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Getting a message across or lowering our Tone?; Tony Blair's attempts to bypass the mainstream media is a dangerous descent into dumbed-down politics, says Chief Feature.

Down we go. Forget standards and status, kiss goodbye to precedent and propriety; we are going downmarket.

We are plummeting towards the underworld of tabloid newspapers, daytime TV and shock-jock radio.

And who is leading us on this perilous descent? Our mate Tony, our Tone, of course, the people's Prime Minister.

He holds the most important office in the country, a position which we usually associate with dignity and decorum, but he is prepared to sacrifice his self-respect in a mad dash for popularity.

He is prepared, and how this must have hurt, to appear on the Richard and Judy Show. Has the man no shame?

Mr Blair decided to use this tacky forum to get his message across because he had become jaded with the "cynical and trivial" reporting of his comments by the lobby correspondents.

Apparently the troublesome press has either ignored, as in the case of the Government's New Deal programme, or distorted the evidence that New Labour is a runaway success story.

Taking a cue from Clinton, who was one of the first politicians to use the chat show as forum for political debate, Blair has chosen to bypass the national press by concentrating on less sceptical and more respectful media outlets.

Hence our Prime Minister has agreed to slum it on the sofa of those grand television inquisitors Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan.

Normally this appalling example of white-trash programming tackles such weighty subjects as male impotence, sexual indiscretion and celebrity exhibitionism.

Obviously, Mr Blair would never consider such items as trivial, not compared with the broadsheet papers anyway, but by choosing to appear on such a show he demeans not just himself but also the office of the Prime Minister.

While ensconced on the lime green sofa Mr Blair answered questions on Kosovo, public sector pay and Ulster but he also spoke about Glenn Hoddle, his wife's swimsuit and his father-in-law.

The war-ravaged population of the Balkans will no doubt be chuffed to learn that they hold equal importance in the Prime Minister's list of priorities as his spouse's choice of bathing apparel.

Moreover, Mr Blair leaves himself open to charges of hypocrisy when he demands certain aspects of his personal life - his daughter's schooling for example -should remain private. He cannot be folksy on daytime television and then expect the press to keep shush on other personal matters.

The appearance on such shows is symptomatic of a premier who is in thrall to the tabloids and easily distracted by opinion polls.

He has accused the media of dumbing down and failing to show an interest in Labour policies but he is more than happy to jump on any popular bandwagon or gorge himself at the latest media feeding frenzy.

It was Blair who led the public outpouring over the death of Diana (pass the onion Alastair - I think I can squeeze out one more tear). It was he who called for the release of Deirdre Rachid, a fictional character from a television programme, and it was the same man who demanded Glenn Hoddle's resignation no doubt after he had seen the authoritative telephone poll conducted by that esteemed polling organisation GMTV.

More miserable still has been the opposition leader's grotesque mimicking of Blair's media whoring. Instead of showing a statesmanlike restraint Mr Hague has also doggishly trailed Mr Blair around the television studios.

A few weeks after Blair told a mother-in-law joke on the Des O'Connor Show up popped Hague to tell his own joke - admittedly it was more amusing - on the same show.

The pandering by our politicians to these baser instincts smacks of both political cowardice and constitutional disrespect.

Blair's engineering of the media must be measured against his Cromwellian disregard for Parliament. He is rarely in the Commons, has reduced the effectiveness of Prime Minister's Question Time by making it weekly, and has a poor voting record.

By ignoring the House of Commons Blair has lessened the number of opportunities when he can be held to account. This has come at a time when the Commons is subject to proposed reforms which may reduce it to a three-day week and when coverage of Parliament has become increasingly marginalised in all sections of the media.

Furthermore, the voices of dissent in the Upper House are about to be silenced and replaced by People's Peers with watered-down powers.

Those who wish to see our politicians held accountable for their actions have had to rely on the "third chamber," the set-piece television interview, but by running scared of Paxman and opting for the day-time TV sofa the Prime Minister has now neutered this opposition.

Perhaps it is this freedom which has lulled Blair into commenting on matters which should not really concern him.

His outburst on Hoddle was misjudged as well as misguided and a mistake he was unlikely to have made as leader of the opposition. In the run-up to the General Election the Labour media machine was careful to ration Blair's appearances so when he did grant interviews it was an event.

In power Mr Blair appears to be losing his touch by offering numerous rent-a-mouth quotations in a misdirected stab for popularity.

If anything is going to alienate people from the political process it will be politicians acting without a sense of propriety and compromising themselves on downmarket television shows.

Participation in such areas, as a drenched Mr Prescott found out at the Brit Awards, does not necessarily go down well with the voters.

Mr Blair was elected to run the Government in the public interest; he was not voted in so he could interfere in sport, religion or popular music.

A lone voice of reason was heard yesterday in the form of a previous Prime Minister, John Major, who accused Blair of being driven by a "mob mentality".

"It does not matter whether that target may be the unpopular principle of hereditary peers or the dotty ramblings of a football coach.

"If there's a mob mentality, then this Government will put itself at the head of that mentality to garner a headline or two," he said.

It says a great deal about Blair's leadership that he is prepared to follow the tabloids' agenda rather than lead it.

It also says a great deal about his regard for the office he holds that he is prepared to demean it by appearing on tabloid television.

Why, after all, should we have any respect for a politician who endorses such programmes?
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 4, 1999
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