Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why do politicians continue to talk to the news media?

Imagine you're an elected pol., and you want to communicate with the proles, tell them what a wonderful job you're doing, apply a little of the old oil with a view to enhancing your electability. What do you do about it?

The problem is, sort of, a logistical one: if you're a British MP for example, you've probably got somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 voters in your constituency. Assume a turn-out of 60% in any given election, that is 30,000 to 60,000 voters you need to be able to communicate with, clearly more than can be spoken to in person or even, in all likelihood, at mass rallies if such were the vogue. If you're a politician with a national portfolio, like a party leader for instance, or even an MEP with a constituency of a half million voters, the problem is compounded.

Until recently, the answer to this problem appeared to be: use the news media, talk to journalists directly and issue press releases widely to any news agency with a distribution network, get them to do your dirty work for you.

There was just one small problem with this. Journalists started, I think probably sometime in the early sixties after satires like That Was The Week That Was, to become less deferential towards politicians, less willing to report them obligingly in their own terms, and readier, it followed, to look behind and between their words for hidden meanings, to analyse, compare and contrast. There developed, as a result, a very uneasy relationship between pols. and hacks. The pols. needed the hacks for the reasons already stated, the hacks needed the pols. as an easy source of news (even when nothing had actually happened, so much as one pol. would, for example, issue a press release attacking an opponent; in such cases there was often no literal exchange of words between the attacker and attackee, just a dispute by proxy carried out over the newswires).

In time, the pols. started to adapt to the changed environment, charming some hacks into compliance (I think it was Stephen Glover at The Spectator who used to call The Guardian's Roy Greenslade 'Roy Campbell Greenslade' because of his suspected proximity to chief Blair spin doctor Alistair Campbell), feeding others stories at the expense of their rivals and freezing out other unfavoured hacks altogether. Not that the hacks took this lying down, their methods evolved, too, as did their sophistication in understanding how they were being used. Even sections of the public developed media savvy, and learned to look behind the heat in a news story to try and understand whether there was any light to be perceived.

That, I think, was the point at which the internet age came in; pols. and hacks co-exisitng in an uneasy dance of dependance, helping each other and, increasingly often, ruining each other.

Well, not quite. By the mid-1990s journalists were routinely ruining politicians, whether through sordid revelations or - as in the cases of Archer and Aitken - court cases. But the shoe was rarely on the other foot. George Galloway, several years back won a libel action against The Daily Telegraph's allegations that he had been on Saddam Hussain's payroll (although I think he won on the rather rarefied grounds that they hadn't given him a chance to comment before printing the allegations), but certainly my unscientific perception is that his win was unusual; it's the news media that usually claims pols.' scalps, not the other way around.

But even if I am wrong about that, why would any elected politician in the age of the internet and digital camera uploads to computers wish to talk to these hacks? You can buy a cheap computer with a built-in camera for a couple of hundred pounds. I assume most pols.' allowances pay for internet connectivity. For a little more they could buy themselves slightly better cameras, with improved picture capability. Then download via myriad web-based sharing sites whatever talking head op-eds. they wish to share with their target audiences. Why would the pols. not do this? Why continue to use the traditional news media, with all its ability to disrupt, distort and filter the pols.' message?

'Dave' Cameron, of course, has used his online 'webcameron' in just the way I am suggesting, but this sort of usage by pols. is still unusual. Why? Given that pols. can, for the first time in history, and for almost no cost set up a telecommunications system that enables them to communicate directly , if they so wish, to the whole of humanity (or at least that sizeable section of it which has internet connectivity - 70% of British households in 2009, according to the ONS), why continue to bother with newspaper and TV journalists?

I can think of several answers to this.

First, an intellectual failure by pols. to perceive that they no longer need journalists in the way that, historically, they did.

Second, the persistence of the niaive belief held by pols. that they can ride the news media tiger without ultimately being consumed by it.

Third, the fact that many pols. are inveterate gossips and like dishing the dirt on colleagues, policies, who's up, who's down, and so on.

Fourth, closely related, vanity: pols. like talking to journos because it makes them think someone is listening to what they are saying. And talking off the record to hacks, that is, unattributably, gives them power without responsibility.

Fifth, fear. And this is the biggy. My guess - and it is no more than that - is that pols. fear that if they plugged themselves and their prognostications into an online forum, let's call it, IvorGestyynogg-BigginMP.blogspot, where voters could log on an see what their eponymous MP thought on a given subject, hardly anybody would pay them any attention. Come to that, what point is there in the citizenry going to the trouble of trooping up to London to watch a debate in parliament, or switching on the telly to the same end, if, were said citizenry sufficiently interested, they could simply log on and find out at their convenience what select politicians were saying. What would be the point in a deliberative, legislative body like parliament?

In other words, if the citizenry is sufficiently interested all it needs do is log on to find out what its respective MPs, MEPs, etc. are saying and doing. As a building, at least, there is little or no need for parliament.

On the other hand, if the citizenry is uninterested, what is the point of the MPs, or at least, what is the point of those currently in place?

The internet is, as is often noted, a remarkable tool for transparency in the market place of human dealings. I daresay that at some point we will, most of us, realise that this applies equally to what politicians think they have to offer us. What then?

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