What has the media done for politics?

There are two more days to polling day in the 2010 General Election. The media is already pronouncing the campaign the most “interesting” and “exciting” for years. It has not been. It has been one of the worst, dullest, and most vacuous. And that is largely due to the media, and the obsession the professional political class has with it.

What’s the big idea?

What has been the big idea in this campaign? Not an argument about the role of the state, the operation of the market, or what kind of society we should live in. No. The big idea has been live TV debates between the party leaders. This, we were told – by the media – was a quantum leap forward in our democracy. Something which would make our system more transparent, more accountable. It has not. Instead, we have debated ‘how well the leaders came across’. Not what they said, but how well they put whatever it was they said across.

And no one one seems too sure what they said anyway. Probably because it’s important, in this transparent, accountable, media-shaped democracy, not to be too specific about what you say, lest people disagree with you.

The only clear result of those debates seems to be that Gordon Brown is “a disaster”. Not because of a policy, but because he doesn’t “come across well” on TV. This level of political analysis reminds me of the reason why Anne Widdecombe was very unpopular – not because of her backward, reactionary politics, but because she wasn’t very good looking. Now, like the equally objectionable Hamiltons, she has embraced being a TV personality and we all love her, she’s a bit of a national treasure – so who remembers her enthusiasm for  shackling pregnant prisoners now?

There’s plenty to dislike Brown for – don’t get me started on the PFI – but in our sophisticated, transparent and accountable media-shaped democracy “his mouth looks a bit funny when he talks” is a far more effective argument than one which goes into the rights and wrongs of economic policy. You’d have to be a boring old politico to argue otherwise, and what place do politics have in something as important as a general election?

Don’t go back to Rochdale

But ironically, the only other ‘event’ of the campaign came when the media scripting went wrong, and some politics did briefly surface. And that was in the now infamous exchange between Brown and Old Mrs Duffy in Rochdale. It revealed so much, and yet so little of what was intended when the stunt was set up. Watching the exchange, Brown actually did a pretty good job of engaging with the issues she raised, including making the point that more people left the country than came in when the issue of immigration came up. This is one of those annoyingly detailed facts that the media finds difficult to get across, largely because it prevents scaremongering about immigration and the making of excitable programmes about how the BNP are so much more of a rising threat than any number of other parties outside the ‘main’ three which have regularly polled more votes and done more effective grass roots work than them. There are ratings to be had in the far right, after all.

For the record, it didn’t seem to me that Mrs Duffy was a “bigot”, as Brown called her as soon as he was led away from the ‘meet the real people’ stunt. She voiced a concern – maybe one fuelled by the regular inaccurate reporting of the immigration debate in our wonderful democracy-enhancing media – that many identified with. What Brown did, thinking he was in private, was no worse than what too many Labour politicians have done for too long whenever anyone disagrees with them. They’ve been doing it for years. Twenty years ago, when I was involved in student politics, they did it to beat down those who opposed them, and they are still doing it. Take just one example – the debate on the EU. For them, there are no arguments about the democratic deficit of the European parliament, no concerns about the massive corporate bias of EU policy – just bigoted Little Englanders who don’t agree with them.

It ain’t all the media wot dun it

And here we reach the point at which it has to be said that it’s not all the media’s fault. Because it would be wrong to criticise the media for not dealing with the detail of politics when the politicians don’t either. The political illiteracy of labelling any opposing view as ‘bigoted’ must contribute to the illiteracy of much of the coverage. Detail is dull, policy is piffle, the media democracy demands a question that can be answered simply in a brief text message to a premium rate number.

The fall-out from the Rochdale affair could not have been scripted better by Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris. A PM who had been criticised for not saying what he thinks was hammered for saying what he thought. So instead of explaining why he thought what he thought, he explained why he didn’t think what he said he thought – going to such great and humiliating lengths to do so he merely kept the story running. The sheer incompetence of the Labour PR response was another of the many rich ironies, coming as it did from a ‘party’ – and I use the term loosely in this instance – which has taken the art of media manipulation and the prioritisation of surface over substance to new levels.

This incompetent response, and the level of disaster it boosted massively, must surely expose the folly of the focus on media image. How you put an idea across is only important if you have an idea to put across. The reason for the lack of faith in politics and politicians is not that that we don’t believe what they say, it’s that we don’t believe that they believe what they say.

No doubt if there is a hung parliament, as looks likely, the media will be even more excited. It will mean more intrigue, horse-trading and general Westminster village shindiggery that could even bring us some more TV debates. Meanwhile the big ideas, about the economy, about  work, about the environment, about the definitions of growth and value, about individual freedoms and collective responsibilities, will go unaddressed. And where grass roots organisation does succeed, where new and challenging ideas are being discussed and experimented with, the media will largely ignore it.

If this election has proved one thing, it is that the media cannot create the new democracy we need.

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