What 'Smeargate' tells us about media news reporting

by Stephen Tall on April 21, 2009

The last couple of days have seen a flurry of new, post-Easter weekend polls. As LDV’s regular readers will know, we don’t cover individual polls, preferring to round them up on a monthly basis rather than become over-excited by any one dire/fantastic survey which turns out to be a rogue. Brushing to one side the usual caveats for a moment, though, it does seem that the political situation has been left largely untouched by last week’s ‘Smeargate’ row over Damian McBride emails.

The Times’s Sam Coates is not alone amongst the media in expressing some bafflement: ‘broadly Smeargate has had little effect on the voting public. Why?’ I think Philip Stephens in the Financial Times comes closest to divining the simple truth:

Hard as the media has tried, I doubt that Downing’s Street’s salacious e-mail traffic has much intruded on the conversation at the bar of the proverbial Dog and Duck. … The furore about the Downing Street e-mails, in large part a reflection of the media’s self-obsession, has not changed anything.

I said something similar myself on LDV last week:

My guess – and it’s just that – is that the weekend skirmishes will have little effect on the public (or at least that part of it which didn’t have better things to do with its Easter weekend than watch/read rolling news coverage). The whole tasteless episode will get wrapped inside the general ‘they’re all at it’ / ‘politicians are divorced from reality’ meme sparked by the recession, and ignited by the MPs’ expenses scandals.

And that seems to be reflected in today’s Ipsos-Mori poll which posed a couple of specific ‘Smeargate’ questions. The first asked how voters felt the row reflected on Gordon Brown’s leadership: ‘You’ve probably heard about the recent controversy about a senior Downing Street advisor planning an internet smear campaign against Conservative politicians. Some people have said that Gordon Brown’s leadership style, meaning the way he runs the Government, is to blame for this incident. To what extent do you agree or disagree that Brown’s leadership style is to blame for the actions of those planning the smear campaign?’

I would have expected a pretty unequivocal response to this, if only because I imagined replies would divide on partisan lines and reflect Mr Brown’s current unpopularity among non-Labour voters. I was wrong. In fact, the public response was a lot more mixed:

>> Strongly / tend to disagree: 35%
>> Strongly / tend to agree: 39%
>> Neither/nor: 17%
>> Don’t know: 9%

This suggests that a minority of the British public associate the negative publicity arising from ‘Smeargate’ personally with Gordon Brown, despite the apoplexy among Tories and the right-wing blogs that the Prime Minister should say sorry. (For the record, I think he should have said sorry much sooner. But I don’t think the Tories did themselves much good banging on about it).

What does come across much more strongly is that ‘Smeargate’, insofar as it had any impact on public views, chimed with the current anti-politics mood of British voters. Mori asked, ‘In your view, is the Labour Party more likely than the Conservative Party to engage in this type of behaviour, for example personal smear campaigns, or are Labour less likely to engage in this type of behaviour, or is there no difference between the parties?’

Their survey said:

>> There is no difference between the parties: 72%
>> The Labour Party is more likely than the Conservative Party to engage in this kind of behaviour: 16%
>> The Labour Party is less likely than the Conservative Party to engage in this kind of behaviour: 6%
>> Don’t know: 6%

True, more than twice as many folk reckon Labour are ‘smearier’ than the Tories – though that’s scarcely surprising after the past fortnight’s headlines – but the overwhelming view is (unsurprisingly) ‘they’re all as bad as each other’.

The real question, I think, that this prompts is: why did the media attach such importance to a story which was and is a Westminster Village (and blogosphere) obsession, but of peripheral interest to the vast majority of the public? That’s not to say it wasn’t newsworthy: of course it was. But did it really merit five days’ news cycles?

There are a number of possible explanations. It was, after all, Easter weekend, when real news is thin on the ground. There’s also a growing sense of media boredom with the recession, and this was a welcome distraction. It was a story all about personalities: few outside the Westminster Village had ever even heard of any of them, but the journalists knew the chief characters well. There was also the slim chance – who knows, perhaps it will yet come to pass? – that the Prime Minister himself might be personally implicated in the row, in which case it would have become Big Box Office.

But I think, more than all that, it was a result of 24-hour news and the (right-wing) blogosphere becoming trapped in a perpetual vortex of self-obsession. The news reported what ‘Guido’ had blogged; then ‘Guido’ (and Iain et al) commented on what was the news had reported; then ‘Guido’ (and Iain et al) were interviewed on the news; and they then wrote up their interviews on their blogs. Meanwhile, all the mainstream-media bloggers, fearful they were missing out on the party, joined in. And then, of course, because ‘everyone was talking about it’ this in turn justified the news media’s wall-to-wall coverage.

There has always been a risk that rolling news and the immediacy of blogs – their rapid-fire reaction – can distort news values, the ability to distinguish between stuff that’s just happened, and stuff that matters a damn. Yes, ‘Smeargate’ was a big political story, but other stories much bigger, much more important than ‘Smeargate’ were ignored last week as a result.