Saturday, February 03, 2007

# Posted 11:26 AM by Patrick Porter  

THE THINGS THEY SAY: A few recent quotes to illustrate the pulse of politics in a therapeutic age:

Today, reeling from corruption allegations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair

appealed for voters he met during the 1997 election campaign to get in touch with their experiences over the last decade. The prime minister wants people who spoke to him to post their stories on the Labour Party website.
And when announcing that she was running for her party's nomination for President, Hillary Clinton claimed that she also wanted to have a 'conversation' with the American people.

Meanwhile, British Conservative leader David Cameron is inviting the public into his household via podcasts, where we get to hear him talk just over the sound of his screaming baby.

I'm getting a little bored with this continual display of empathy.

The wife of British PM Harold Macmillan (PM 1957-63) put it differently, when she said something like:

'Of course Harold is in touch with the working people. His servants adore him.'

(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

"His servants adore him": if true, that is very high praise. If true.
A classic example of the commodification of modern politics, in which leaders become products to be marketed. Over the last year the British Conservative party has worked very hard to show that David Cameron can change a nappy, while showing no interest whatsoever in the projection of policy. We’ve also been treated to a series of ghastly revelations about Tony Blair's sex life (five times a night, apparently); the spectacle of George Galloway in a leotard; and the stirring revelation that William Hague once drank 14 pints in a single night. And if you’re a French elector wondering whether Nicolas Sarkozy can dance, this may just swing your vote:

Politicians have, of course, been the architects of this change – it is no coincidence that Cameron worked for Carlton Communications. But in one respect they have also been its victims. The media has now almost universally abandoned the traditional distinction between news and comment, with the result that it has become extremely difficult for politicians to communicate directly with their public. It used to be common practice to print transcripts of political speeches; no British newspaper now does so. If a speech is reported at all, it will be analysed as an act of political positioning. A speech by Cameron on climate change might bear the headline, “Cameron seeks to green Tory image as environmentalists abandon Labour”. Interviews also focus routinely on posture and presentation. The fashion for emoting on websites and the pitch for a “big conversation” may be fatuous, but beneath the marketing and the image management lurks an attempt to redress a real problem of modern politics: namely, the layer of frosted glass erected by the MSM between governors and governed.
Me too; I'd rather see them in candid photos doing everyday things. Of course, then, I'm a photographer : )
hi Salient,

some very salient points there.

Also, I think it reflects not just commodification and a desire to get past the barriers placed by the MSM.

I think its also a certain 'vibe' in modern politics about the politician offering psychological comfort through reassurance.

As well as the traditional tools, of speechmaking and policy etc (which as you say have been weakened) there is the method of inviting the voters to interact with them in a comfortable and affirming way.

Its a bit like quite a lot of school education, which seems to be devoted just as much to making people feel good as it is to teaching them things. Everyone's great, everyone's affirmed and valued.

I would personally prefer a politican to get up and announce exactly their vision and their policies and their philosophy of government and tell me to go to hell if I disagreed. But that's just me.
Hi Pat,

I think a lot of people would agree with you in principle: the problem is carrying it out in practice.

Most politicians can only reach the public through the media, which makes it very difficult to speak one's mind without regard to presentation. Look what happened when Jack Straw raised the issue of the veil recently. Though I don't agree with him, I thought he addressed an important subject in a very sensitive way; but trying to access what he had actually said through the media blizzard was almost impossible. His remarks were portrayed as an attack on Islam, packaged with outraged quotes from people who probably didn't know what he'd actually said, and discussed in relation to his chances of securing the deputy leadership of the Labour party. The big issue for the press was not whether he was right - or even allowing us to make that decision for ourselves - but whether Blair agreed with him. If he did, what effect would this have on the muslim vote? If he did not, was this fissure at the heart of government indicative of Blair's declining authority...?

good point.

I guess though, that politicians less substantial than Jack Straw seem often to prefer to package themselves as a 'feelgood' product as a substitute for actually saying anything.

Its hard to work out the chicken and egg causality here - the media clearly are involved in this unhealthy process, but the political class has plenty of people who are happy to exploit it and thereby encourage it.

On the Straw example, it wasn't that difficult to find out what he said. Its just that lots of media outlets, commentators and others have grown incapable of discussing issues of social cohesion, religion, multiculturalism and assimilation without becoming hysterical. But his comments were there to be read.
I think we're only disagreeing around the margins. I've never denied the complicity of politicians in this process - as I said in an earlier post, 'Politicians ... have been the architects of this change'. The professionalisation of politics has made winning elections an end in itself, rather than a means to an end; and for this reason all parties have bought enthusiastically into the idea of politics as a marketable commodity. When even Gordon Brown thinks politics can learn from the X-Factor, it really is head-in-hands time.

I do, however, think that the role of the media in this is underplayed. Political interviewing in Britain has become fixated upon splits, u-turns and other aspects of process. Politics has become an activity to be reported on, not a set of issues to be debated. Any politician who expresses an opinion is likely to find themselves at the centre of a media "storm", accused of breaking the party line, challenging Blair's authority, making a pitch for promotion etc etc. Not surprisingly, politicians are now trained to say nothing at all, and the most adept interviewees are those who can avoid saying anything of note whatsoever. The media must bear some share of the blame for this.

Straw's comments were 'out there' in the sense that anyone with a search-engine and a bit of ingenuity could find them: but you would not find more than the most sketchy extracts in any of the leading broadsheets. The papers see their role as to comment on news, not to report it: and this, I think, is a serious problem.
fair enough. I assign slightly more blame to the politicians, you to the media.

the X-factor? O tempora, o mores...
Post a Comment