Rules of the game change in politics and communication

Updated: May 10, 2020

We are living in remarkable times in the UK after last week’s General Election result. I should establish from the off that I woke up last Thursday more in hope than expectation that the progressive ideas put forward by Labour would gain support. By Friday morning, I was as surprised as many, more delighted than some, but eager to understand what had happened and how. So what follows are some thoughts from someone with an interest in politics and who works in and is fascinated by the media industry and the way communication works.

The introduction from @jonsnowc4 on Channel 4’s post-election roundup summed it up perfectly. “I know nothing. We, the media, know nothing,” he said.

It’s not just political discussion that has been transformed, but the way that discussion is framed. Of course, both can be seen as part of the political process, but understanding the way the media has set the parameters of the debate is key to beginning to understand what has happened.

For too long the public has been told what ideas are acceptable and what are not. A media that established itself by reporting what happened became a media that commented on what happened, and in so doing presented interpretation as fact. Where that ended up was starkly demonstrated in 2017’s General Election. Reading the Labour Party manifesto, anyone with a passable historical knowledge of the history of the last 200 years and of the development of the Labour Party would have seen an ambitious social democratic programme.

I need to be clear here, because the shaping of debate I’m talking about means that ‘social democracy’ has come to mean something very different to that traditional definition. The social democracy I’m talking about is defined as “a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy”. Over the last 30 years, as neoliberalism has taken hold of every part of our lives, the idea of any intervention to promote social justice has been pushed to what an increasingly influential commentariat has defined as the fringes. That has happened to such an extent that intervention to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, denounced as misguided reformism by actual Marxists, is now presented as actual Marxism by establishment commentators.

As establishment desperation began to set in in the days running up to last week’s General Election, the bogey word “Marxists” was increasingly deployed to describe Labour 2017. (And if you want a definition of ‘neoliberalism, by the way, you can do worse than read this from Renegade Inc.)

The fact that people saw through the attempt to portray reform as revolution is very significant. Because, as Jeremy Corbyn himself has been quick to point out, it has shifted the centre leftwards. This idea of the centre has dominated UK politics for decades. It is presented as a scientific fact. The centre is the place where most people are, a fixed point, and the way to be successful in politics is to go there. Or so we are told.

But the centre is not fixed. Because views change. Take this example. In 1830, if you had suggested women should be able to vote you would have been widely regarded as a crackpot. If you said the same thing in 1930, you would have been reflecting mainstream opinion. The centre ground shifts because societies, economies and attitudes shift.

Occupying the centre ground has been presented as the Holy Grail of politics for decades now. And especially for the left. It was central to Tony Blair’s approach, central to the concept of New Labour. The party won elections with it, adding to the belief that occupying the centre ground was the only game in town. That focus on the centre spot continued while the entire ground moved to the right. Margaret Thatcher had reshaped society by imposing a vision and seeking to take people with her. In this, she largely succeeded. So New Labour’s pursuit of a centre ground already to the right of traditional Labour vision was in itself already a retreat. What’s more, presenting any achievement as centrist rather than left made the supposed unpopularity of left policies a self-fulfilling prophecy. To succeed, an idea couldn’t be left of centre, therefore any idea that did succeed could not be left of centre.

What that meant was that the traditional social democratic achievements New Labour did rack up were presented as evidence that traditional social democracy could not work. It’s popular to denigrate the record of New Labour now — and I should make clear that although I voted Labour in 1997 I was never a big supporter of the Blair project—but there were significant achievements. The national minimum wage, Sure Start, a reduction of infant mortality to record lows, a reduction in levels of homelessness… all these and more were policies and outcomes traditional social democratic programmes had sought to deliver. But the failure to present those policies and achievements as the product of a left-of-centre approach meant that it became harder still to argue for a left-of-centre approach. And so instead of moving the centre ground left, as those achievements could have done by presenting concrete evidence of left-of-centre ideas working, the centre ground continued to move right. And that made it so much easier for those achievements to be undone by subsequent governments.

For all the success of the three New Labour governments, the party got five million fewer votes in 2010 than it did in 1997. The interpretation of that fact across pretty much the entire commentariat was that the centre was moving right. So the only conclusion was that if occupying the centre was the key, you had to move right.

But for increasing numbers of people, moving right wasn’t delivering. And what’s more, it was making Labour irrelevant. All they saw was a watered down version of what was already on offer. So they gave up. This election was supposed to be the final act in a long process aimed at wiping out even the possibility of discussing left-of-centre ideas. It didn’t work, because what people saw were ideas they liked, and which they thought could and should work. And that was because those ideas were increasingly presented outside the parameters I’ve described.

It’s been fascinating reading about the media strategies deployed by Labour in the election. Especially so when the accepted wisdom of the media strategy experts who got it so wrong was that Labour’s media strategists were getting it completely wrong. Matt Zarb-Cousin was one of Labour’s media strategists, and he’s well worth following on Twitter at @Mattzarb One of his tweets post-election day said that “In the last week of the campaign, 25% of UK Facebook users saw a Momentum video in their news feeds.”

What’s notable about that is not just the reach, but the fact that the means of distribution and exchange—to coin a phrase—have changed. He went on “Momentum focused on producing quality content that would be organically shared. If your mate shares it, you’re more likely to watch it”.

The great Conservative communications guru Lynton Crosby was, said Zarb-Cousin, exposed because he used “analogue methods in a digital context”. The rules of engagement have changed.

There are signs that sections of the established media recognise this. But fewer that they understand it. The excellent Liz Gerard, @gameoldgirl on Twitter, mocked the stories in the printed press bemoaning ‘fake news’ and ‘distortion’ on the internet that was misleading ‘vulnerable younger voters’.

It is indeed a bit rich for some of the traditional media to seek to blame social media for spreading ‘fake news’ when too many in traditional media have played too fast and loose with the facts for too long. Which is what Gerard says in a far more entertaining way in that thread. The ire of the traditional press big beasts cannot be too far removed from the effect new forms of media are having on their commercial model either, and we can expect more stories about how the internet is a playground for terrorists and child pornographers which are in no way connected to its role in reducing traditional media influence and profit.

The weekend, traditionally a time when the papers and TV go into heavy analysis mode, provided further evidence that traditional media isn’t getting it. Sofas and comment pages were packed with the very commentators who had failed to pick up on what was happening talking about how they had failed to pick up on what was happening. In between saying that the people they had been savagely slagging off for the best part of two years solid really should be a bit more charitable with their ‘I told you so’ schtick. There was no one who had deployed any of the successful media strategies, no one who had had much positive to say about Labour’s manifesto, no one under 40. The BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning featured Toby Young, Polly Toynbee and George Osborne reviewing the papers. I kid you not.

The cry for some time amoung those on the left has been ‘create your own media’. And the internet has allowed that to happen. But.

While there are some excellent sites providing in depth reporting, analysis and opinion — and which remember there is a difference between those three things — there is also stuff that looks a little too much like what the traditional media has done for too long too. Using the methods we have criticised to get across a message we agree with cannot be the way forward.

Being left-leaning and working in the media has always presented a challenge. Asking awkward questions, trying to stand up claims, pointing out uncomfortable truths — all these staples of the trade tend to irritate people whose primary concern is to get the line out. Equally, the almost religious fervour with which some in the media promote the mantra that all of us in the trade must be ‘unbiased’ means we do not acknowledge enough the fact that every individual brings a degree of bias to every situation. Which is why progressive media reformers have always argued for a diverse set of views to be encouraged.

The vitriol and the downright morally reprehensible behaviour of sections of the media have changed the terms of debate. Now, calls to reform the media seem too often to be calls to control or regulate the media. And that brings with it serious problems. Because who will make the decisions about control or regulation? Will their biases be acknowledged?

Some of the left’s attitude to the media seems sometimes to be more about closing down views that aren’t agreed with than anything else. It could be argued that it’s a more honest approach than shutting down views by placing them outside the parameters of permitted conversation, but the end result is the same. Shutting down conversation is rarely a good thing.

The censorious tendency comes partly from a belief that ‘the media’ is to blame for the left’s ideas not being accepted. But that’s too simple a view, and one that assumes the vast majority of people are so stupid they will believe everything they read. I’ve explained above why the media’s role in setting the terms of debate is important, so I’m not arguing that the media has no effect. I have much sympathy with the analysis in this piece from Press Gazette headlined Why Labour supporters may over-estimate the influence of the partisan pro-Tory press, but I think it misses an appreciation of the role the press does have in setting the mood music.

While much of the press behaviour of recent times is rightly being called out, and while the growth of a more independent, DIY media should be welcomed, we can’t simply seek to replace a right-partisan media with a left-partisan media. Not least because we should have confidence in the strength of our ideas. Reforming the media was supposed to be about getting a fair hearing for multiple views.

I worry, too, about enacting measures such as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 for the same reasons as two of the more progressive newspapers, The Guardian and the FT, did.

So there are lessons to be learned all round. The traditional media needs to understand what is happening, and to do that requires listening to the people who are making it happen. I include myself as one of those who needs to listen, but not just for political reasons. I don’t understand why anyone who works with communication would not want to understand how commuication is changing. A particularly big challenge for traditional media is accepting that its audience contains people who may be more well informed about a particular subject, and who can counter accepted narratives quickly and accurately.

Those deploying newer methods, and those consuming what those methods disseminate, also need to look at the more traditional standards those working in the trade sought to use to see what needs to be retained. The sad thing about saying that is that ‘traditional methods’ means phone tapping rather than standing up stories and protecting sources in too many people’s minds.

As always at times of change, both danger and opportunity present themselves. In the field of communication, that is especially true.

#GeneralElection2017 #LabourParty

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