The importance of detail, government and opposition

A friend pointed out the other day that Tony Blair’s mandate comes from about 1/5 of the voting population in the UK. I can’t say how accurate it is, but it underlines the point that politics is not the popular game it once was. And it’s not a peculiarly British or Irish disease either. John Lloyd quotes a Swedish political expert: …membership in all Swedish political parties was about 1.4 million – some 15 per cent of the population of the country. “Everyone,” he said, “knew a party activist.” Now, he said, membership was not much over 200,000, and a large number of these were party professionals. A picture that should resonate amongst our our readership.He continues:

Political parties as mass organisations won’t be back. It’s not nostalgic to think that something has been lost; and it’s not utopian to think that something new can be found to make politics matter, and be vivid to a broad range of people again (or even for the first time). For this to happen, both government and the media need to undergo a dramatic change in direction.

But this is where it moves away from the relatively powerless local politics of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it’s even more pointed with a civil service that operates with little democratic oversight. When our politicians finally do get back the keys of ministerial keys of office they will need:

Holding power(s) to account is essential: but people have to know what the politicians are accounting for. In considerable part, the media are to blame for preferring heat to light: prefering rows and downgrading their policy, as against personal, content. But governments rule, and they bear responsibility for not ruling comprehensibly.

Governments work through small leadership groups of diverse politicians, through huge bureaucracies, and to legal standards. These facts mean the most important debate is closed off; that measures grind out in mysterious ways, and usually in impenetrable prose. Sir Christopher Foster, the economist and adviser to successive UK governments, told a recent seminar in London that “We’ve got better advice than we’ve ever had as input to government: the problem is that the output is often unintelligible – to the cabinet, to MPs and to the people.” [my italics]

He then goes on to cite an instance of a 1,738-page study on the Euro that was given to cabinet ministers were “given a weekend to read, and parliament six and a half hours to skim before a debate on the vital issue of joining the euro”. But, he insists, it’s not good enough that proper informed debate should only be carried on inside parliament:

The critical debates will remain those in the cabinet, and in parliament, but these must be supplemented by a third arena, an informed public. The political debates should be underpinned by the widest and most active distribution of the whys and hows of the measures proposed to become law: using every means of communication, from local papers to the internet; above all, television.

That’s where the media come in. To be the supporters of democracy we claim we are, we should become the carriers, and explainers, of what governments do. We also have to be the carriers, and explainers, of what oppositions say is wrong with that, and what they propose. That isn’t done with three lines and a sound bite; or with an op-ed article. It’s done with the kind of resources of skill, time and technology that politicians muster to be elected and the media disburse to get audiences. Both now have to co-operate to support democratic politics.

In the Republic at least, the wilful ignoring of oppositional critique is probably one of the most common of the media’s sins of ommission. Lloyd’s analysis differs from some of the mainstream Irish criticism in that it calls for a closer working relationship between media and politicians rather than advocating greater distance. If this smacks of collusion between media and politicians, he ends with this simple observation:

This isn’t the media becoming government, or losing independence. It’s recognising that politics and news media sink or swim together. If they’re swimming, they can have a contest, wave their hands in the air, and get some debate going. Otherwise, they – we – are not waving, but drowning.

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  • D’Oracle

    Mick,
    The connective tissue of party activists between Ministers and voters seems to be receding in western countries generally. Seeking and holding power seems to be based ever more on polling, marketing, TV adverts and mutually beneficial Minister-journo axes

    Raises all manner of serious issues and consequences.

  • Keith M

    A lack of interest in politics is down to the big arguements of previous generations being resolved. Fascism and socialism have been forced to the margins and nowadays there is little to choose between the major parties and coalition options. The environmental issue inspiures few and the issue of the nation state vs a Federal Europe is still to come.

  • Kat_D

    It shouldn’t be downplayed that the creeping influence of large multinational corporations dangling economic carrots. It seems the only way to get any politician’s attention is to have gobs of cash to inject into his or her district.

    Why on God’s green earth would the general populace be under the impression that their interests matter in this sort of environment?

  • Mick Fealty

    Keith,

    That’s a kind of consensus that exists right across the board in the Republic – who’s political parties have never been particularly distinguished by the left-right ideological markings found in other parts of Europe. But that consensus is challenged by some who suggest that the current establishment have ingested the centre left cultural norms of the sixties and, more damagingly, have ceased to ask pertinent questions about the current operation of hard politics.

    Flip treatment of oppositional critiques is a particularly damaging aspect to this lazy consensus and sustains the myth that there is no substance to modern politics. One former Labour politician told me of a conversation he had had with a with journalist at RTE who told him he was not interested in hearing from any politicians who were not in a position to carry decisions in the Oireachtas.

    I’m not arguing that people should not listen to the government. But if you had the chance to follow the debate in Westminster on the restoration of Sinn Fein’s allowances this pm, it was the detail of the opposition contributions that contained the most enlightening substance – even if the government carried the motion by 100 votes.

    As Lloyd says above, there is a complicity in this sinking of politics between politicians and media that, in the long term, will work to the detriment of both. The ‘big lie’ is that the process is both inevitable and irreversible.

  • Pete Baker

    Could John Lloyd’s argument be expressed as – “Time for the medium to stop being the message”?

    As laudable as that undoubtably is, I think it may be wishful thinking.. rather than act merely as a conduit between politicians and the public – which arguably they never did – journalists should, instead, critique more of what they are told.. anonymous sources and all.. digest and analyse the narrative as presented.. and give a verdict – for balance that should be from both government and opposition parties.

  • Crataegus

    Pete

    “Journalists should, instead, critique more of what they are told.”

    I agree, they could also try a little harder to widen their pool of contacts and give coverage for views that are not currently main stream. Might make life more interesting and widen debate. We are constantly pedalled the idea that there is a centre consensus on many issues such as economics but is there?

    The inter relationships between the press, business, unions, lobby groups and politicians tend to render the individual peripheral and create the impression that politicians are in the pocket of whatever group or are more interested in the needs of these groups. So little wonder interest has plummeted.

    When politics follows opinion polls and focus groups it has ceased to lead.

  • Pete Baker

    Crataegus

    I don’t, in general, disagree with your point, but disparaging contacts, which I take to mean unattributable sources, is to attack the wrong end of the stream of information.

    It’s not the fact that those sources demand that they are unacknowlegded that’s the problem.. rather that their information, such as it is, is presented, all too often, as fact – In the context of irish politics, it’s an all too ready conduit for a party political narrative.

  • Yoda

    But that consensus is challenged by some who suggest that the current establishment have ingested the centre left cultural norms of the sixties and, more damagingly, have ceased to ask pertinent questions about the current operation of hard politics.

    That sounds interesting, but I’m not exactly sure what you mean here, Mick. Could you elaborate?

    I suppose I’m asking what’s wrong with ingesting “centre-left cultural norms”? And what exactly constitutes the “current operation of hard politics”? What is “hard politics”?

  • Crataegus

    Pete

    “rather that their information, such as it is, is presented, all too often, as fact – In the context of irish politics, it’s an all too ready conduit for a party political narrative.”

    Indeed.

  • Dualta

    The current trend within political parties in the UK and Ireland seems to be greater centralisation of powers around the leadership.

    Sinn Fein in the north west, and maybe across the board, say they are decentralising to some degree, but they are a very centralised party, much more than any of the others it seems.

    I once spoke to someone in the SDLP who asserted that the job of the party hack to provide support to, and follow the lead of, the elected representatives.

    I made the point that in a democratic party, it should be the elected representatives who should be following the wishes of the party as a whole, which are contained in the party’s policies, which are formulated by the party membership at an annual party conference.

    She disagreed. She said that the modern political arena demanded that party leaderships needed to formulate policies, electoral strategies and decide who gets selected to stand. “Coordination from the top is the key”, she said.

    This may be one strategy for achieving electoral victory, but as we have seen here, with extraordinary clarity, is that electoral success does not mean that a party has achieved, or will be able to achieve any of its policy objectives.

    Ordinary party members are being stripped of their ability to participate democratically in parties. If party members were able to formulate policy ideas again, and present them to their branches, and then at conference as a motion, to be debated and dumped or adopted, then party membership might become meaningful once again.

  • Mick Fealty

    Yoda:

    The problem with unquestioned “centre-left cultural norms” is existential as much as it is political. It doesn’t account for the fact that much of the population operate beyond those norms. But it’s the unquestioning aspect that I’ve suggested is most damaging to journalism.

    I’m not thinking about NI when I say ‘hard politics’. I’m thinking of the like of Harney’s taxing brief to pull the Republic’s Health Service blinking into the light of the 21st Century, or measuring the effectiveness of UK Labour’s massive public spending on education and health.

    Pete:

    I don’t disagree with your call for good analysis, especially if you’re making a distinction from comment. But there is a problem little talked about within journalism, and that is the tendency for editors and journalists to know what the story is before they actually write.

    Now before people pile in on their favourite NI bete noir, it applies to all western journalism. Two instances:

    – one Saturday, the Media Centre at an international conference in Nigeria, the man from the Mail on Sunday comes round asking whether anyone has seen anyone from the Namibian delegation, as one of them has, he heard, said something nasty about Tony Blair. This he tells us is his story for tomorrow.

    – the Earth Summit Jo’burg 2002, and my colleague bumps into the environment correspondent for a large UK liberal newspaper, who doesn’t go to any of the press breifings on policy detail, just the big PM set pieces, because “the whole thing is a waste of time”. He already has his story and is not going disrupted that with boring detail.

    Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that this tags the work of all journalists (how would we run Slugger without good work from that quarter). But we need a higher degree of openess that will permit new narratives to emerge and let journalists follow the stories they actually find happening on the ground.

  • Crataegus

    Mick

    “the tendency for editors and journalists to know what the story is before they actually write.”

    We have all come across this and it is a tendency that feeds upon itself. We know the story, we know who to ask for comment and little effort to widen the perspective. It gets printed and reinforces the original position. It does no one service.

  • Nestor Makhno

    It’s not an original thought but hasn’t much of this failure of journalism the result of the market?

    TV journalism has responded to the fast cut, high pace style of the post-MTV generation – to the extent that even satirical versions of TV news (think Chris Morris’s Brass Eye) are starting to look slow when you watch repeats of them now – the trend continues to accelerate.

    Of course, such a format leaves little time for analysis or discussion about anything that cannot be visualised. Just imagine how difficult it is for a TV journo trying to do a 45 second piece on (say) the European constitution!

    Print journalism has a different set of problems. Competition between the papers is more fierce than ever before and profit is much harder to come. So we end up with newspapers cutting their editorial staff to a bare minimum while tending towards items that have the most mass market and advertising appeal. Again, you end up with over-worked journos with ten minutes to turn over some PA copy and a press release from some government department and bash out 300 words.

    I don’t think there’s any conspiracy here – just a sad odd-out working of market forces.

  • Pete Baker

    Mick

    I think there is room for good analysis and good comment, as long as they are clearly separated.

    As for knowing the story in advance.. your examples describe it well.. but, and it’s something I’ve mentioned here before, the other potentially more damaging aspect of that problem is when the story known in advance is a continuation of a narrative that a political party or government wants to promote.

    It ties in to the other problem.. that of journalists [over-generalising here probably] wanting to write [fictional] narratives rather than reports. In other words, attempting to pre-empt the story rather than reporting just where the story is at that point.

  • aquifer

    And what a crowded and consumptive market it is.

    The sheer volume and televisual speed of advertising and media messages makes coherence problematic. When the whole media is savvy about what grabs attention, often flesh horror or scandal, it is difficult enough to get attention for a story without trying to provide detail.

    Maybe we should first acknowledge a fiction, that freedom of the press requires tax free newsprint.

    What this has got us is an avalanche of superfluous advertising and smut.

    And secondly we could admit that most news does not matter in the end, and create accessible historic archives of the stuff that does.

    The current system of paying for paper periodicals where the content is essentially editorially rationed and then scattered, could probably be improved at lot.

  • Keith M

    Mick, I’m not arguing with the substance of your point, but I’m afraid that both of us come from a generation when politics actually mattered. When half your school leavers have to emigrate to find work, when there is real poverty and children go to bed at night hungry, when people are paying over 40% of the money they earn to the taxman, then politics is something that interests everyone.

    However with full employment, no absolute poverty and realistic tax rates then people find other things to interest them. These interests may be self serving and vaccuous to our generation (I sometimes do a inner scream at the amount of time people spend talking about their mobile phones, reality TV shows etc) but like it or not this is what obsesses many people today.

    The minutiae of a parlimentary debate on funding SDF/IRA may be of interest to us, but it does not interest 99%+ of the population. It won’t take their jobs away (at least in the short term), it won’t mean that their children go to bed hungry and it won’t mean that their taxes are raised so they won’t be able to afford a new mobile phone every six months.

    For interest in politics to rise, something has to happen that really impacts people’s lifestyles and not for the first time I say “be careful what you wish for”.

  • Crataegus

    Who decides what is news and how much weight to give to a story? If we compare the coverage of hurricane Katrina with say the Pakistan earth quake or the problems along the Congo it is clear that our coverage is decidedly stilted and thus sadly our perception of the world.

    When it comes to politics the same applies we cover the main contenders and that reinforces their position.

    One interesting aside is the advertising plant that masquerades as news. “Big T is to cut prices to stave of expected downturns in sales”. It never ceases to amaze me that the likes of the BBC cover such blatant brand promotion.

  • Keith,

    Interesting point about context. And I’m sure that’s right. But there’s an air of pessimism within some Irish journalism that stems from ideological conviction rather that any loss in the capacity of journalism to tell compelling and authoritative stories relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

    Where I disagree with you is in your assertion that minutiae is irrelevant to big issue politics. On the contrary it is the inadvertency of journalism to such minutiae that allows the unintended consequences of tomorrow to arise.

    How come for instance that the serially busted budget for the Luas only becomes a controversy on the day the project opens in Dublin?

    It’s a journalist’s job to investigate the minutiae, and make the implications of policy decisions more coherent, both to the general public, and in a positive feedback sense, more comprehensible to the law makers (house and executive) themselves.

  • lah dee dah

    Doesn’t a media thread get you all going?

  • Keith M

    Mick (on my previous post) “Where I disagree with you is in your assertion that minutiae is irrelevant to big issue politics.”

    That’s not my position. What I’m saying is that the minutiae (no matter how well reported) are not the kind of thing that interests 99% of the public. Look at almost any story that’s been covered in the media over the past few years. How familiar are most people with (for example) the chain of command in New Orleans at the time of the flood? On the other hand ask them who won the lat “Big Brother” and most people will have the answer.

    Of course I consider it repulsive that one week a neutral international group says that SF/IRA, and just a week later the UK government decides to give them hundreds of thosands of pounds taxpayers money.

  • Yoda

    Mick, thanks for the reply.

    The problem with unquestioned “centre-left cultural norms” is existential as much as it is political. It doesn’t account for the fact that much of the population operate beyond those norms. But it’s the unquestioning aspect that I’ve suggested is most damaging to journalism.

    Have you a source that would breakdown what constitutes those norms are and in what way the population operates outside them? I’d like to check it out.

    A few thoughts:

    Not all alternatives are of equal merit.

    The remit of the new, questioning journalism involve a criticism of those centre-left norms, which would necessarily politicise it from the get go.

    Your two examples of hard politics both relate to healthcare spending, which for me is one of the most iconic structures of centre-leftism: universal healthcare. In that case, are you saying that the new, questioning journalism should be giving more play, for example, to the argument that privatisation is the cure for all healthcare’s ills?

    I suppose in the hands of an informed and responsible journalist-columnist, such a critique may have its place, but in the hands of a colleague-pundit of a more yellowish hue…

    To come back to the original topic: Speaking personally, I’d probably only be comfortable with policy critiques born of the much higher research standards found for example in academia.

    The real problem, as the original blog points out, is how “the media” talks to those experts. But I’m just not sure how compatible the two forms of writing (media) are.

    The ideal would seem to be the movement of journalists to the academic-expert side of the equation. It seems to me that a move in journalism for-profit could only be be brought about by a shift in reader expectation.

    But again, I don’t see how the for-profit high-turnover demands of journalism is reconcilable with laborious, peer-reviewed research. Problems of reader expectation, format, layout, space, type-size, etc, etc, all multiply the complexity.

  • aquifer

    In the context of 245 million or somesuch of fuel smuggling and a few hundred million from fags, extortion, sex trafficking, drugs etc parliamentary allowances are very small change.

    Democracy may be disconcerting at times but ask the bosnians about the ethnic robber baron alternative.