Blair calls British media 'feral beast'


LONDON -- In one of his final speeches as British premier, Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday mounted an attack on Britain's media, accusing it of being "pernicious" and "a feral beast" that tears people and reputations to shreds.

Blair's critique acknowledged his own "complicity" in the Labor party's early attempts to court and sometimes manipulate the media. But the prime minister went on to attack the state of print and broadcast journalism for lack of balance, sensationalism and search for "venal" sins in public life.

"I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: A vast aspect of our jobs today -- outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else -- is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity," he told an audience of journalists and commentators.

"People don't speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to. But it is true, nonetheless," he said.

Blair said that demands for multiplicity of media have led to an overall corruption of quality and warned that, exacerbated by digital technology, the situation is "getting worse" and the media "more pernicious."

"It used to be thought, and I include myself in this, that help was on the horizon. (That) new forms of communication would provide new outlets to bypass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media," Blair said. "In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five."

Blair blamed digital fragmentation for the increased sensationalization of news.

"The media world, like everything else, is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology," he said, pointing out that before 24-hour news networks, the main BBC and ITN bulletins used to have audiences of 8 million, even 10 million, compared with an average of half that now.

The cycle of rolling news, Web updates and a constantly moving news cycle have eroded news quality and values, he said.

The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by "impact." "Of course, the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact," he concluded.

Blair said he had made the speech after "much hesitation" and accepted that it would be "rubbished in certain quarters."

But he saved his most damning observation for ad hoc comments made after the speech had been delivered.

"The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever, hunts in a pack," he said. "In these modes, it is like a feral beast just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."