Politicians emerge stainless

Alastair Campbell tried to blame 24-hour news services for the public’s cynicism about politics

Despite his pugnacious brand image, Alastair Campbell is immensely charming: he is unexpectedly droll and occasionally self-deprecating. He was the prize draw at last week’s admirable Marketing Society Conference, and after a bravura performance he had the 400 or so delegates eating out of his hand.

Deftly working the audience, he began by apologising for his bad cold. He now spends so much time with his children, he sniffled, that he catches their school illnesses. He never used to. When he was Tony Blair’s weapon of media destruction his children used to ask him when they would next see him. Now they ask him when he’s going to get out of bed. Nice. He told some more good anecdotes. The delegates lapped it up.

Then he launched his attack on the media. Britain today, he said, is a pretty wonderful place. There is high employment, low inflation, strong economic growth, more being spent on the public services, falling crime, and we punch well above our weight in the world. None of these formidable political achievements is reflected in the media. The media expresses contempt for almost everything to do with British politics and politicians. The media turns every complex political question into a simplistic yes/no or right/wrong issue, trivialising political debate.

In its first term in office, he claimed, New Labour did everything it promised in its manifesto, yet the media has continuously implied it welched on its pledges. (Funny then that Blair himself, when he won again in 2001, admitted the Government had not done enough in its first term, and would have to do better in its second.)

The upshot of the media’s barrage of disparagement, Prince Charming continued, is that the public no longer respects people in public life, and politicians are held in low regard when – in the main – they do a tough job honestly and well. In consequence, voters don’t bother to vote, and the young shy away from party politics, none of which is healthy for parliamentary democracy.

At last, this being a Marketing Society event, we got to marketing. Politicians, Campbell insisted, must launch a marketing campaign to counter the negativity they face. But he recognised this immediately raises another difficulty. Commercial advertisers can and do spend millions marketing themselves and their brands, but when politicians market themselves it is denounced as spin. So before politicians can market politics, they have to make a case for the marketing of politics – they have to convince the public there is nothing wrong with politicians carrying out focus groups, and opinion polls, and promoting their policies persuasively. Far from being wrong, these activities are essentially democratic.

What has caused this burgeoning of media cynicism? Alastair Campbell thinks the prime culprit is the 24-hour news machine. Because there are too few major stories to feed the ever-hungry 24-hour news services, the media has been driven to dumb down, making mountains out of molehills and inventing imaginary crises. Moreover, 24-hour news compels the media to publish any and every story pronto, without taking the time to check the facts or consider the consequences. All of which has led the national press in particular to minimise its emphasis on facts and maximise its emphasis on comment – increasingly blurring the division between the two, and leading to an upsurge of sensationalism of news stories that people already know about from other media.

This all went down a treat with the well-wooed audience, but it is codswallop. Few people watch the 24-hour news channels, or get constant news on the Net. The great majority watch the main evening news programmes as they have always done, then go to bed.

Though Campbell clearly sees the media’s supposed distaste for politics as an affront to New Labour, the reality is that the media just about destroyed the last Tory government (long before 24-hour news was significant) with New Labour’s active help. Anyway, the hostility of media to the powers that be is nothing new. Newspapers brought down both King Charles I – defeated by “paper bullets” as a commentator said at the time – and King Louis XVI, leading to the French Revolution. At least Blair still has his head on.

Campbell’s impressive loyalty to Blair and New Labour is so strong he cannot countenance the possibility that politicians have brought most of the media cynicism on themselves. As the Hutton enquiry showed, politicians lie frequently – not that many of us ever thought otherwise. Politicians have been mendacious since the dawn of time. Julius Caesar was an arrant liar, so was Napoleon. Winston Churchill was not above telling the occasional porkie when he needed to.

None of this detracts from the fact that, as Campbell said, most politicians do a tough job honestly and well – most of the time. But they are by no means always truthful, and that is why polls have long shown the public doesn’t trust them, and that is why the media is right to be sceptical when politicians try to get away with things. Alastair Campbell is immensely charming, but he is wrong.

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