A mystery was unveiled at the bloggers’ interview with the Cleggster last week, which has been most excellently written up in full by That Elephant thus leaving me free to flit over the surface in dilettantish fashion.
We were talking about the national media, specifically about how they won’t unkink their anuses sufficiently to actually discuss Liberal Democrat policy, principles or progress in the national consciousness in case they copiously shit themselves with terror (I am paraphrasing, obviously) at the idea that there may be life outside the two-party consensus.
Clegg’s approach, with which I would guess we all concur, albeit with the odd bit of heartening militancy, is simply to find ways round them. The country is full of local newspapers whose reportage people trust far more than the nationals, and whose news editors are only too pleased to bag a briefing with a national political figure. It’s also full of underused town halls for Nick to “beetle around” answering questions at public meetings to which the national media are not invited. And most of all it’s full of real people who only read a national newspaper on a Sunday if at all. Sooner or later, he says, the media will have to take notice of us because we’ll be too big and successful to ignore. And we’ll have done it without them.
The idea that it’s the national media who are in crisis has a ring of truth about it. Why else would we upset some of them so much? It strikes me that the inexorable rise of the Liberal Democrats is the acid test for the survival of the old-style national media machine. Like quitting smoking the experience is much harder than it looks for them. They need to quit the Two Party Consensus. When and if they admit that the Lib Dems are, er, what they say they are, to wit a national political party, they will have overcome a major psychological hurdle and demonstrated a proper grasp of the national scene. Until then, they just look increasingly bloody silly, covering themselves with the political equivalent of nicotine plasters, scuttling guiltily down the alley for a furtive briefing session with Iain Dale, adopting ever greater contortions to avoid mentioning the fact that the Lib Dems are now pretty obviously in the big time.
The reason this puts them in crisis is that they’re relying on a USP which is now outmoded, and that much they do understand. Clegg told us how he gets his news, it’s just like I do, and it’s not by Reading A Newspaper. He “magpies” it (a rather natty verb, new on me, incorporating elements of both cherry-picking and winging it; use it in a sentence this week why don’t you) from a daily email update that summarises all the coverage of top stories across all the newspapers, from bits and pieces people send him, from specialist journals or magazines, from a glance at the ticker tape. Part of the traditional print media’s successful evolution over the past decade has been the development of news delivery paths that serve that magpie instinct.
But over the next decade or so that will make bugger-all difference if they continue to print – virtually or on paper – stuff that people are ever-decreasingly interested in reading because it bears no relation to their own lives or the lives of their communities. Despite all the bollocks hanging off national media websites, the blogs, comment columns, and other interactive danglers, the message being peddled is the same as it has been for twenty years. Fifty years, even. Newspapers, virtual and papery, are still written as if it’s 1951, when everybody except the Trots, the illegally ballotted budgerigars and those who expired with postwar boredom on the way to the polling station voted for Labour and the Tories (98% was it?), as against 68% in 2005.
Now to the mystery. Apparently, and notwithstanding his wise injunction that there is no point in our getting overly upset about any of this, Clegg had a good rant at the editorial team of a national newspaper not long ago. He pointed out that their politics coverage was totally and utterly incomprehensible to, for example, the constituents of Sheffield Hallam, who voted out their last Tory in the dark ages and perceive the whole question of the “two horse race” entirely differently from the national media. He rattled off to us, probably to them as well, the list of cities across the north controlled by the Lib Dems – Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Grimsby, Hull. Major British population centres where the Liberal Democrats are the ruling party. They’re just not places the media live. They are satellites of unreality to your average political editor, fiddly little anomalous departures from a norm that has remained fixed in Fleet Street perception for half a century.
So which newspaper was on the wrong end of the Clegg effect? I’ve been wondering ever since and today I wonder if I found the answer. It has been pretty clear since December that the national media and its two-party acolytes are absolutely panting to say that Clegg isn’t a success, and they’re being continuously thwarted by the fact that the only real blunder he’s made so far has been in mismanaging the Europe vote (note I say mismanaging; the position itself still looks fair enough from the People’s Republic). But even in an atmosphere of increasing desperation to score any sort of meaningful hit on Clegg, this piece of trying it on by Sam Coates is really stunningly trivial:
Sir Menzies Campbell was always tortured over whether he should use the “Sir” in official Liberal Democrat literature after he became leader.
Ah, ze old compare-to-previous-leader trick, eh? What juicy revelation will follow? Has Clegg punished a local exec member for not standing up when he entered a room? Demanded that he be referred to as The Anointed One in internal memos? Shot a flunkey for underboiling his morning egg? Read on, I can hardly bear it.
So it is nothing short of hilarious that Nick Clegg has decided to adopt the styling “The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP” in his official literature. It appears in his introduction to the new “City Manifesto” (not yet online, but page 2 when it appears).
Really? “Nothing short of hilarious”? Are you sure, Sam? Laughs must be in damn short supply at Red Box Blog Towers. I mean, it’s not even a cheap hit. It’s a flag popping out of the end of a gun with “BANG!” written on it, and I would protest that far from its merely being cheap you couldn’t pay someone to administer it, except that the Times obviously did. I know it’s only a blog and not a real article, but jeez. How long before I read an editorial entitled “Nick smells”, followed up by a point-by-point dissection from Mister Dale and a death-knell-of-the-Lib-Dems-because-Nick-smells opinion piece from Simon Heffer?
So it looks like that little mystery is cleared up.