As David Miliband was preparing to make his announcement today, I was being interviewed by ITN’s Mary Nightingale at a conference in Prague.
It was a business audience and she was asking me about how I thought governments around the world would deal with the fall-out from the global economic crisis, in terms of the balance between spending cuts and tax rises.
I blathered away in a hopefully moderately well informed and convincing way. But the loudest applause came when I said that a lot of these arguments were complicated, required real explanation, and that the modern media had just about given up on giving space or debate to anything that went beyond the superficial or the personalities behind decisions being made.
Mary protested that there was not enough time or space to explain really complicated subjects. But there is more media time and space than ever. It is just that the media has lost the will to explain properly, and has settled into a belief that the public cannot cope with complicated issues and can only see the personalities. It is absolute nonsense. But amid all the obvious stuff, it is surely one more factor in David’s decision to bow out of the frontline.
In the piece I have done for the Guardian (sorry, I’m typing this while waiting for a plane at Prague airport and can’t seem to put a link in here – go to Guardian online if you want to read it) [link now added – Ed] I point out that what used to be an irritant – the soap opera coverage – has now become a modern curse. And it is not just a tabloid curse, but affects the broadsheets and broadcasters almost as badly. Indeed, the tabloidisation of TV news has been the single worst factor in the development of the modern media.
As I came off the stage, one of the backstage team came up to me and said he agreed, that the public wanted better and deeper debate than we were given, but then asked ‘what do we do?’ I’m not sure I have the answers. But unless the media faces up to the corrosive impact it continues to have on politics, it won’t just be good people leaving the frontline to leave proper space for a sibling, but good people who look at how politics is covered and just can’t be arsed with the thought of going into it at all. And then the commentators can all sit around saying how low the quality of the modern politician has become. Blahdiblahdiblah.
I am not saying David left the frontbench because of the media. He left for the reasons set out in his letter of explanation. But the soap-operization of politics is the context, and it is a deeply unhealthy one.