By John Lloyd
“Reporters do of course write stories about political life in the broader sense and about the substance of issues … but when there is a chance to use these issues as props or raw material for a story about political tactics, most reporters leap at it. It is more fun … in fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so with a discourtesy and rancour that represent the public’s views much less than they reflect the modern journalist’s belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.”
The US journalist James Fallows wrote this in The Atlantic in 1996. In the 2010 UK general election, it’s truer than it was.
The Economist wrote today that the mainstream media – newspapers, radio and television – dominate news and comment on the election, almost to the exclusion of significant use of the internet. Let’s hope for better next time, when the wealth of the internet can be brought to bear on electoral choice because the record of the mainstream media so far is dismal.
First, the savaging of Nick Clegg. By any standards, the Daily Mail’s “Nazi slur” was an insult, not just to Clegg but to journalism. Clegg had written that anti-German feeling in the UK was a shame on us, and that was somehow transformed into a suggestion that Clegg had acted like a Nazi, or likened the British to Nazis, or … you work it out. The Daily Telegraph’s allegation that he had money from businessmen paid into his private account seemed to be more solid: but Clegg’s explanation, that it had gone out again to pay for research help, hasn’t been challenged. Indeed, the paper’s associate editor wrote in his blog that “the payments are likely to be evidence of disorganisation, nothing more”. Yet it was bannered across the front page.
Is this only, as John Humphrys put it to Danny Alexander, Clegg’s chief of staff, on the Today programme today, a sign that the Liberal Democrats had now joined the grown ups and this is the price? In part: and in other part, the Lib Dems have, at least at local levels, proven themselves adept at black arts. But
- why should “grown up” politics include baseless smears?
- why should journalists collude in them?
- why should other journalists accept it as normal?
This isn’t so much discourtesy, as mendacity. But, second, there was lots of discourtesy, too. In my TV column in the Weekend FT tomorrow, I write about broadcast interviewing, seeing the Jeremy Paxman/ John Humphrys-inspired confrontational techniques as responsible for a conflict and personality driven coverage of this election
Third, Fallows’ point about the preference for political tactics against seeking to understand, and explain, the substance of party policies seems to be more right with every passing election anywhere. Whatever the democratic benefits of the televised debates, the commentary about them remains all but wholly tied to regarding them as contests of style and personality, with the polls on how they did as the all-powerful judge.
Any televised debate cannot but reveal style and personality. Yet the candidates were saying things – about stances on Europe, involvement in Afghanistan, the possession of nuclear weapons, many of these revealing sharp differences between the parties – which will be the underlying political/ideological underpinning to a future government. For these differences, relatively clearly expressed by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, not to receive analysis and discussion after the debate was a journalistic abdication, especially for the BBC
I watched last night’s debate in the house of friends, who had as a guest a philosopher from the University of Utah. He watched the debate with interest, but said afterwards that he would not have done so in the US. He made it a practice not to be distracted from making a rational choice by matters of personality. Instead, he used a website called VoteSmart – a site begun by Richard Kimball, (among others) a former Democrat would-be senator (he was defeated by John McCain in the contest for an Arizona seat in 1986). Kimball writes on the website that in a debate with McCain, he disregarded his staff’s advice to attack him (Kimball was trailing), and instead said to the audience –
“Understand what we do to you; we spend all of our time raising money, often from strangers we do not even know. Then we spend it in three specific ways: first we measure you, what it is you want to purchase in the political marketplace – just like Campbell’s Soup or Kellogg’s Cereal. Next we hire some consultant who know how to tailor our image to fit what will sell. Lastly, we bombard you with the meaningless, issueless, emotional nonsense that is always the result. And which ever one of us does that best will win.”
The Utah philosopher clearly agreed with that: he would search the website, find the voting record of those standing for the presidency or other office, find out how far they tallied with his own beliefs and base his vote on that.
It’s less fun than debates, at least this time round, when they’re novel. But it might be more rational, even if you’re not a philosopher.
John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the FT. He writes a weekly column on television for the weekend FT as well as features for FT Magazine.