Has the media helped “dumb down” our politicians?

The idea for this post came from Jonathan Freedland’s article in The Guardian when he described how “Focks News” is helping Obama get re-elected.

“Fox News and what Sullivan calls the wider “Media Industrial Complex” have not only determined the style of the viable Republican presidential candidate, but the content too.

If one is to flourish rather than wither in the Fox spotlight, there are several articles of faith to which one must subscribe – from refusing to believe in human-made climate change, and insisting that Christians are an embattled minority in the US, persecuted by a liberal, secular, bi-coastal elite, to believing that government regulation is always wrong, and that any attempt to tax the wealthiest people is immoral. Those who deviate are rapidly branded foreign, socialist or otherwise un-American.”

What does the UK’s “Media Industrial Complex” look like? The Leveson Inquiry has shone more than a few spotlights at the activities of the newspaper industry. Remember it was only six months ago that the UK’s political elite were flocking like sheep to the trough to attend Murdoch’s summer party. We also got insights of how media barons keep each other out of the media spotlight at the Privacy and Injunctions Committee in Parliament.

Back in 1931 Stanley Baldwin accused newspaper barons of publishing “direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning … What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

Plus ça change?

Richard Peppiatt didn’t pull any punches when he resigned from one tabloid newspaper, and later gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

Which person in their right mind would want to put their private life and their entire personal history under that sort of scrutiny? Does it really mean that we end up with a body politic of those with the thickest skins, the loudest mouths and the best connections? Has the media helped frighten off some of the best talent that this country has to help solve the malaise that we currently find ourselves in? Why are we not finding more of this talent gracing the green benches of the Commons?

For me, the power of the mainstream press isn’t just about what they choose to publish, it’s what about they choose not to publish. On a party-political side, prior to the formation of the Coalition it was very difficult for the Liberal Democrats to get anything in the way of media coverage in the tabloid press. Now that they are in government, it’s that little bit harder to ignore them. But because they are in coalition with the Conservatives, the traditional Tory press go after them when they feel the Government is being too soft on something while the traditional Labour/Liberal press go after them because they are party to the policies of the Coalition.

So what are the ‘boundaries’ of the mainstream media as far as policies go? What are the things that all of the newspapers are content with? For me, the two big issues are taxation and housing. You could say that this reflects some of the commercial realities of running a newspaper, and the fear of publishers and editors not wanting to annoy their readers. My guess (and I’d be interested in seeing whether the data confirms or disproves this) is that for the middle and broadsheets in particular, their readers are more likely to be more affluent than say tabloid readers. Thus they may be less positively disposed to calls for or features on proposals that look at taxing them, their investments and their properties at a higher rate for example. Tabloid newspapers by their very nature are never going to get involved in a detailed debate about taxation and housing. A simple headline with a few short paragraphs followed by pics of which celebrity has forgotten to put on their clothes the previous morning plus a bit of speculation as to what’s going to be on telly that evening. Taxation and housing are but two issues – there are many others. There’s no huge incentive for the media to praise public transport when you’ve got the big car companies and their massive advertising budgets.

Is it by this ‘self-censorship’ that we have in part end up with such a limited and lightweight culture of mainstream political debate? Or does it go further than that?

Jon Worth thinks it goes further. In his article “A generalised explanation of the decline of political leadership” states that politicians of old such as Chancellor Kohl of Germany would never have reached the top in this climate. Instead we have the politicians who have spent most of their time in politics, media and PR – the type that @SturdyAlex mercilessly tore into in his article “The politics of lowered expectations.” You could say that the election of Seema Malhotra for Labour in Feltham last night was a reflection of this continued trend – a former political adviser having stepped forward into electoral politics. Will she be any different to the cohort of MPs who stood for Labour’s leadership in 2010 of whom Mehdi Hasan said were lacking “the vision thing”? Over a year after that election, I still don’t really know what Labour stand for – in particular the things that really differentiate them from the coalition parties. Where’s the policy detail?

Some people have tweeted that Labour don’t want to release their policy ideas too soon because one of two things will happen. Either they will political opponents more time to shred them between now and the next election, or that they will be adopted by their opponents who, because they are in government will be able to take credit for them. This tells me that either some of the policies are so lacking in so many ways that scrutiny is something to be feared rather than sought, or that the political parties are so close ideologically that there isn’t really much difference between them anyway if the other lot can say “Oooh! That sound’s good! We’ll have that!”

In previous blogposts I’ve torn into the global political elite, questioned whether our senior politicians are fit for purpose and have thrown virtual fireballs at the mainstream economists of this world - a profession that is really struggling to get their heads around a crisis in part of their own making. I’ve also complained about how politics prices ordinary people out of the policy-making process. It’s not just the media that’s the problem. It’s far wider and far deeper. Whether Leveson will change anything remains to be seen. We’ve heard calls from people like Anne Diamond calling for statutory regulation. How far will it go? Will it lead to at least a semblance of neutrality in the coverage of politics where a wider range of issues are discussed along with a wider range of contributions? I fear Leveson will only tinker with the edges rather than going for root and branch reform – but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

There is also the issue of how political parties function – something that I can’t help but feel is ignored in all of this. David Cameron’s Old Etonian clique, the Blairites vs Brownites in Labour as was, or even the centralised structures of trade unions that give a huge amount of financial clout to individual trade union leaders, could all be looked at. As a former trade union rep, I’m particularly interested in seeing what would happen if some of the big Labour trade unions decentralised their structures and powers, and at the same time strengthening their local branch links with their local areas and local political parties. What impact would it have on levels of political engagement and the calibre of candidates that are selected? Because the 28.8% turnout in the recent parliamentary by-election in Feltham was hardly a ringing endorsement of both the candidates and of our political system. A turnout as low as that can’t all be placed upon it being in the run up to Christmas and it being cold outside…can it? It’s not just by-elections either. At the height of “Cleggmania” just before the 2010 general election, the BBC put out this comedy clip on from “Bellamy’s People” all about Nick Clegg. “Nick Clegg? What’s that?” was the response of one bloke.

But all is not lost. While the mainstream media may be helping to dumb down our politics, I have found through digital and social media that there are growing numbers of people who are trying to do the opposite. And to them I pay tribute.

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3 Responses to Has the media helped “dumb down” our politicians?

  1. derek aitken says:

    more legislation? yeah, that’s what we need more laws that the politicians and bankers will ignore except when it means they can throw some poor bastard from the great unwashed into jail.
    An example -oh, yeah! The Companies Act 2006 and The Insolvency Act 1986.

  2. Pingback: Nick Clegg, liberalism and leadership – Alex's Archives

  3. The very same thing means that the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners are going to be from the same political classes.
    Thank goodness for blogs & Twitter

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