After an extended sojourn in our outlying embassy at Lib Dem Voice, we make our triumphal return to the People’s Republic with three of the finest artworks ever bought on the internet for $8.99+shipping. We would like to thank our agent, etc, and are truly feeling rather over-honoured and a bit stunned, although that could be the result of the several well-aimed sticky buns. A shame, given this upbeat homecoming, and in a week when the party has had some of its best media coverage in months (and from some quarters, ever) that we have to begin on a negative note.
But for crying out loud, why didn’t you silly PR pop tarts in Comms think to run this 250,000 phone call survey plan thing past the Information Commissioner? How hard would that have been?
And why make a media splash of it anyway? I’m not necessarily against the idea of an automated phone survey in principle. Every method of information gathering irritates someone, and I probably wouldn’t hang up on something like this provided I was at least peripherally interested in it. But surely the whole point of our talking to directly people and garnering their views is that we don’t have to involve the sodding media.
That’s the main reason why they’re so down on the call survey idea, of course. They know that ultimately this kind of notion, whatever its clumsy shortcomings in early prototypes, renders them irrelevant. Yes, I grow bitter and dark as a bucket of bile, but that’s because I’ve spent all week reading newspapers. God, it’s a sick world those people inhabit. So whose shiny happy idea was it to try to enthuse these blood-encrusted vultures with a plan to – if you’ll excuse me – cold-call the population? You might not think of it like that. I, with a bit of persuasion, might not think of it like that. But what kind of Janet-and-John outlook do you have to have to not see that the media would treat it like that? You numpties.
And this is where Nasty People’s Republican Guard takes a break and Nice People’s Republican Guard comes in with a cigarette and some pictures of their family, because I have some thoughts for the Head of Communications which don’t involve a spike.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a bag of Focus leaflets covered in bar charts must be in want of a campaigning techniques refresher course. But an equally universally acknowledged truth is that we’re running out of track on our successful early 1990s campaign techniques, and ever-subtler refinements to the way we write Focuses, or where we deliver them and in what concentration, are achieving at best tiny increments of improvement. Most people’s solution to this problem is to seek great leaps forward in the national media instead. If we need to shift from “ground war” to “air war”, in Rennard parlance, “air war” translates irresistably for most people into “air waves”.
And that means a perpetual exhausting fight for a decent amount of fair and balanced coverage. People throw whole chunks of their time away on this goal, energy is pissed freely up the wall in the form of impotent rage that we have to scrabble and scream for even a mention of a vast new vista of policy, when the Tory leader, as one LDV wag has it, get full page spreads for saying that nice things are nice and nasty things are nasty. I swear the majority of the press actually thinks we passed the 16p basic rate cut package this week.
I submit that continuing to attempt a balanced relationship with the national media is likely to be profoundly unrewarding, perhaps destructive, for at least a decade, and render a disproportionately small return to the amount of time and money we spend on it. I submit that we should dump the national media – actually dump them, as in not give them stories – and spend the money on workshops, public information meetings, local information points, websites, local advertising that goes beyond the Focus leaflet (created within the party; party message is too important to be left to professionals) and local campaigning on specific national issues instead. In other words, shoring up what Nick Clegg does himself when he beetles round the country getting shouted at in draughty school gyms. He does it too often and too privately to not find it productive and enjoyable on some level, and he does it deliberately out-of-sight of the national media.
Journalistic writing is necessarily a pigeon-holing exercise. They have to relate one thing to another, make links between different events and concepts, to build up the newspaper’s outlook – a macrocosm of how an individual arrives at their worldview, really. Which is fine, so long as the key political concept you’re trying to advance is something journalists already recognise and have a label for. But they just don’t – en masse anyway – have one for liberalism. Their instinctive, natural grasp of what liberalism means is lacking. I was tickled to learn (though not as tickled as Will Howells) that the Liberal Democrats have finally made it onto the Dewey Decimal system – so journalists may not have an excuse for too much longer. But right now, the outlook for comprehension of what liberalism is all about in the mainstream media is bleak.
Liberalism as a wider political movement has been splintered into environmentalism, pacificism, alternative living and the like more or less since the 1960s, and in abeyance as a high political creed for a century partly as a result. As individuals, journalists have lived through an era in which high politics is dominated by the twin blocs of socialism versus conservatism. No wonder they try to wodge our radical liberalism into mid-20th century Labour and Tory loaf tins. They’ve never known anything else. Most of them have never bothered learning anything else (this is what comes of studying Eng Lit at university instead of history).
That’s why they keep asking Nick Clegg, with repeated, almost desperate insistence, “Aren’t you just like David Cameron?” and then making a headline out of the result. They need the answer to be yes, or they can’t compute what he’s saying. The wellsprings of ideas in two-party politics dried up a decade ago, and that ideological barrenness has infected the fourth estate and invariably saps their powers of reason. That’s why they’re able to make statements, as Cathy Newman did on Channel 4 News last night, like this:
They’re [the Liberal Democrats at conference] a million miles away from reality.
A half-a-second, throwaway one-liner on the end of a report, and to utter it Cathy had to suspend every single rational synapse in her head. Six million people voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. Six million people inclined to a liberal outlook? A tenth of the entire population, a quarter of the voting population? A million miles away from reality? When proportions like that are in the balance, it’s your perception of reality which needs fixing.
When they give us good or fair coverage, it’s sheer chance, a momentary collision of our views with their spin-obsessed binary outlook. Vince has made a joke, Nick has delivered a speech well – therefore the Liberal Democrats must be Doing All Right. The party has created a tax package, or passed a series of measures, which a lemming-minded hack can translate into their weirdly flat and one-dimensional Left/Right worldview – therefore the Liberal Democrats must be Finally Showing People What They Stand For. It’s an accident when it goes well for us in the newspapers, not a sign that they’re developing an embryonic sense of fairness, or suddenly understanding what we’re all about. They never will, until the world has moved on and rediscovered liberalism again (as it may well over the next twenty-odd years) and the media, as is their wont, start following and reporting on that trend.
We know from our experience in local government that people don’t need ideological reference points for liberalism to see that it works. Because devolution and anti-statism are such essential components of the liberal creed, you don’t need a degree in political studies – much less English Literature with Journalism – to make it work for you. It already works for you. It lets you do what the hell you like so long as you don’t harm anybody else.
Simple. But not easily reportable. Liberalism’s strength lies in its acceptance of disparate points of view. That is just far too far a cry from the top-heavy high politics reportage favoured by most political editors, floundering around either in the 1970s or 1980s as the case may be, babbling about new angles and fresh ideas at brainstorming sessions, and all the while totally failing to comprehend the seismic shift in the political landscape. The Westminster Village, if its current course of irrelevance continues alongside a global recession, will eventually topple into a newly-created ravine and mass-participation liberal society will flow into the space left (it’ll have to; they say society is three meals away from revolution – even truer that society is three missed bin collections away from self-government).
Individual journalists might be natural liberals, and they’ll pick up on liberal trends anyway, without needing us to point them out – assuming their editor allows it. But taken as a whole, the media is a shuddering monolithic automaton with two default settings, and our words are wasted in trying to communicate with it. We need to wait for the dinosaurs to die and a more thoughtful younger generation to take over (assuming they’ll do so via the national media at all; there may not even be a newspaper industry in twenty years’ time). And next time the media calls, we need to hang up the phone.