Bruce Anderson, the former Daily Mail hack, now turned Indy columnist, is sitting furthest from the giant portrait of George Orwell that overlooks the audience with a mocking smile. Not that a greater proximity would deter this ardent controversialist. "Most of his output is unreadable," Anderson blurts, shortly before announcing that Orwell, widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most influential political writers, is "part of the left's ability to elevate its minor figures."
It's pretty clear we're not here for a serious debate on the tabled motion: "There is too much political journalism and not enough politics." We, the rank, file and very rank of the news media, plus a good number of academics and students, have been crammed into Reuters' auditorium in Canary Wharf, London, for the announcement of the shortlists for the Orwell Prizes for Political Writing 2007, followed by a discussion within a panel chaired by Reuters' editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger and consisting of Anderson, Steve Richards, also of the Indy, the BBC's Michael Cockerell, Professor Jean Seaton, chair of the Orwell Prize, and the Daily Mail's Peter Oborne.
Anderson gets the opening cross, launching into what will become the defining theme for the session with a sustained attack on New Labour's ability to "take control of the narrative" in the disclosure of political news. Richards and Oborne exchange snipes about cronyism. Richards, who has been billed as a Blair apologist, asserts that too many journalists and satirists "reinforce the orthodox," which makes their response too easy to manipulate by spin doctors. Oborne counters by accusing his colleagues of too easily accepting of the deceits heaped on them by successive governments. "It seems very odd to me," he says, "that my colleagues report things that are untrue." It is left to Seaton, the only non-journalist on the panel, to assert that maybe, just maybe, the hacks and the flacks are all playing the same game. "The media is the part of the same malign machine," she manages.
Reuters has assembled a group of superb caricatures. Seaton exudes an academic charm and politeness. Anderson is imperious and prescriptive, richly comedic but filled with old-world pomposity. Richards is cagey, Cockerell quiet and placatory, while Oborne sits hunched like a sulking schoolboy, occasionally threatenening to sue members of the audience for libel, or to loudly contest facts and figures. The strength of these personalities, entertaining and engaging as they are, make the debate begin to resemble an exercise in narcissism. Sustained namedropping and veiled personal remarks between the panellists do little to push the debate beyond familiar grounds.
The media as a whole is - often rightly - classified as self-obsessed. There is room for this conceit where it allows a writer to assess his or her own motives and preserve editorial integrity. Just as it is vital to report nuance and context in others' opinions and in the facts as you find them, it is equally important to identify and, where possible, suppress your own bias in order to avoid unwitting distortion of the facts. Unchecked, however, the extension is the development of the media personality, where loud voices backed by dominant egos drown out critical debate.
Tonight's discussion, which seeks to place the blame for the cycles of reaction and perverse anti-reaction, of spin and counter-spin, at the feet of a government so keen to exploit and manipulate the media, is an illustration of the endemic failure of journalism to suppress its inner voices. It fails to identify the role that the obsession of a generation of political writers, editors and publishers to garner influence and shape the political landscape through their personalities has had in exposing the media at large to the current degree of exploitation.
By seeking to define the terms on which political battles are fought and by their desire to play kingmaker in the aftermath, the press is largely responsible for the distillation of debate to what Orwell called dying metaphors, worn-out expressions used to save the effort of finding original language to express an idea. It was the root of 1984's Newspeak - the destruction of creative thought by uprooting the infrastructure of comprehension. If there is no way to express liberty, there can be no discussion of and no demand for liberty.
Today, tabloids and broadsheets alike are able to create political "arguments" composed exclusively of catachreses fabricated from an approved dictionary of newspeak, reducing complex issues to Lego-brick reconstructions of reality. This is the poisoned well which gives rise to the media dog-whistles and the deceitful leaks, the character assassinations and the bad news interments. It makes the headline writer's job an easier one.
The Prime Minister reportedly once complained that the media was a "demented tenant" in his regime. The panel's insistence that, by inviting the tenant in, he relinquishes his right to complain when said lodger pisses on the toilet seat, is spurious in isolation. To firmly kill the allegory, they - we - must cease our tenancy and break the symbiosis created by our own egotism and intellectual onanism. To address the motion - it is not that there isn't enough politics or too much political journalism, simply that there is not enough distance between the two.
Pete Guest is a journalist specialising in the impact of disruptive technologies on business and finance. He is news editor of industry journal Screen Markets.