For those of you who don’t get the New
Statesman, here is the piece I have written for this week’s issue, on the
media’s love-in with David Cameron. Have vlogged on similar subject.
Accustomed though I am to occasional populism, I
found myself having to squirm away from the TV when David Cameron came on to
announce his post-summer holiday Big Idea — lower salaries and more expensive
chips for MPs.
It was not just the piddling nature of the
proposals – even Cameron called them a ‘pinprick’ – more striking was the
fullscale bells and whistles media operation, complete with BBC cameras popping
in to watch him clear away the cereal boxes and urge his wife to ‘trust me’ as
he kissed her goodbye.
A former spin doctor, Cameron will have been
happy with the outcome. Leading BBC bulletins, not bad print coverage, a bit
sniffy in places, but hey, all things considered …
All things considered, it was but the latest
evidence of the media double standards applied to the two main party leaders.
For Gordon Brown, any excuse for any abuse will do. For Cameron, ‘easy ride’
does not begin to describe it.
Pot. Kettle. Black, say some, I having been
involved in the odd successful media hit. But – book plug essential here I’m
afraid – read my diaries. Every day of Opposition was hard. And every
day, the demands, expectations and intensity of scrutiny by the media were
greater than anything Cameron has had to endure. His Bullingdon club antics –
evidence not of elitism, privilege and weird values, but a sign that the public
(as defined by the press) are ready to be ruled by toffs again. Drugs? He’s
decided not to answer, so let’s stop asking. Expenses? Let’s cover the tough
noises he makes about others, and park his own taxpayer-funded mortgage.
As for policy, why should we press him to spell
it all out? Doesn’t it just show how clever he is, not to open himself to
scrutiny? So let’s not worry too much about what might have happened had
Britain adopted his do-nothing approach to the global financial crisis. Take as
read his desire to help middle income families, and don’t tell anyone he wants
to remove tax credits that might help them. Keep trotting out the pictures of
him leading his huskies in the Arctic and overlook Tory councils turning down
application after application for ‘bird blenders’, as Cameron calls wind farms.
As for Europe, ok, he has got into bed with a bunch of racists, homophobes,
climate change denyers and extremists, but it won’t damage Britain’s influence
in Europe … er, will it?
The Tories like to say they model much of their
strategy on what Tony Blair did in modernising the Labour Party. But important
though words, branding and pictures for the Beeb may have been, the hard yards
were won not by PR puffery, but by difficult strategic and policy decisions to
show the public we had got the message of successive defeats, and had changed.
Ask Tories how Cameron has changed the party and
they tend to say he’s got them ahead in the polls. Fair enough. Ask journalists
and they will happily regurgitate the line from Central Office about
detoxifying the brand. Ask a member of the public what if any policy proposals
have been made to indicate change, and they could be forgiven for knowing of
none. I don’t mean not many. I mean none.
Scratch beneath the poll headlines a little, and
his main problem with the public remains lack of substance. His strategy seems
to compound that, yet still the analysis remains soft.
Now go back to Neil Kinnock. Try to imagine what
the media would do to a Kinnock-led Labour Party that was unable to say what it
intended to do on tax, or how much it intended to spend on which public
services. Imagine a Kinnock-led party whose European policy was seen as misguided
by virtually every major power in the world. Imagine a Kinnock-led Labour Party
whose shadow cabinet was as unknown as this one.
This is not a call on the media to be anti-Tory
in the way the press was virulently anti-Labour then. But it is to ask why so
many of them appear to have suspended the kind of critical analysis normally
applied to the Opposition.
General support from papers like the Mail and
the Telegraph, given their avowed right-wing position and hatred of new Labour,
it is at least explicable; and for the Murdoch stable, not only is there the
usual pragmatic analysis of who they think might win, but their basic worldview
tends to be on the right. Much odder is the way parts of the left press have
fallen under Cameron’s spell, buying the line that he has progressive goals,
when in speech after speech, once you get beneath the cutesy headline, and in
Commons vote after Commons vote, the opposite is revealed. Even more striking
is the way the broadcasters cover him as though he were PM-elect, not an
Opposition leader whose words and actions should be covered with at least the
same level of scepticism and inquiry attached to the government.
This is not just about the media. Labour too
needs to do a far better job of getting after him. It is not simply what
happens at PMQs that matters, hugely important though those exchanges are to
setting the strategic lines for the election. He and his colleagues have to
start feeling pressure from every level of the Labour Party. That task would be
easier if MPs with an eye on future leadership elections rather than the
general elections stopped spreading the message that nothing has been achieved,
that the country hasn’t changed, that effectively we have failed. It helps
nobody but Cameron. And it’s not true.
People say they don’t like negative campaigning.
But there are three planks to any campaign – the setting out of a forward
agenda, defence of the record, and attacks on your opponents. All are
essential. All have to be done with verve and vigour. And on all three, Labour
have the makings of a strong position. So as Andrew Rawnsley rightly said at
the weekend, if the media won’t do its job properly (I paraphrase) Labour needs
to do even better at carrying out those tasks. Policy. Defence. Attack.
Journalists, particularly after so-called Labour
spin, like to pride themselves on their refusal to be spun. They are being spun
big style, coverage driven by their view that Cameron has won, and that is the
story. Anything that points in that direction, it is news. If it doesn’t, it’s
not. If he does win, he will do so as the most under examined, under
scrutinised, untested, policy-lite leader in history, aided and abetted by an
army of willing self-spinners, dotted around the papers and the broadcast stations,
who by their indifference to genuine scrutiny help him every day.