?tilting the balance? of law against the criminal and of a change of mindset, culture and the ?rights of those who keep the law?. After more than 40 crime bills, many little more than press releases, he can think only of more.
There is no justification in the statistics ? crime is down by a quarter in a decade ? or any other evidence of radical social breakdown. The invocation of golden age theory (nostalgia for the 1950s), shows a startling ignorance of social history. Blair has created 700 new offences since he came to power but still the tabloids want more. Blair duly ?rolled out? his umpteenth neighbourhood policing initiative and a ?dedicated anti-corruption squad?. He declares (yet again) that victims of crime will be offered not better treatment, which they badly need, but a role in judicial punishment, a sharia concept alien to British law.
Judge-baiting and jail-cramming are the oldest tricks in the political huckster?s book. It is depressing that a British prime minister in 2006 should need to resort to them. They have become a habit of mind in Downing Street and the Home Office. Last week they were condemned by a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, protesting at government ?trying to find out what one particular tabloid newspaper wants and then complying with its wishes?. The attack on paedophiles, an annual binge staged by the press and the BBC, was criticised by the government?s own children?s commissioner as ?promoting vigilantes?. Senior criminologists damned ?sticking-plaster? policies whose ?dizzying pace? was making coherent implementation near impossible.
Tabloid government undermines the credibility of the law and of those supposedly enforcing it. Blair denounced sceptics of his human rights law when he wanted to run with the liberal hares, and now switches to the sceptical hounds when it suits him. Reid?s anti-paedophile spasm contradicted a previous declaration by his department that the policy with which he was flirting would put children at greater risk not less. When ministers are known to be hypersensitive to daily headlines every decision of every public servant is corrupted by immediacy.
I have spent my life in newspapers and admire many of those who produce them. I would not let them run the country for all the tea in China. The journalist?s job is to scrutinise and criticise government, not supplant it. The focus of the press ? because it is the concern of readers ? is on the malfunctioning of public (and private) life. Good news is uninteresting. Bad news always has the best tunes. Journalists make poor politicians and worse rulers. Bagehot never spoke a truer word than that ?dullness in matters of government is a good sign . . . a test of excellence, an indication of success?.
The accountability of public officials is to parliament through ministers and to the nation through professional contacts with lobbies and public representatives. This allows policy to be debated calmly and decisions discussed in advance, rather than ?put out to consultation? after being taken. If this process is led by the snap judgments of newspapers public administration reduces to that of a banana republic.
From the moment Blair became Labour leader he was mesmerised by the media and hung on their every word. His closest associates were Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, and Peter Mandelson, his media adviser. He was more fascinated by glamour, perks and surface presentation than by policy. Hence the despairing cry of Sir Richard Wilson, the cabinet secretary, in 2001 that ?no one in No 10 has ever managed anything?. The Blairites made excellent leader writers but terrible executives.
The antics of Blair and Reid were witnessed last week by a group of hard-nosed American policemen and criminologists at a Politeia conference in London. When I asked one of them what was the difference between British and American police he replied that the British took their cue from a national debate while Americans answered to a local community. The British sit in meetings while American police walk the streets. Bill Bratton, the Los Angeles police chief, remarked that such centralism is self-defeating since it leads to a perception of negative performance. National policing relies on statistics, targets and media responses while local concentrates on streets, people and crime prevention.
For all the punditry devoted to law and order since Labour came to office, the failure has not been one of performance but of perception. Blair talks local but acts central. He fails to recognise a virtuous circle between local accountability and local responsibility, between a community empowered to run a police force to its own priorities and one that is likely to be satisfied with the outcome.
When law and order cease to be the business of a community of active participating citizens and become that of government, government will be blamed for everything. To this Blair?s answer is merely to pass more laws, set more central targets and remove control over the police from local councils to London. It stands to reason this can only make things worse.
The two communities I know best, one in London and the other rural, are no longer policed in any recognisable sense, certainly not as they were in Blair?s golden 1950s. Police are never seen and phones are never answered. For Blair to put this down to terrorism and globalisation is ludicrous. Since the 1990s progressive centralisation has ended beat patrolling, disbanded the police solicitor network and bureaucratised the overnight magistrates? courts. It has replaced discretion in local law enforcement with the sledgehammers of targets, Asbos and mandatory sentencing.
Labour?s disempowerment of civic Britain has left central government saddled with responsibilities it is clearly not competent to sustain. Blair?s whining about yob culture, as if it were his job to cure it, merely increases public exasperation. His Assets Recovery Agency spends twice as much as it collects. Prisons are bursting at the seams, with inmate numbers up 25% since Labour came to power. Blair is hamstrung by his subservience to the media from reducing them.
Crime makes dreadful politics because it brings out the mob in everyone. As Elias Canetti pointed out in his study of crowds and power, the ?transmutation of packs? is a ritual of grievance, aggression, remorse and lamentation. Combating crime is best removed from the national spotlight and devolved to local law enforcement. The mobs are quieter there.
In his last period in office Blair?s daily sounding board is no longer the cabinet, parliament, the Labour party or even public opinion. It is the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the News of the World. By their nature these institutions return a cracked and distorting echo. Bagehot was right. Good government is dull government. Rulers who try to make it exciting look ridiculous and fail.