Bring me the Head of Communications

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.

13 Comments

  1. The newspaper industry can secure its future if it accepts that blogging has changed comment for the better & fully brings in the new world to redress the balance of the old.

    They have something unique to offer, imho, which is trained journalists with a budget to do investigative reports, coverage, & what have you. However, they must accept that some of their number have grown fat & complacent, & that it is fundamentally a good thing to have public feedback on their work, a few right-wing twats on CiF notwithstanding.

    It is really up to them to decide whether they want to take themselves forward or sourly moan about the blogosphere. They could adopt some blogging conventions & recruit bloggers to write for them: you, for example, & a lot of others.

    Simply sitting around thinking they are superior beings & the rest of the world is beneath them is no way to face the future. I dislike the use of “elitism” as a slur because I think elites are basically a good thing, so long as there is no bar to talent & they use their ability on behalf of the public. But the likes of La Toynbee & Janet Street Paw-er are guilty of unjustified snobber.

    Having said that, it may be the case that organisations such as Friends of the Earth & what have you take their operations online, raising their revenue through a membership scheme & sending out no publications. Perhaps, also, people will in future have to pay if they want to read the efforts of leasding journalists online, as also run by certain websites.

    Schemes like JSTOR should be aimed at the literate public. I know I don’t read half as much as I should. I feel like a right twat for fucking round when I could be learning something important.

    Returning to your specific political point, I think 2009 will see surges in support for the Greens & UKIP, as those who are natural Liberal Democrat or Conservative voters respectively & will back those parties in a general election decide to send out a message in a PR contest. UKIP especially.

    Which reminds me that our mutual friends at cultdyn.co.uk will be updating soon: I wrote to them protesting against their lack of new shyte, & they replied that it won’t be long🙂

    Finally, I wish to state how glad I am that you are here again, & hope for much more…

  2. While I agree with what Steph says, this post is still awesome, and shows WHY you are the Award-winning People’s Republic. Keep up the good work😉

    (and please, please, PLEASE install comment notification! Else I shall run mad!)

  3. Sorry, Alix, but no cold calls. Not from any political party – even one I agree with. Cold calls in my house get impolite answers. People appearing at my door get worse.

    Otherwise, forget about the media. Nobody outside political junkies gives a damn what this newspaper reckons or this columnist thinks. We only think that the media are significant because they’ve been telling us they are for so long.

    Political commenters are, quite literally, a bunch of hacks.

  4. @Steph,
    😦 What have I done? irritatingly, it’s not even a very good line. I’m not quite sure what word I was groping for, but I doubt it was really “lemming”. I will atone by means of a fluffy lemming picture sometime, in a bold new shift away from my previous puppy-and-bunny policy.

    @Stu
    “Cold calls in my house get impolite answers. People appearing at my door get worse.”

    That leaves us, and all political parties, in a dilemma. How else is community politics to be practised? It’s true that I’ve always resisted door-knocking because I know I wouldn’t like being on the receiving end (I may not be the most active cog in the wheel of Clegg’s million door pledge), but I’m oddly unfussed about the phone calls. Oddly to me, even. Because they can put the phone down, non? so no breach in the law of liberalism has occurred (the law of data protection being another matter). It’s our freedom to make the call and their freedom to refuse to take it. I only get irritated with automated call systems when I’ve expressed my wish to speak to someone by dialling a phone number.

    Having said all that, it’s a pretty clunky idea even if it doesn’t actually irritate me. I sometimes get the impression that all “innovation” in politics and campaigning by all parties is being done by people who have been teleported in from around 1994, and in 1994 it was being done by people from 1980 etc etc.

    @Squiff
    “I feel like a right twat for fucking round when I could be learning something important.”

    Join the club.

    Pay per view on journalism, that is an interesting one. Totally counter-cyclical and counter-intuitive to one’s natural assumption that the internet makes everything free. Therefore I like it. Putting a price back onto opinion and information is an intriguing idea. There would be a risk of returning to an elitist information flow, except that the sums would be tiny – pennies per view perhaps. Like 18thC handbills. Hmm.

    I also think, in the media’s defence (!), that a lot of the snobbery has actually been broken down by the internet. The Max Gogarty thing seemed to be symbolic of a sort of turning point. My problem with them is their ill-informed half-take on politics (which of course isn’t all of them; we had Henry Porter of the Observer at conference rally and he was awesome).

    Jennie, I know I’ve asked you before, but I didn’t understand the answer last time😦 How do I do that?

  5. “they can put the phone down, non? so no breach in the law of liberalism has occurred ”

    Indeed – one could also close the door. The problem is that I use the phone to communicate and when the phone rings I have an expectation that the disturbance to my day (I may have been doing something important) will be justified by somebody that knows who I am and has information to give me (preferably they also want an immediate response). My phone number isn’t an invitation to interrupt my day with whatever takes your fancy, it’s a means by which to talk to me. The problem is one of activity – if somebody want to advertise their product/lifestyle/politics to me, I’m very happy for them to do it, passively. If I have to take an active role in their advert, I lose interest and the advertising gives me an instant negative impression of them

    As for how political parties can get members and get people to vote without knocking on their doors and cold calling them, how do MacDonald’s get people to eat their burgers without ringing them up individually? How do Nike get people to buy their clothing?

    If we had a system to legally bind politicians to their promises, we could allow them to advertise like normal organisations. It’s ridiculous that a company can be sued for the tiniest misrepresentation of their product while a political party can publish manifesto promises they have no intention of keeping without any form of legal framework to bind them to their words. Do this, and parties could passively market their ideas to me and I could make an informed decision between them. And Nick Clegg wouldn’t have to (pretend to) call anybody.

  6. Hmmm, what an attractive message – too attractive I think. We already talk directly to the people more than the other parties, we put out more paper to get the mind-share others get for free. This is what being a third party is all about.

    The media are to us like Olympic Taekwondo judges to British competitors, and the best we can do is be good sports, and try to be twice as good as our opponents. It won’t work every time, but is our best prospect in the long run and better than kicking the judge.

    Now yes, maybe journalism will change radically over the next decade. I suspect and hope people will find axe-grinding to their taste for free on the net, and therefore expect higher standards of accuracy and impartiality from content they have to pay for.

    But maybe not, and in any case lets not bet the house on any particular trend. Twitter to replace television? Nnng.

  7. You may be correct that the excesses of the MSM have been corrected by blogger, & they are now returning to their roots, shorn of their old complacency & things are generally getting better in that regard.

    But still the laggards are always with us! La Toynbee, Wee Willie Hutton, Simon Hefferlump, etc. don’t show any signs of having moved an inch.

    In my conception of pay per view journalism, I only envisage certain people from newspapers etc. charging for their services. They would bill themselves as having special expertise, training, funding, support & what have you from their institutions. I can see them competing against bloggers because of this edge they have. They are, imho, free to charge readers of their material: their task, of course, is to make people willing to read the shite!

    You’ve also got things like CiF which are free, though that is a bad analogy because of the shockingly low quality of so many “contributors”. & then you’ve got things like Tory Home & Guido Forks which seem to be aimed at establishing an online presence & displacing the MSM.

    What I’m saying is that the MSM’s future is yet to be decided, but it is in large part up to them…

  8. There is also, of course, the flow of bloggers into print, their blogs having come to publishers’/editors’ attention.

    I imagine shite like the Fail & Express going, followed by the Scum, but there are publications I can imagine existing permanently.

    & then there are the organisations which will simply go online, such as subscription-based campaign groups (& political parties) which never used their publications as a way to raise revenue anyway.

    We know that the freemasonry of journalism is worse than it’s ever been, that the old boys’ network has a near total stranglehold which promotes those with a pretty accent as against the talented, but this could well be its last gasp. Many a time, the hour before the dawn is the darkest & the dying beast lashes out with more frenzy than a healthy animal: is this such a time?

  9. Hear hear!!!! What an excellent post.

    I get so frustrated when we seem to throw away opportunities, dilute our message and give the media easy goals.

    However, I think it’s good that they think “we passed the 16p basic rate cut package this week” as I’m not sure anyone out there knew that was our policy before anyway and it’s better than them thinking that we passed some wooly tax-cutting aspiration (typical Liberals!).

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