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The curse of the soap-operization of politics

Posted on 29 September 2010 | 5:09pm

As David Miliband was preparing to make his announcement today, I was being interviewed by ITN’s Mary Nightingale at a conference in Prague.

It was a business audience and she was asking me about how I thought governments around the world would deal with the fall-out from the global economic crisis, in terms of the balance between spending cuts and tax rises.

I blathered away in a hopefully moderately well informed and convincing way. But the loudest applause came when I said that a lot of these arguments were complicated, required real explanation, and that the modern media had just about given up on giving space or debate to anything that went beyond the superficial or the personalities behind decisions being made.

Mary protested that there was not enough time or space to explain really complicated subjects. But there is more media time and space than ever. It is just that the media has lost the will to explain properly, and has settled into a belief that the public cannot cope with complicated issues and can only see the personalities. It is absolute nonsense. But amid all the obvious stuff, it is surely one more factor in David’s decision to bow out of the frontline.

In the piece I have done for the Guardian (sorry, I’m typing this while waiting for a plane at Prague airport and can’t seem to put a link in here – go to Guardian online if you want to read it) [link now added – Ed] I point out that what used to be an irritant – the soap opera coverage – has now become a modern curse. And it is not just a tabloid curse, but affects the broadsheets and broadcasters almost as badly. Indeed, the tabloidisation of TV news has been the single worst factor in the development of the modern media.

As I came off the stage, one of the backstage team came up to me and said he agreed, that the public wanted better and deeper debate than we were given, but then asked ‘what do we do?’ I’m not sure I have the answers. But unless the media faces up to the corrosive impact it continues to have on politics, it won’t just be good people leaving the frontline to leave proper space for a sibling, but good people who look at how politics is covered and just can’t be arsed with the thought of going into it at all. And then the commentators can all sit around saying how low the quality of the modern politician has become. Blahdiblahdiblah.

I am not saying David left the frontbench because of the media. He left for the reasons set out in his letter of explanation. But the soap-operization of politics is the context, and it is a deeply unhealthy one.

  • Robert Jackson

    Bryan Gould and TB are the role models here – not that anyone would wish David Miliband to consider leaving Parliament.

  • Gareth

    For me when the TV news made a big splash over a lip read comment he made to Harriet Harman you knew that he’d choose to stand down.

    It’s a level of scrutiny that serves no one really.

  • Steve986s

    Totally agree AC. But of course we’ll no doubt get a stream of the usual bile saying it’s all your fault (which it isn’t). Why don’t we just get all those oh so clever media commentators & political journos to run the country eh??

  • childermas

    Can’t agree more. In the world of 24 hours news channels you would expect that the media would take time to explain issues and debate properly. Often, though, all they do is to have a 15 minute ‘loop’ that goes over the same old ground and reports a story in a very superficial way. It is as if the media view the public / viewers as goldfish.

  • Richard Brittain

    Well said.

  • solipsist

    Yes!

  • Mark Wright

    I agree with you regarding the media but I somehow doubt very much DM’s decision is mainly a reaction to soap opera media coverage (which lest we forget would not have been the case at all if Little Ed had not stood against him).

    Having twice resisted the temptation to grab the crown only to be beaten at the final hurdle by his younger sibling must be a crushing personal blow. To go from Foreign Secretary/Heir Apparent to underling to Little Brother (who he probably used to pin down and fart on his head when they were kids. All brothers do this. Fact.) is a huge step down the food chain. And one that he is right not to take.

    In fact, as David Miliband is sitting at home tonight pondering his political future, or even if he has one at all, he’d probably quite like to pin his brother down and fart on his head once more. Now that really WOULD give Nick Robinson et al a story!

  • Nomfup

    Tomorrow in Rome? And how long?

  • Ioannis

    Especially the Daily Mail!

  • Hamish

    There’s so much that’s aggravating about the way that the brother stuff has been reported, it is difficult to know where to begin. What annoys me beyond words is the vanity and the arrogance of Nick Robinson in pronouncing – nearly dictating – that DM would have to leave. He’s entitled to his view but he cast it as a certainty. When the political editor of the nation’s public service broadcaster feels able to make such a cast iron pronouncement I think he is forgetting his role as a reporter and observer and acting as a kingbreaker. Nothing rounded, no nuance, no caveat – a straight declaration that DM would have to leave. Forgive me Nick, but I think these decisions are a little above your pay grade. He has developed a very bad case of the reporters’ “librarians syndrome” – I hang around books and that makes me bright. Robinson is a reporter, not a politician – nor is he an adjudicator.

    DM’s departure does raise one obvious question, though. If he’s won, would EM have done the same thing, and if he wouldn’t have, why? My hunch is that EM wouldn’t have – and the implication is that DM is the stronger of the two. EM’s immediate challenge is to take some early decisive bold stroke decisions that demonstrate that he has the imagination, the mettle and the conviction to be at least as good as we imagine DM would have been if he’d won.

  • Scooke7

    But it’s been going on for years. Remember, Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question 14 times, won an award for it and now is practically unsackable from the BBC (and being paid more than the D-G). Paxman told us that he did it because the next item on that Newsnight episode was delayed. Not because there was some politicall point to be made. And Paxman only told the truth AFTER he had won the award.
    Sure it made for great TV. But how did that help the man in the street? Does the BBC care? Does Paxman care? He is laughing all the way to the bank at the expense of the licence fee payers.

  • Teresa

    Whatever happened to unbiased interviews, I’ve really noticed this recently, especially in the last few months, the political journalists and the newsreaders really wind me up, it’s getting to the point where I actually don’t want to watch the news because of them. Why do they always have to bring their own opinion into every interview, I don’t care about their personal opinion, I want to hear what the politicians have to say. Who do they think they are.

  • GJONES

    I have to agree TV is getting very tabloid, worse it is letting the ConDems off the hook. There is a detectable pro coalition bias at the BBC since the general election. The political coverage of the Labour Party conference is the most vacuous and hostile i have ever seen.

    A case in point Emily Posh Bird from news night was interviewing some delegates when it was brought up that Ireland s Economy was going down the pan due to the harsh austerity implemented by that country, and pointed out that Osbourne is planning the same for us. She said that was “deep policy” stuff that she was not going to get into it. The biggest threat to this country since Hitler and she wanted to talk about Ed and Dave.

  • Ash W

    But Mr. Campbell, surely there is an argument to be made that you yourself, in your past role as Director of Communications for Tony Blair played a role in actually shaping politics and government in the direction of ‘soap opera’?

  • Attlee45

    Alistair, I have to agree with you on this – something I doubted I ever would!
    Journalism today is fast becoming an incidental to Media business – and good journalism takes time and money. far easier and cheaper to have “comment” rather than information. Especially with our libel laws.
    Still awaiting Panorama on Lord Ashcroft…
    http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/

  • As a foreigner it’s interesting to compare the effect of the media on British politics with that of other countries. Take Italy for example, the current Prime Minister has been involved in so many scandals – both personal and political – and he survives unscathed. in the UK, if one Minister so much as is accused in the media of something, even if it is clearly cooked up by someone with ulterior motives, bang goes his political career. Having read both Alistair’s first book and more recently Peter Mandelson’s, I can’t help but think that the political media in the UK is really just one big tabloid affair, and it’s they who run the country, not the government.

  • Liesbet

    I must protest against your defamation of the soap opera. A good soap has heroes, villains, gripping stories and (temporary) happy endings. Your journalists seem to understand the concept of villains and doom only

  • Olli Issakainen

    Media has a vital educational role in Britain in the age of economic crisis and climate change. News must be always separated from comment. It is important for democracy that Britain has pluralistic media.
    Some outlets still give time and space to their journalists. And you can read deep analysis of politics from publications like the New Statesman, the Economist, Standpoint and Prospect.
    David Miliband had at least four chances to become the leader of the Labour party. First time he said he was too inexperienced. Then he timed his letter wrongly. After James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet, David Miliband could have ousted Brown.
    It has been said that David Miliband is a man of integrity. And that he lacks the killer instinct of his brother. Ed wanted more to be the leader.
    David Miliband did not distance himself enough from New Labour. This was pity as he is a modern progressive social democrat, not the Blairite he is portrayed in the media.
    David Miliband´s lifelong ambition was to become the leader. But he made a mistake by allowing Diane Abbott to enter the race and thus forcing Ed to move into more left than he would have liked. But this proved to be the winning position. And was the decision not to pledge to attend the trade union rally against the cuts really worth risking his ambition?
    David Miliband´s stance on the Iraq war would have prevented him from winning a general election. He would not have apologized for the war and the “mess”.
    So Labour needed to change. Change to win again and to speak to the REAL middle class.

  • NickSmeggHead

    Hamish,

    remember, Nick Robinson is a Tory spin doctor working for the BBC. If you leave a constructive comment on his blog that he is been impartial, the moderator remove the comment.

  • Completely agree, AC. Well said. But how is it going to change?

    Getting rid of Emily Maitlis might be a start but after that?

  • Fozzie

    Good article

    The beeb have been shameful this week it needs a clear out from the top down and fast in the same way the suckled at the teet of new labour (and they did shamefully) they’re at it again with “call me” dave’s bunch to me 2 wrongs don’t make a right.

    If it comes to pass and there’s riots (not saying there will be) how are they going report it? at this point in time i don’t know Robinson is the worst of them and should be shuffled off the TV because of his unfettered bias and the fact he’s a bit of an ego maniac the last straw was through the election result when he piped in and spoke over the results it was pathetic but sadly representative of what the BBC has become.

    Oh and i haven’t watched sky for years so i don’t count them,unless there’s ever a rematch between AC and Boulton of course.

  • s chqpman

    Can I just ask AC how you think you are qualified to even attend such a debate let alone answer a question on the fall out from the global economic crisis – you make a good point about quality of debate but surely your very attendance downgrades such a serious debate given your background as a spin doctor/journalist.You are not an economist,you were never part of the Govt during 2008/2009,you have never worked in a bank and you have never been elected as an MP or similar roles.Surely your comments should be put directly back at you and to seek what you blog about above,its best you and your ilk stick to spin,newspapers and books.

  • Janete

    Absolutely agree Teresa. For several years now (and it’s getting worse) broadcasters have been mixing political news with comment. A comment delivered by an individual is fine, as long as the viewer understands his/her political position and can put their comments in context. Journalists who comment on news programmes are not required to declare their own political allegiance. They are presented as impartial adjudicators when they are usually just peddling their own political preferences. I have written to the BBC several times on this issue, when/if they reply it is just to deny the problem.

  • AC

    They just treat us all like morons then complain when, en mass, we behave like morons. And it’s not just the failure to go into detail, for me the worst thing is their repeated failure to provide any context. Classic example – the annual focus on those who are reported as ‘unable to read and write’ as the sats results are published. First it’s not true to say they can’t read and write, just that they can’t do so to the level expected. Second, thanks to the professionalism and dedicated hard work of thousands of teachers the percentage who fail to ‘make the grade’ has been falling year on year. Third, the ‘halcyon’ days when no one left school unable to read and write are no more than a myth, otherwise why have adult literacy classes been oversubscribed for years.
    So actually the sats results generally demonstrate real progress, but hey, why let the facts get in the way of the opportunity to do a negative story and who cares if it is a kick in the teeth for students and teachers alike.
    And by the way – no I am not a teacher, I just happen to think we should all understand what is happening in education, otherwise we will never be able to judge what we should keep and what we should disguard. Oh but then I forgot, the Tories don’t care so long as they can make us all believe the cuts are reforms and the strategy is worth while. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

  • Matthew

    Excellent post Alistair – you are spot on. Ultimately I think economics will catch up with our friends in the media. The internet has destroyed the newspapers business model. Journalists are ambitious middle class folk with school fees and mortgages to pay and will stop at nothing to get us to buy or tune in. It is inevitable that there will be a shake out at some point, but until then I can’t see much alternative to the status quo short of restricting freedom of the press

  • Quinney

    Basically, the BBC is running scared of a cut in the licence fee that’s why they’re grovelling around the tories.

  • Anna

    I agree!

    I responded to a ridiculous comment by Nick Robinson on his blog, full of empty speculation, by asking for ‘serious analysis please, not tabloid-type witterings’ and I got a sniffy email saying my post had been banned by the moderators, and warning me that I might be banned altogether if I broke ‘house rules’.

  • Stuart

    The sight of Neil Kinnock french kissing Ed Miliband was truly depressing. The double-election loser Kinnock says we are on the right track – God help us.

    As Alastair said, if we want a Labour Party that feels good about itself and then loses the election, vote for Ed Miliband.

    We are on course for a crushing defeat.

  • Teresa

    I can’t believe they can actually get away with it, I thought we were supposed to be living in a Democracy, they are in such a position of power they can put any agenda they want out there. Tzeitel is right, the media play a massive part in running this country, that’s why they look and act so smug.

  • Chris lancashire

    Noting all the complaints of anti-Labour bias by the BBC on this blog makes me remember all the anti-Tory complaints by the BBC on other blogs.

    Guess the BBC, with all its faults, has the political coverage about right.

  • Guest

    Agree that people/media consumers are much cleverer than they are given credit for. People are not passive readers of media presentations but active analysers. Moreover the biggest fallacy politicians assume today is that the press and tv actually develop opinion – they simply don’t have this power. They can report opinion and this is very different. Political opinion is formed and refined on the ground in relationships with friends, family and in local communities. I think the danger is not in the media per-se it is in the poor judgement of politicians and respective leaders of the role of the media and what it can and simply cannot do.

  • Mr. Ed Miliband probably will restore the Labour Party.

    maybe in coalition conservatives- liberal democrats will not finish the complete job until the end of their term

  • Janete

    Yes Teresa, I’m also outraged by this issue. In a democracy, where practically all political information is transmitted through the media, it is vital that the electorate recieves detailed coverage of all shades of political opinion, untainted by the hidden prejudices of journalists. I think they get away with it because we let them. Some people do complain but the BBC, in particular, diffuses audience feedback by offering ‘have your say’ options on their website. As far as I can see these comments go absolutely nowhere. Perhaps if enough people challenged them formally on this issue they might take note. How many complaints did it take to get rid of Jonathan Ross and the other twit? We could do with a John Prescot ‘Save NHS Direct’ type of petition – if I had the technical skills I would happily launch one.

  • Janete

    Not sure I agree with this. Politically aware people are not unduly influenced by media reporting but the vast majority of people are. My Dad, not really interested in politics until his early 30’s, suddenly realised he hated Tony Benn but didn’t know why. As a then Daily Mail reader, the constant drip of negative coverage had done its job. I don’t doubt many Gordon Brown haters were formed in the same way. Compare the current public perception of Hazel Blears and Danny Alexander. Both avoided Capital Gains Tax by claiming the same property as a 2nd home for MPs expenses but as their main residence for tax purposes. Hazel Blears paid the money back but because of the public outcry, lost her position as a minister. Danny Alexander still does not acknowledge he was wrong and has not repaid the money. When, at the Liberal Democrat conference, he labelled tax avoidance as immoral, there was no significant response in the media. Yet this is surely unbelievable hypocrisy. The media influence public opinion by sometimes telling us things they think we should know and also by omitting information they would rather we didn’t hear.

    By the way – does anyone know why the Ashcroft Panorama programme was dropped? Strangely, I haven’t heard any mention of it on the BBC since.

  • GJONES

    After Emily Posh Bird get rid of Tory Boy Robinson. Saying that i would gladly put up with those too if the Beeb would just put Laura Kuenssberg out of her misery.

  • GJONES

    No they haven’t. Instead of reporting the labour conference they engaged in the Ed and Dave soap opera. Andy Burnham and Ed Balls gave huge speeches at conference and really stuck it to Gove, Osbourne and Lansley and yet what they had to say was marginalised. The ConDems are getting a free ride and the beeb is giving it to them.