To the Canadian High Commission yesterday to chair a very enjoyable Portland seminar on digital diplomacy. One of the panellists was former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, who is now High Commissioner to London.
Amid the social media enthusiasts he brought a few words of warning, not least his view that twitter in particular risked wasting an awful lot of diplomats’ time – especially when they do it badly – but also that the content was too often ‘a triumph for banality.’
He admitted he spent too much time on social media himself, could not understand why anyone would care to see a picture of him ‘hosting an arts reception at Australia House’, and was hilariously, undiplomatically scathing about the tweets of Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General. ‘Met President of Ruritania.’ How about, suggested Downer, ‘met President of Ruritania and told him to pull his socks up and sort the problem.’
Away from the audience of diplomats, think tanks and media, he and I continued the conversation in a different vein – about the media landscape more generally. This is a man who knows Britain and the world well. He was foreign minister of Australia for longer than Tony Blair was PM of the UK. He has been to our country many many times and now lives and works here.
And he was acutely analytical – and even more scathing – about the nature of our political debate. He said – and I suspect many Brits would agree with him – that he cannot understand how issues like bacon sandwiches and kitchens can get so much coverage, yet issues that really need serious debate do not. From hacks to headline writers, columnists to editors, the trivial always seems to win out.
We agreed that most countries have seen a change in the way politics is done, debated and covered. But we also agreed that Britain is out on its own in the way the debate is trivialised. ‘My impression is that you don’t really have big debates here,’ he said. ‘At least not as reflected through the media.’
We agreed on something else – that when people like him have noticed the change, and when a media as loud and voracious as ours fails genuinely to ventilate issues of public concern in a way that holds the public’s attention – it damages us.
And we agreed also that it is always too easy just to blame media and politicians. The public have to accept responsibility too. For not wanting to engage in debate. For finding it easier to say ‘they’re all the same,’ (of course they’re not) ‘nothing ever changes’ (the world is changing faster than ever) or ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ (so how come seats and councils and governments change hands all the time?)
The event as a whole, with experts from the world of social media, comms and diplomacy, was pretty upbeat about social media, if not about how governments use it compared with those who do it well. But it was Downer’s observations that stuck with me through the day and into this morning.
We have had an pre-election campaign so far dominated by TV debates that aren’t happening, Ed’s kitchen and now Dave’s future when the election ought to be about issues facing the country’s future. Oh, and whether Dave’s daughter is or isn’t on hunger strike for Jeremy Clarkson, whose survival appears to be of more interest to petition signers than the survival, say, of the NHS, or Britain’s place in Europe.
It is a bit of a mess frankly. And if it goes on in the same fashion much longer, the message from thinking people like Downer is that we risk becoming something of a national joke.
Politics, media and public all have to accept some of the responsibility for how we got here (as I do – briefly admittedly, in WINNERS, lamenting some of the popular media moves we made) But we all also have to take some responsibility for how we get out of it. The public get something close to the media they want. And that is helping to deliver politics they don’t want.