Opinion: Serious politics RIP?

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2007

I know it’s the summer silly season, but the quality of political reporting in the British media appears to have sunk below even its customary July nadir.

As a partisan Lib Dem, I’m quite content for the ‘feral beasts’ to decide now’s the moment to stick it to Tory leader David Cameron. He has, for far too long, been given a free ride by London-centric journalists for whom Dave’s emetic brand of frappe-lite politics makes easy copy. Rarely daring to venture beyond received opinion – or the M25 – the British commentariat has garlanded Mr Cameron as politics’ answer to David Beckham.

But now the beast is bored, and Mr Cameron is just sooo, like, last month. Our new Prime Minister, the oh-so-serious Gordon Brown, is the new flavour of the month. Throw in a couple of dodgy by-election results for the Tories, and a few indiscreet criticisms from some malcontents, and the media has all it needs to justify a wallow in some shallow speculation.

To judge from his peevish performance on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning (juicily dissected by Alex Wilcock here) Mr Cameron is feeling this summer heat. He needn’t worry so much: next month it’ll be someone else’s turn.

Oh, it’s all such larks! Who’s up, who’s down; who’s hot, who’s not; who’s in, who’s out. That’s the full extent of the media’s interest in politics. Unless an issue can be given a reality-show twist, injecting some succulent human interest, it won’t get a look-in. Analysis is no match for impact. The news media’s nihilistic drive to grab the casual attention-span of the consumer is corroding civic discourse.

It’s our fault, of course. The media is, after all, merely trying to sate the appetites of its audience. It is we who prove, time and again, HL Mencken’s adage, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public.”

And so the parcel labelled responsibility is passed round and round: from politician to journalist to citizen to politician to journalist to citizen. Remorselessly, repetitively, recklessly. With each passing of the parcel our trust in ourselves and others diminishes. It’s time for the music to stop, and for all of us to share the responsibility around.

Or, to put it another way: it’s time we all grew up, and started to care about the things that matter a damn.

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6 comments

I think you may be taking the “froth” a tad too seriously, Stephen. What happens in the media is rather divorced from what happens in the country, in people’s views. A lot of this stuff goes in one ear and out of the other of the average viewer and I include myself there.

by Paul Walter on July 31, 2007 at 3:09 pm. Reply #

Not only that, Paul, but an increasing number of people are just switching off from politics altogether. Part of that is politicians’ fault, but part of it is also the media’s.

The way in which interviewers seems either to be too cosy with their interviewees (Andrew Marr) or overly aggressive and seemingly pursuing a vendetta or agenda of their own (Jeremy Paxman) is quite disenfranchising in its own way.

I don’t think the British people Do care that much about personalities in politics, and that actually the soundbites and poses only really preoccupy the media itself.

More public involvement in current affairs and politics broadcasting, more accessible debates and a more substance-oriented approach from the mainstream media are required.

For too long politicians have been blamed for gimmickry and posturing, when in reality they just do what is most likely to get them the headline; it is the media which decides what to put on the front page, and as long as they class stunts and gimmicks as more newsworthy than serious policy announcements, politicians will inevitably neglect the latter.

by Leo Watkins on July 31, 2007 at 4:08 pm. Reply #

I think a number of trends have coincided to bring about the situation Stephen describes.

Politics is very consumerist.
Voters are interested in issues that directly affect them, their families and their neighbourhood rather than abstract issues of principle. This is not a criticism of the voters – their interest can be a principled one – but the issues tend to be very specific and practical. That can mean that politicians who debate ideas, abstract principles and long-term projects can seem out of touch – particularly when the issues that are concerning them are not acknowledged.

There is a breakdown of traditional party loyalties of the ‘I vote Labour/Tory because my dad always did’ variety. As a radical party committed to reform, we should welcome this; but it does make politicians’ jobs harder when their loyal donkey vote is reduced.

Privatisation under Thatcher, the breaking up of local government powers under Blair (academies, ISPs, ALMOs, et al) and globalisation, have all made politicians’ ability to influence events seem less and so made people more sceptical about politicians’ role.

The celebrity culture means we are used to knowing a lot more about our public figures, and being a lot more judgemental about them.

And the fragmentation of media means that we have much greater scrutiny of politicians & access to debate, while the media have to make their content ever more dramatic and topical to retain an audience.

It need not end in a cynical population made ever more cynical by their trivial media, however. We could see more powerful, independent engagement by citizens using the new media to get past old barriers and restore faith in both participatory and representative democracy.

by Bridget Fox on July 31, 2007 at 4:55 pm. Reply #

If we play the same games though we can’t complain about the results.

Haven’t seen much serious politics in any recent by-election campaigns.

by Hywel Morgan on July 31, 2007 at 6:09 pm. Reply #

There is definitely a paradox at work which hasn’t been taken into account, but one person’s bias is another’s perspective, so let them rise and fall according their own standards.

Until the LibDems reach government, we must be satisfied with the balance of coverage in the knowledge that specific criticisms of any player in the media indicates a sometimes healthy and sometimes provocative addition to the overall wealth and diversity of the critiquing viewpoint, anyhow a media career only lasts as long as it reflects a modicum of truth!

by James S on August 1, 2007 at 12:18 am. Reply #

Common assumptions promulgated by the media and are hilarious in their gross misconception:
1) that an audience is ‘retained’, but not coveted
2) that controversy confronts conflict, addresses the causes of it and neutralises the consequences
3) that an interactive audience is an engaged viewership
4) that education, information and entertainment are separable or distinguishable
5) everybody cares about their auntie as much as everybody loves raymond, or hates chris.

(please feel free to continue).

by James S on August 1, 2007 at 12:49 am. Reply #

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