Whatever your sympathies are (or aren’t) for UK Labour, Tuesday’s Abbott interview on LBC was a particularly hideous event. This gladiatorial pit style of journalism is one reason why Mrs May (because she can) has ruled out meaningful engagement (aka, questions) with the press.
There has, as John Lloyd put it in his seminal assay of the relations between the British press and the UK’s politicians What the media is doing to our politics, been “an evident struggle for power between media and government, that over people’s hearts and minds”.
He goes on to say that “context is a choice”, so that “the same incident can be transformed through rearranging the context”. So, for a minute, let’s shift focus to a broader and more usefully benign view of the context of this incident from Chris Dillow:
How great was Ms Abbott’s mistake? Errors are ubiquitous in politics and inevitable. And by those standards, Ms Abbott’s incoherence barely registers. Boris Johnson wasted £37m of taxpayers’ money on a non-existent bridge; the last government wasted over £1bn on the cancer drugs fund; George Osborne cost the economy tens of billions in needless austerity; David Cameron called a needless referendum in the mistaken belief he could win it; Tony Blair took us to war on the basis of errors of judgment which should have been widely known. And so on and on.
All those errors were due to persistent and corrigble mistakes, rather than to heat of the moment confusion. And all had effects which were orders of magnitude worse than Ms Abbott’s.
That’s not to dampen the reverberative effects of the original sin. Ms Abbott will have had a prompt sheet with her. As Shadow Home Secretary, she should have known. But the senior point here is cultural, not political (party, or otherwise):
The same professional and amateur pundits who are getting hysterical about a “car crash interview” (these people love their clichés) also regard Johnson, Blair and Osborne as “credible” despite making much more expensive mistakes, without the excuse of momentary lapses.
What pundits want from politicians is slickness and confidence, and just don’t care that this might well be a front for grotesque incompetence.
In failing to provide this, Ms Abbott committed a solecism as grave as that of the man who wears brown shoes in the City or who tries to get into a gentleman’s club without wearing a tie – something which is utterly unforgivable.
But which leaves the rest of us with a polis whose depth of inquiry barely reaches the ankles.
In his final chapter, he highlighted a lack of expertise within the media giving rise, in turn, to a complaisance which fears letting the tap run interviews and not “making public figures feel obliged to talk through their projects and proposals in depth and with evidence”.
Chris Dillow again:
What pundits want from politicians is slickness and confidence, and just don’t care that this might well be a front for grotesque incompetence. In failing to provide this, Ms Abbott committed a solecism as grave as that of the man who wears brown shoes in the City or who tries to get into a gentleman’s club without wearing a tie – something which is utterly unforgivable.
If you need proof that this war of mannerliness provides increasingly arid ground for political discourse, behold the Twitter troll who many honest Americans have convinced themselves is the Primus Inter Pares.
William Davies offers this rather chilling observation on how the wider world of knowledge, judgement and choice (aka, politics) is quietly being re-engineered beneath our digital feet:
It is possible to live in a world of data but no facts. Think of how we employ weather forecasts: We understand that it is not a fact that it will be 75 degrees on Thursday, and that figure will fluctuate all the time.
Weather forecasting works in a similar way to sentiment analysis, bringing data from a wide range of sensory devices, and converting this into a constantly evolving narrative about the near future.
However, this produces some chilling possibilities for politics.
Once numbers are viewed more as indicators of current sentiment, rather than as statements about reality, how are we to achieve any consensus on the nature of social, economic and environmental problems, never mind agree on the solutions?
Conspiracy theories prosper under such conditions. And while we will have far greater means of knowing how many people believe those theories, we will have far fewer means of persuading them to abandon them. [Emphasis added]
In other words, knowledge now flows in conversations more than sits in stocks or silos of facts. Fluffing your ill-practised lines in an ill-tempered, intolerant, hectoring interview may soon become the least of our politicians’ problems…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty