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The day my challenging student warned Cheltenham of war over benefit cuts

Posted on 10 October 2010 | 12:10pm

The Cheltenham Literature Festival seems to get bigger every year. It is possible to see the growth of literary festivals as part of the celebrity culture – so there I was, darling, chatting to Salman Rushdie in the green room, when who should walk in but Alistair Darling and Andrew Marr, then Jilly Cooper rushed over to tell me (and later the world) how sexy I was. Mwah mwah.

But I think in fact they are something of an antidote to the celeb culture, or at least the bit that has turned journos into minor stars and made news as much as about its purveyors as its makers.

Both James Harding, the Times editor chairing a debate on Barack Obama, and my fellow panellist, Justin Webb of the BBC, are senior journalists doubtless proud of their profession and the good it can do for the world. Yet both agreed that one of the reasons that over a thousand people paid good money to hear us talk about Obama for well over an hour was because they did not feel the modern media really allowed them to explore and debate issues in depth. The internet and 24 hour news have combined to shrink the attention span not of the news recipient so much as of the broadcaster who has constantly to be moving on to the next thing.

I pretty much stuck up for Obama, and both the panel – Justin, Bonnie Greer, historian Peter Hennessy and I – and the audience came back regularly to the impact the media was having on making government a much more difficult task.

Whatever emphasis I may have placed on the need for media management in the past, I am strongly of the view that politicians now pay far too much attention to the demands and pressures of the media, and that they have far more power to set and influence the agenda than sometimes they realise. My sense of Obama is that he is beginning to adapt his modus operandi and realise the day to day matters less than the strategic and that once you get that insight dominant in your organisation, you can advance on many more fronts than first your realised.

It would have been well nigh impossible to meet the expectations for his Presidency around the world. But both domestically and internationally, he has done a lot of good in the face of a ferociously partisan radicalised right wing, helped along by the Fox News wing of the Murdoch Empire.

Someone said that if TV presenters Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart ran for office, they would have a chance of winning. I disagreed. Beck (who I dislike) and Stewart (who I like) would find the public’s attitudes and rules of engagement towards them changing if they went from TV voice to political wannabee.

Obama may not be as strong as he would like and the upcoming mid-terms may weaken him further. But he is doing ok, and with the Republican Party in a mess both despite and because of the success of the Tea Party Movement, I reckon he is well set for a second term. But what he does will matter far far more than anything anyone says about it, no matter how loudly.

Finally I must say a word about Harlem, one of the students I am teaching as part of an experiment to see if youngsters allegedly failed ‘by the system’ can be turned onto learning by motivated and supposedly inspiring people.

I got her to speak to the first of my two events, a session on my diaries in a packed town hall, chaired by Libby Purves and her very dry sense of humour. Harlem said afterwards that her heart was pounding, and that making a point to a thousand or so people was one of the scariest things she had ever done. But my God she made her point, warning the good people of Cheltenham that if the government went ahead with all the benefits cuts being threatened, there would be war on the streets on Britain. Talk about puncturing middle-aged, middle-class literary festival gentility. Someone shouted out ‘get a job’. But at the book-signing, several people made a point of saying it was about time we listened to young people, instead of talking down to them, and assuming we know what is best for them.

I just felt rather pleased that in a matter of a couple of weeks she had gone from the standard teenage view of politics as ‘boring’ to realising that standing up in front of all-comers and saying what you think can actually be as exciting as a lot of other stuff teenagers get up to.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Politicians should expect press scrutiny and tough questions from the media. Media is part of the environment they operate. But recent examples of questions based on speculation built on rumour are over the top.
    “Media hyenas” should have respect for elected politicians. They themselves belong to powerful elite which is unelected, and are barely accountable.
    The influence of newspapers is not what it used to be. Circulations are declining and papers are losing their hold on readers.
    But newspapers can and do still shape public opinion with their coverage. But there is little evidence that they dicate how people vote.
    When the Sun switched to the Tories, Alastair Campbell said that the news was “far from devastating”. The Sun has less political impact than it believes.
    The power of newspapers over voters is smaller these days, but they still hold power over politicians. Gordon Brown was afraid of the Mail, and Tony Blair of the Murdoch empire. And the next day´s headlines are never far from the minds of ministers.
    If politicians want public respect, they must stop kneeling to the media. Now they look weak and unprincipled. The coalition should not do political favours to the Murdoch empire in return for its support.
    The media has as much power and influence as elected politicians allow. It is time for someone to stand up to media´s might.

  • alienfromzog

    “The media has as much power and influence as elected politicians allow. It is time for someone to stand up to media´s might.”

    I don’t think this is quite true. Unfortunately the media, in my view, has too much power and politicians are unsurprisingly anxious to have positive reporting. For obvious reasons. However what frustrates me is not that politicians are losing the fight against newspapers on issues, it’s the unwillingness to have the fight in the first place. Asylum/immigration is one such area in which parts have the media have been allowed to vocalise downright lies and constantly demand tougher and tougher policies.

  • Jacquie R

    Olli, ordinary people are now coming together to stand up to the media’s might. Thanks to the internet and Twitter, we now have a way to do this.

    DemocracyFail is campaigning for a change in the rules governing media ownership and it’s growing fast. It can be followed on Twitter or through its blog:

    (Again, Alastair, will perfectly understand if you moderate out this comment.)

  • Richard Brittain

    Libby Purves often talks about gay rights.

    Libby (liberal) pervs often talk about gay rights.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist, but is this a conspiracy or what? How did she get that name?

  • Emma

    Harlem did good. what the idiot (Tory) in the audience actually said was something more along the lines of ‘set up your own company’ or words to that effect. I really enjoyed your session and hope you are feeling less knackered, Emma

  • Janete

    I would love to believe that the media didn’t influence voter opinion but I don’t think it’s true. Internet blogs, Twitter and Facebook are certainly a step in the right direction but political argument can only reach those who look for it. Newspapers and TV outlets, reach millions of relatively apolitical voters instantly and simplistic arguments hit home very easily if alternative points are not presented at the same time.

    I support DemocracyFail’s objectives but think we need to go further. As well as controls over ownership, the behaviour of journalists needs to be regulated far more, as clearly the self censorship model doesn’t work, evidenced by the Coulson/phone hacking scandal. Perhaps it should be illegal for the media to publish the contents of a private conversation, for example, unless it reveals some criminal or seriously exploitative behaviour. Maybe clear standards could be set by an independent body, for journalists/editors to observe, with regular judgements published for all to see. What happens in other countries? I don’t think gutter journalism is a problem everywhere.

    I feel some in the media are undermining our democracy in a dangerous way. That’s not to say that elected politicians shouldn’t face tough questioning from the press, but I agree with Olli that too often it goes over the top. Frequently it’s clear that journalists (and editorial teams) merely want to embarrass or demean politicians rather than challenge them, legitimately, on policy. It sometimes seems there is a power struggle going on, sort of a ‘who speaks for the people’ tussle. If journalists belittle elected representatives, they believe it enhances their own influence over voter opinion. And sadly, I think it does. How many people didn’t bother to vote in the election citing ‘they’re all the same’ as a reason? The media have done much to create this impression and it is time to fight back, but I think we have to do more than just ignore them.

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