Sorry, But The Media Really Are To Blame
September 19, 2015
by Martin Odoni
Media people often get hot-under-the-collar when they are blamed for what goes wrong in other walks of life, and in all fairness to them, in many cases, they are correct to take umbrage. In the sporting world in particular, when a team or player is off-form and the coach is asked uncomfortable questions about it, the questioner is liable to be given a nasty rebuke for asking. “You media types, you make such a fuss about so little!”
That accusation is sort of true as well though, and we have seen a lot of that this week. Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of the Labour Party for precisely seven days now, at the time of writing, and during that time he has been on the receiving end of attack after attack in the media, be it over the way he dresses, his refusal to sing along with the National Anthem, his decision ‘only’ to appoint more than half the positions in his Shadow Cabinet to women, or his decision not to attend the opening match of the Rugby World Cup.
My personal response to the, clearly-manufactured, outrage expressed in the media over these largely trivial details has been, “Oh will you people please grow up?” But of course the media will not grow up, and so they are throwing tantrums when they see things are not going their way. They do not like socialism, by and large, and so when they see a socialist doing well, they have to invent reasons for other people to get angry with him. In the cold light of day, Corbyn has done nothing notably wrong all week – certainly nothing that merits one-tenth of the controversy that should be raging over David Cameron violating an Election pledge – and it is clear that all of the controversies surrounding him are entirely artificial. And yet even supposedly ‘reasonable’ assessments are making Corbyn’s start as leader sound hapless and blunder-riddled.
Tantrums have been the general tendency of the media, especially the right-wing tabloids, for at least a hundred years, and they have sad consequences that go far beyond Jeremy Corbyn.
Now it has been commented on this week, including by Corbyn himself, that there was a time in the distant past when David Cameron had argued for an end to what he called ‘Punch-‘N’-Judy’ politics in Parliament. Once Cameron was a regular at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he seemed to lose interest in that reformist idea rather rapidly. However, Corbyn, very conscious of how nauseated many in the public are by the stagy artificiality of debates in Parliament, decided for his first appearance at PMQ’s as Opposition Leader to attempt a fundamental change-of-approach. Instead of following the usual formula of theatrical outrage and verbal laying-of-traps, which has not fooled any member of the human race in decades, Corbyn decided to, as it were, throw the despatch box open to the public, by asking them to submit questions to him that they would like put to the Prime Minister. This they did in their many thousands, and he chose six of them to ask.
It was a simple, ingenious, and yet on reflection rather obvious move to make, and one that previous Opposition Leaders would surely have attempted had they truly wanted to end the alien theatrics of Parliamentary debate. Not only does it discourage the childish tendency of Prime Ministers to mock and belittle questions, if they know the questions are asked by the electorate, thus pushing against the theatrics, but it is also morally sound. The purpose of PMQ’s is to hold the Government to account, and in a democracy, it is the people to whom the account is due. This is something that has arguably never happened properly until this week.
Most independent observers, as best as I can tell, seemed rather to enjoy the different tone and more mature atmosphere of PMQ’s this week, at least in the exchanges between Cameron and Corbyn. But the reaction from the so-called ‘professional’ political correspondents seems more mixed. Quentin Letts at The Daily Mail, for instance, called the whole session, “gutless, bloodless, bland and beige“. Ben Riley-Smith at The Telegraph moaned that “the lack of intonation in [Corbyn’s] delivery during PMQs lacked the obvious full stops that act as a hint to the Labour benches to roar in approval.”
What remarks like these underline is a fundamental and never-questioned failing in the British media. Both Letts and Riley-Smith are showing a closed-mindedness that reflects the reason why they are regular political commentators in the first place. It is a failing that works against any attempt to reform the way the Houses Of Parliament conduct their business, while also reducing political commentary to the superficial bitching and belly-aching of football supporters whose favourite team just does not play in an exciting-enough style.
This problem is sort of a parallel of the old saying that people who want to govern are liable to be, ipso facto, the people least-suited to do it. (Most of our recent Prime Ministers have been evidence of that.)
Our media show that, equally, people who want to comment professionally on Government are liable to be, ipso facto, the people least-suited to do it.
Most media people, while paying mechanical lip-service to the almost-universal view that Commons debates are silly, immature and stagy, do in reality love watching them. Do not ask me why, but the theatrics, the snide remarks, the tedious evasions of plain facts, and the tiresome pomp-and-ceremony language-of-discourse all really appeal to them. They would have to, because otherwise the glaring artificiality, the boyish, macho bullying, the posturing and pretend mocking laughter would be so off-putting that they would never have wanted a career reporting on politics.
That inexplicable fascination with Parliament’s counter-productive procedures is what draws many media people into political reporting, while also making them resistant to the idea of seeing it change – even when there appears to be a desire among the wider population for reform, or at least a majority alienation from it.
Letts’ remarks in particular betray this failing. While he makes out that the proceedings were less effective at holding the Prime Minister to account, he fails to demonstrate exactly how Cameron has been made to answer more by the standard confrontational style. “Gutless, bloodless, bland” sounds very much like a complaint about a shortage of entertainment rather than a shortage of substance. “His backbenchers had nothing to cheer,” Letts complains, which makes the backbenchers sound like the crowd on the terraces of a football stadium, becalmed by a shortage of scoring chances during a match. But PMQ’s is not a game, and Letts is showing a narrowness of outlook by insisting it should have the same type of atmosphere. (For what it is worth, I thought Cameron looked decidedly uncomfortable at various points during the session, because he knew he was unable to insult the questions asked without insulting members of the public, and when insulting the question is not an option, he often lacks an alternative.)
Riley-Smith commented similarly about the lack of cheering opportunities, but again, that shows that he is missing the point. He is demanding that Corbyn choreograph and synchronise everything, up to and including pre-arranged cheering. By appealing for this, Riley-Smith is saying he knows better than the people around the country to whom Corbyn has been speaking. They do not want that sort of set-piece, pretend fervour. They do not want to hear opposing benches of MPs hurling cries of “Hear! Hear!” or “Shame!” at each other. Instead, they want debates to be framed around the issues they wish to see discussed, and above all, they want them discussed in language that everyone will find accessible. The contradictory mixture of yobbish bleating from backbenchers, and questions-and-answers directed in starchly-formal tones, makes a very jarring, confusing, and even alien experience to a lot of people, and gives the impression that the whole process is an exercise in avoiding real discussion.
Is it any wonder that much of the public has become so estranged from politics? It is not, I am convinced, because people are complacent, it is because the process of discussion is so obsolete, so hard-to-follow, and so cold and unfriendly. At best, people find it tedious, at worst they find it hooligan-like. Either way, proceedings will seem irrelevant, and with so much done over the last thirty-five years to limit and ineffectualise political activism, it leaves an awful lot of people feeling that there is nothing in politics for them. So they ignore it.
But Letts and Riley-Smith do not care about that. They want a show, and as the theatres of the West End are clearly too expensive for them, Westminster will have to do instead.
So Corbyn’s efforts to change the tone and approach from a ‘Punch-‘N’-Judy’ Show towards a civil and accessible debate are demeaned as somehow ‘neutering democracy’ – Letts’ own words. This accusation is an incredible reversal of the facts, for it was the first PMQ’s in a very long time in which the explicit concerns of the voters were put first. If that is ‘neutering democracy’, what have decades of Opposition Leaders failing to consult the public done?
With the general chorus from the mainstream media being at certain points hostile, any attempt to persist with and develop the new approach is being discouraged. If Corbyn gives in to that, the questions people want him to ask will be overlooked, the process will become a theatrical chorus of bleating noises again, the public will remain alienated, and democracy really will be neutered.
But then this is why reform of Parliamentary conduct never seems to start; because political reporters in the media will not be getting their way again if the process changes, and so they throw tantrums. To rid ourselves of that, we need a new generation of political reporters who do not want to watch the childish posturing, but the Catch-22 obstacle is that it will be difficult to get them interested in a career reporting from Westminster in the first place unless they do enjoy it.
I am truly sorry that they do not like it when this is said, but it remains true; the media really are to blame for why political discourse in this country refuses to grow up. It is because the media themselves refuse to grow up, and because they want our politicians to operate on a similar level.