< Her Majesty's Pugilistic Press


Friday, April 29, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: Time, once again, to elect the highest official in the land - Eng-land. In his bid for re-election, Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing many of the same criticisms George Bush faced - Iraq, the economy, immigration and education. But, the similarities pretty much stop there. Among the most obvious differences is the approach of the British press, the kind of deference afforded to the president here by the media is notably absent in the UK. Listen to a recent interview of Tony Blair by Jeremy Paxman of the BBC.

JEREMY PAXMAN: Can you tell us how many failed asylum seekers there are in this country?

TONY BLAIR: No, I can't be sure.

JEREMY PAXMAN: Can you give us a rough idea of how many there may be?

TONY BLAIR: It's pointless speculating on that. What I do know is that-

JEREMY PAXMAN: Is it tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands? Millions?

TONY BLAIR: I've said I don't think there's any point in speculating.

JEREMY PAXMAN: But you have no idea.

TONY BLAIR: It's not a question of having "no idea," but what, what you- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]

JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, what is your idea, Prime Minister?

TONY BLAIR: --hang on-what you can say…

BOB GARFIELD: Joining me now to talk about political confrontation, British style, is Michael Goldfarb, WBUR's man in London. Michael, welcome back to the show.


BOB GARFIELD: All three candidates, Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat, got the same tough and skeptical treatment from Jeremy Paxman in consecutive half hours. And I noticed the sun still came up the next day in England. Is this sort of thing business as usual in British politics and journalism?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, you know, it has become business as usual, but during the heyday of Margaret Thatcher, she was highly selective about to whom she would submit at election times, and people were much more deferential to her. But, you know, Blair will take on all comers, whether it's Jeremy Paxman, who once, interviewing Henry Kissinger live on BBC Radio said, "Dr. Kissinger, didn't you feel a fraud when you went to accept your Nobel Peace Prize?" I mean he - Paxo is famous for this. So I think people actually expect this kind of grilling, and certainly Blair has been used to it for quite a while.

BOB GARFIELD: Blair, as all prime ministers are also routinely subjected to cross-examination bordering on inquisition in the well of the House of Commons - Question Time, it's called. Do you think that practice gives the media license to be a bit pugnacious themselves?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: There's a unique historical situation in Britain at the moment. The Labour Party has an extraordinary majority in the House of Commons. It's about 160-plus seats. And that effectively neutralizes the opposition. And the press now sees itself as having the role of being the unofficial opposition to the Labour Party. And so, in the last few years, the press has been incredibly aggressive in terms of pursuing Blair, particularly on the way in which Britain went to war in Iraq. The press has lost any sense of deference.

BOB GARFIELD: And what about the public? I mean is there any evidence, Michael, that all of this directness makes the public less vulnerable to political spin and more engaged in the political process?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: They're certainly not more engaged. I think that apathy is going to be a large story in this upcoming election. I think that people now have reached that stage to say "Well, they all lie. And the press lies too."

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, thanks very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Michael Goldfarb is a senior reporter in Britain for WBUR.