An interesting little passage in Polly Toynbee’s column in The Guardian this morning, as she described the post-Ed speech process in the press room at Liverpool.
“‘Lurching to the left’ and ‘Red Ed’ were the inevitable responses of the mostly rightwing press convening in an instant huddle after the speech. If you want to see the herd mentality in action, stand there and watch them gather to agree this is a plunge back to Labour’s dark days or some such nonsense. Murdoch may be maimed, but don’t imagine any weakening grip by Britain’s 80% rightwing press whose gale force influences the prevailing wind among the broadcasters too.”
It is this final point that always used to annoy and trouble me most when I was at the sharp end of the relations between politics and media. Technological change has given the broadcasters an infinitely superior position to newspapers, in that they have the ‘monopoly on now,’ not a bad position to occupy in the news industry.
Yet they continue to have the tone and agenda of their coverage set largely by newspapers who in the main have a political agenda every bit as sharp as the main political parties. It is why I have always maintained the real spin doctors are owners, editors and journalists. All week we’ve been hearing broadcast journalists saying Ed Miliband is ‘failing to make an impression on the public.’ That statement may or may not be true. Polls point in different directions. But how many ‘members of the public’ have those covering the conference actually met inside the political bubble that conferences become. The main source for it, when you boil everything down, is the commentariat. So journalists tell each other Ed Miliband is not making an impression on THEM, and this somehow transmutes itself into ‘public opinion.’
The bad news is the distorted picture it gives of Britain and the major events which take place here. The good news is that the public are much more aware of media spin than they used to be, and so discount it more than they used to.
Ed Miliband is in one of those jobs where people see enough of you to make up their minds over time. It’s why, as I said yesterday, it is right that he follows his own instincts, and tries to ignore a lot of the noise around him, not to mention all the trivial stuff that accompanies the assessment of a top flight political figure – voice, hair, mouth, blahdiblah, (see Jonathan Freedland a few pages after Polly Toynbee’s piece.)
He is right that the public focus on these things sometimes to the exclusion of serious politics (hardly surprising given the media focus on the froth and the trivia). But they’re not daft. The most important thing in Ed’s speech yesterday was not his suit, his tie, his smile, his wife, his wave, his delivery, but the argument he made.
Arguments are won and lost in politics over time. He will have plenty of opportunities for it to be heard. And for what it’s worth. having seen many examples of the political lobby herd mentality at work, sometimes the instant judgement is right. More often than not, it’s wrong.
Having 80% of the press ranged against you is not the easiest place to be. But it is not the end of the world. And Ed seems to have a calm about him that means he can face it down, and just keep on keeping on with his argument.