Thursday 22 April 2010

In defence of Paul Dacre

If I were an editor of a right-wing newspaper, I would be searching high and low for ways of justifying this morning's spate of attacks on Nick Clegg.

The Daily Mail, in particular, has work to do to defend its reputation. The paper's staff may have shown creativity and dedication in digging up a 2002
article for The Guardian website
and twisting the final paragraph into a 'Clegg Nazi slur on Britain' front-page story eight years later. (The Mail's own pro-fascist past never acknowledged, of course).

But now twitter is up in arms while thoughtful Tory partisans like Iain Dale think it is all doing more harm than good for the cause.

Will nobody speak up for Paul Dacre?

Arise, Next Left?

Well, not exactly. But perhaps Mr Dacre might appreciate some comradely advice as to how an advocate might attempt to construct the best possible defence of his newspaper's conduct.

Two mitigating arguments suggest themselves:

1: That there is a crucial public interest in scrutinising Clegg, given his claim to represent an alternative to the old, discredited politics, and his recent rise in the polls.

2: That partisan newspapers perform a critical role in the democratic process, by bringing political conflict into the public sphere and allowing voters - aligned or not - to be a part of the "debate".

The first argument is a good one. The only problem comes in extending it to this morning's newspapers. Scrutinising is one thing, but splashing misleading insinuations and ad hominem attacks on the front page is another.

So perhaps it would be wiser for Mr Dacre et al to adopt the second, more subtle defence: that partisan press reports are a feature of competitive democracy.

What is the theoretical basis for such a claim? The likeliest contender is "agonistic pluralism", which rests on the presumption that political conflict is unavoidable, so that political (and media) institutions should be shaped to accommodate this conflict.

Mr Dacre might suggest that he is merely airing inevitable political conflict, and granting the public access to the tooth-and-nail world of competitive politics.

He could even become a public good.

And, if he were being really clever, he might go on to argue that electoral reform, which would increase the likelihood of coalition government and consensus politics, would merely stifle the natural wellsprings of conflict, and that political discourse would suffer as a result. In such a scenario, our partisan newspapers could become the last bastion of realistically conflictual politics.

It's not a bad argument, and anyone serious about electoral reform and the benefits of consensus has to contend with it. But sadly, in this particular instance our defence of Paul Dacre is, in truth, woefully inadequate. Here's why:

The conflict which agonistic pluralism recognises is laced with mutual
respect, not hatred. This respect need not go as far as some democratic theorists, such as Habermas, would insist: that we should rationally understand and eventually accept the legitimacy of our opponents' arguments. But it does insist that debate is conducted within the principles of fair competition.

It's agonism, not antagonism.

Ad hominem attacks are only ever justifiable in political discourse when the facts are incontrovertible - the usual standards of verification apply, even to the media.

So, even if the whole notion of consensus, rational or political, is thrown out the window, and we accept the permanence of ethical conflict, even then, there is no place for this morning's wild jibes.

Which means, Mr Dacre, that you have work to do. By all means fight the rise and rise of Cleggmania - and feel free to make agonistic pluralism part of your democratic defence.

But if you're going to attack your political opponents, it has to be a fair fight. You can't simply misrepresent Nick Clegg, twist his words and ignore his side of the argument.

So our democracy should have a place for the combative tabloid journalism of the Daily Mail.

But, Mr Dacre, please try harder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Maybe you could print this out and give a copy to Denis MacShane, too.