The Cheltenham Literature Festival seems to get bigger every year. It is possible to see the growth of literary festivals as part of the celebrity culture – so there I was, darling, chatting to Salman Rushdie in the green room, when who should walk in but Alistair Darling and Andrew Marr, then Jilly Cooper rushed over to tell me (and later the world) how sexy I was. Mwah mwah.
But I think in fact they are something of an antidote to the celeb culture, or at least the bit that has turned journos into minor stars and made news as much as about its purveyors as its makers.
Both James Harding, the Times editor chairing a debate on Barack Obama, and my fellow panellist, Justin Webb of the BBC, are senior journalists doubtless proud of their profession and the good it can do for the world. Yet both agreed that one of the reasons that over a thousand people paid good money to hear us talk about Obama for well over an hour was because they did not feel the modern media really allowed them to explore and debate issues in depth. The internet and 24 hour news have combined to shrink the attention span not of the news recipient so much as of the broadcaster who has constantly to be moving on to the next thing.
I pretty much stuck up for Obama, and both the panel – Justin, Bonnie Greer, historian Peter Hennessy and I – and the audience came back regularly to the impact the media was having on making government a much more difficult task.
Whatever emphasis I may have placed on the need for media management in the past, I am strongly of the view that politicians now pay far too much attention to the demands and pressures of the media, and that they have far more power to set and influence the agenda than sometimes they realise. My sense of Obama is that he is beginning to adapt his modus operandi and realise the day to day matters less than the strategic and that once you get that insight dominant in your organisation, you can advance on many more fronts than first your realised.
It would have been well nigh impossible to meet the expectations for his Presidency around the world. But both domestically and internationally, he has done a lot of good in the face of a ferociously partisan radicalised right wing, helped along by the Fox News wing of the Murdoch Empire.
Someone said that if TV presenters Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart ran for office, they would have a chance of winning. I disagreed. Beck (who I dislike) and Stewart (who I like) would find the public’s attitudes and rules of engagement towards them changing if they went from TV voice to political wannabee.
Obama may not be as strong as he would like and the upcoming mid-terms may weaken him further. But he is doing ok, and with the Republican Party in a mess both despite and because of the success of the Tea Party Movement, I reckon he is well set for a second term. But what he does will matter far far more than anything anyone says about it, no matter how loudly.
Finally I must say a word about Harlem, one of the students I am teaching as part of an experiment to see if youngsters allegedly failed ‘by the system’ can be turned onto learning by motivated and supposedly inspiring people.
I got her to speak to the first of my two events, a session on my diaries in a packed town hall, chaired by Libby Purves and her very dry sense of humour. Harlem said afterwards that her heart was pounding, and that making a point to a thousand or so people was one of the scariest things she had ever done. But my God she made her point, warning the good people of Cheltenham that if the government went ahead with all the benefits cuts being threatened, there would be war on the streets on Britain. Talk about puncturing middle-aged, middle-class literary festival gentility. Someone shouted out ‘get a job’. But at the book-signing, several people made a point of saying it was about time we listened to young people, instead of talking down to them, and assuming we know what is best for them.
I just felt rather pleased that in a matter of a couple of weeks she had gone from the standard teenage view of politics as ‘boring’ to realising that standing up in front of all-comers and saying what you think can actually be as exciting as a lot of other stuff teenagers get up to.