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Public want more variety and less monoprism than media gives them – a despatch from Fowey

Posted on 18 May 2011 | 1:05pm

To remind you of another Rule One of communications – never confuse media opinion with public opinion. And Rule 1a – always expect better, more interesting and more varied questions from the public.

If ever I do a media interview these days there will usually come a point where the journalist shifts in his chair, smiles and says ‘obviously I have to ask you about Iraq …’ Obvious to whom? Obvious to the journalist, thinking as he asks the question about what other journalists will think if he doesn’t rather than what readers or viewers will think when they hear the same questions and answers they’ve heard often enough before.

In a session lasting two hours at the Du Maurier Festival in Fowey last night, I think the subject of Iraq came up three times – twice raised by me in my opening remarks, once by a member of the audience in a q and a covering maybe 40 or so different subjects.

The more of these events I do, the more convinced I am that one of the reasons people pay good money to go out and hear people in the flesh, and then quiz them whilst deciding whether to buy their books, is that despite the enormous amount of airtime in the media age, they don’t really feel they get a true sense of people or events.

It was a pretty middle England kind of audience. Middle class, generally middle aged, with smatterings of young and old. Yet as I tweeted last night, my description of the Daily Mail as evil was met by a generous round of applause, as was the observation that it was wrong not to have invited TB and GB to the Royal Wedding. They seemed to agree too that Nick Clegg should not be taking all the hits for Tory policies.

So if they didn’t ask about Iraq, what did they ask about, you may ask?

I didn’t keep a note of all the questions but I did note the last batch when, in an idea I borrowed from John Sergeant a few years back, as 10pm neared I closed by asking people who had not been called to shout out questions which I then answered in one go. So here goes … and this is not untypical …

What do you think of the Attlee government? (A lot)

What do you think of Danny Alexander? (Not a lot … as in not often, and not a lot)

Advice you’d give to Ed Miliband? Same question re Nick Clegg. (Different answers, for another blog on another day.) Why aren’t there more Republicans speaking out?

Why didn’t we go for a Cornish Assembly?

What is the point of the Labour Party? (A bit harsh I thought)

My finest hour? (After a bit of embarrassed shuffling I mentioned Kosovo and Northern Ireland, as comms played a part in both, whilst giving the real success to politicians and military).

Best political journalist? ….(A tough one that. I didn’t want to name any of the current crop as they wouldn’t thank me for it, so I copped out and said John Sergeant because his reports were not all about him. Actually I think it was probably Tony Bevins, alas no longer with us).

Best Burnley player? (Leighton James)

Best marathon time? (3.53.01)

How did I look after my mental health? (Sport, family, medication when needed, cue usual spiel re campaigns against stigma and discrimination.)

What did I learn from Dream School? (Cue big defence of teachers and kids)

Was I happy being an unemployed Antichrist (my words in opening remarks) or was there a job I wanted to do? (Football manager)

View on superinjunctions? (Complicated)

Happiest memory? (Lots)

Why did I have writer’s block re a third novel? (Probably because it’s about the coalition)

Is Fiona writing a diary? (Got a good laugh)

Why did GB set up the FSA and then ignore it?

Did Cherie influence TB political strategy? (Not so far as I noticed)

Next great Labour leader? (I said I hoped it was Ed)

As for the earlier questions ‘in normal time’, they included some big ones …

–  go through the qualities of all the world leaders I saw. (Clinton came out well, Bush better than they expected, high marks for Ahern and Keating).

– which person living or dead is the biggest threat to world peace? (I went for leaders of radical Islam but wonder if I would come up with a different answer if I had more time to think)

Was I always a Rottweiler? (Cue argument re how media can only ever handle one prism per person)

Has Cameron got the leadership qualities to go in the same league as Thatcher and Blair? (Jury out but he didn’t win the election when he should have).

Did the Labour Party lose its basic ideology when we got rid of Clause 4?

Were MPs aware of the damage done by the expenses scandal? (Yes, but I also defended the vast bulk of MPs).

This from a former colleague on the Tavistock Times … did I remember swinging on a tree outside Angela Rippon’s house when we were doorstepping her once?

There was another dozen or so that will come back to me as I enjoy the train journey home.

I really liked this one … Someone pointed out I seemed to talk a lot about what politics could learn from sport, so in the New Labour team, who was the goalie and who was the coach? I was a bit stumped on that – I ended up with combinations which wasn’t very satisfactory. So I promised to put together a whole team which I will post as a blog in due course.

Journalists who have got as far as this will tend to look at much of the above and conclude that ‘their’ public would not be interested in such things. But this was their public, and they were not unrepresentative. They want variety, not a media-decided monotony of tone, subject and prism, which is what we tend to get on the 24 hour news channels, overly influenced by papers with their own agenda. Cue agreement from the bulk of the people of Fowey as represented by those in a big tent in a schoolyard last night.

  • Gillian C.

    “an unemployed Antichrist”  your words, AC!  (lol)  

    I see Question Time next week is due to be in Exeter.  I wonder if you’ll be asked to take part Mr.C.  I guess Ben Bradshaw will be asked, not a bad politician/MP.  But, at the risk of sounding deeply shallow, nothing else about him to interest the females in the audience! 

    On another matter, I see poor ol’ Ken Clarke’s getting a rough ride today from the Oh So pc media about his comments on rape and rapists. However, I’m pleased to see he is also getting a lot of support from the mainly common-sense populous.

  • lisbet

    I agree with you. I think  being able to communicate directly with people in public life changes the dynamic tremendously – I can think of no better example than the difference between Sarah Brown who we know almost entirely “from herself” and Cherie Blair who we know only via the media. I am sure if we knew the real Cherie, we’d have a far better opinion of her.

  • ambrosian

     I agree that the media has a narrow focus and ignores a range of issues and opinions. It also has an obsession with all things American at the expense of our closer European neighbours. This was taken to a ludicrous extreme on the day that BBC Radio 4 led its news bulletins with the death of Walter Cronkite. I doubt that CNN will lead on the death of Trevor MacDonald when that happens.However, I think there are other explanations for the kind of questions you were asked at Fowey. I felt so strongly about Iraq that 2005 was the only election in my life when I didn’t vote Labour. But I doubt whether, given the opportunity, I would ever question you about it. You are hardly likely to say anything different and whether there was any intention to deceive is something that cannot be proven either way unless there is some hitherto undiscovered recording or email. And if I held you, rather than the politicians, responsible for the whole debacle, I wouldn’t be infesting your blog comments.More generally, Middle England is nothing if not polite (and two-faced). Like it or not, you are a celebrity and enjoy a certain level of fame. Only a minority of people on meeting a celebrity they dislike will tell them so to their face. And anyone with a strong dislike of a celebrity would be unlikely to spend two hours at a Q and A session with them or buy their book. Furthermore, even if being a Rottweiler (as someone asked) is only one prism of your personality, no sensible person gets into an argument with a Rottweiler.Finally, I’m struck by how many of the questions were like the final question on ‘Any Questions’, the favourite forum of Middle England. There’s always a competition in audiences to ask the most original/funny/left-field question. This doesn’t mean that their top concerns aren’t the usual ones: the economy, health, immigration, unemployment and who’s going to win Britain’s Got Talent.

  • Chris lancashire

    The public don’t ask questions about Iraq because the public has pretty much made up its mind about Iraq and it’s old news. Most people think Iraq was a big mistake (as is the present Afghan conflict), a waste of precious young lives for absolutely no point and that we were coerced into it by Bush.The public think that dodgy dossiers et al (no pun intended) were all in support of that.
    That’s why the public don’t ask questions about Iraq. 

  • Terry Coleman

    When I checked ‘monoprism’ it led me to drum & bass, so I thought of Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc…. Had another go and found your article. I agree with you about our media. Good piece.

  • ambrosian

    Sorry, but I read Cherie’s autobiography and then had an even lower opinion of her.
    But you have to admire her comic chutzpah. Asked on Dream School what ex-Prime Ministers did, she replied that they were lucky that she had a career as a lawyer and ‘Tony also does a few things’. A curious way to describe his various multi-million earning interests. Anyway, I’m glad the poor things manage to get by. 

  • Robert

    You are, of course, absolutely right about the media prism.

    Today’s another good example of the nine lives kitten Teresa May has been granted by the press – after completely ignoring the possibility of rapists being charged by letter under her department’s proposals a couple of weeks ago – the press deem rape a subject on which to go after cuddly pro-European Ken.

    Yet near silence about May’s frosty reception from the Police Federation Conference.

    And the people’s view? Just look at the hammering the Tories had at the local elections in those wards where Labour campaigned strongly on police cuts.

    There is a disconnect between the media and the voter’s concerns seeing our streets becoming unsafe again under the Tories.

  • Dave Simons

    Dunno ’bout that, mate. See – I’m, like, one o’ these ‘ere ‘public’, or ‘most people’, on behalf of whom you seem ter think you’re speakin’, know wha’ I mean? An’ wiv no, like, offence intended there ain’t a single, like, word you’ve scribed up there that can be said in all ‘onesty ter represent anythin’ remotely like wha’ I think. An’ excuse me fer suggestin’ it, but we ain’t even speakin’ the same, like, lingo, know wha’ I mean? So my gen’le recommendation to you is that you refrain from imaginin’ that you’re talkin’ on behalf of, like, anyone else but yerself an’ then you won’t go too far wrong, know wha’ I mean?

  • DM

      Unfortunately, due to all the focus on Ken Clarke, the most recent in long series of ‘Cameron / Clegg shooting their mouth off’ episodes went unreported.  In answer to a later question from a female MP at PMQ’s about the rape issue Cameron said 94% of rapists were walking free on British streets.  Based on what Cameron actually said, it would appear that he thinks that rape allegations should always lead to a conviction and no-one can ever be innocent  Clearly a nonsense as the example of a man in Redruth can confirm having been falsely accused by a woman who is starting a year in prison for her troubles.  Instead of showing leadership for once and resolving to ensure the conviction rate improves significantly, Cameron couldn’t resist his default setting of always wanting to look clever.  As ever he succeeded in exposing the Tories are shambolic in yet another issue.  Personally I expect little else from a PM who is an embarrassing phoney.
    Unfortunately, due to all the focus on Ken Clarke, the most recent in long series of ‘Cameron / Clegg shooting their mouth off’ episodes went unreported.  In answer to a later question from a female MP at PMQ’s about the rape issue Cameron said 94% of rapists were walking free on British streets.  Based on what Cameron actually said, it would appear that he thinks that rape allegations should always lead to a conviction and no-one can ever be innocent  Clearly a nonsense as the example of a man in Redruth can confirm having been falsely accused by a woman who is starting a year in prison for her troubles.  Instead of showing leadership for once and resolving to ensure the conviction rate improves significantly, Cameron couldn’t resist his default setting of always wanting to look clever.  As ever he succeeded in exposing the Tories are shambolic in yet another issue.  Personally I expect little else from a PM who is an embarrassing phoney.

  • Ehtch

    “- which person living or dead is the biggest threat to world peace? (I went for leaders of radical Islam but wonder if I would come up with a different answer if I had more time to think)”

    Ahem!, US leaders? Sorry, had to be said, if you think about it. Only joking!

    And nice place Fowey, very old town, with those old pillars either side of the entrance to the harbour, where they used to hang a huge chain between, to keep French raiding ships out, during the Napolionic Wars. And interesting china clay loading harbour just upstream of the town. And the ancient atmospheric seafairers pubs in the town. Smallest car ferry I have ever taken was across the river to one of those two villages opposite, the one further up river, Bodinnick. But that was twenty years ago – they might a larger one now.

  • MicheleB

     I don’t / wouldn’t ask questions about Iraq because if we acknowledge the chronology (and don’t we absolutely have to?) we have to acknowledge three things:
    – UN Inspectors were still ‘convinced’ of the existence of WsMD and telling Govts/UN that they were so convinced (right up till a month/plus in to the invasion when Hans Blix admitted that they had probably been fooled by Saddam and whatever remained of them had been shifted out of the country long ago)
    – WsMD were used on thousands of Iraqi citizens
    – WsMD are sometimes small in volume (see above) and not always hardware

    Toss a coin;
    the invasion and its endpoint or
    the continuation of the UN sanctions that had existed for decades and the UNcounted dead who resulted from those.

    It’s not easy is it?

    .

  • Olli Issakainen

    All you need to do to achieve your ambition as football manager is to write a thriller on the coalition which includes cryptography, symbols, codes and CONSPIRACY THEORIES.
    It will sell millions around the world, and you will be able to buy Burnley FC valued currently at £37.6m and then appoint yourself as the manager.
    As for the leadership qualities of David Cameron, surely a vision is needed. But the Tory-led government does everything by trial and error. It does not think through its policies and does not test them before announcing them. And for all Lord Ashcroft´s money, Mr Cameron could not win a majority.
    As for the best political journalist, the names of Charles Moore (Telegraph), Will Hutton (Observer) and Andrew Rawnsley (Observer) are usually mentioned.
    I would add Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Mehdi Hasan and Seumas Milne to the list.
    Biggest threats to world peace are North Korea and Iran. And the biggest single issue is oil.
    Ed Miliband must be more presidential and must have a clear message on the economy.
    Finally on the media and on the changing audience for British national newspapers. Nowadays we must take into account online user figures and social media fans in addition to print sales figures.
    Daily Mail has enormous reach in print and online, but is small in social media (Facebook and Twitter). The Guardian has almost as many social media fans as it has daily visitors to its website.
    The Guardian´s online content reflects the same values as those of print newspaper. But the Mail´s online content has changed the brand values its traditional readers would associate with the paper.  

  • Dave Simons

    And what better place for a Q & A session than one associated so much with ‘Q’ – Arthur Quiller-Couch. 

  • Jo Willcox

    That small ferry is still here over to Bodinnick, things don’t change much round these ere parts.

    As for the Middle England audience, I think Al has to know for the record that we were there and run the Cornish Class War party. But we have been debating over the past few weeks whether we were included in the ‘smattering of young’ or lumped in with the ‘middle-aged ‘(depressing).. but seeing as a lady in the co-op asked the student nurse if I was her Mum the other day, I have to guess it was the middle aged…hurmph..

  • Gail

    Re the difference between media opinion and public opinion.  Interesting that the media is trying to blame Ed Balls for firing Sharon Shoesmith after the outcome of the Supreme Court Ruling.  I think this may be a true example of how out of touch the press are with their readers.  My guess is that public opinion will be right behind the decision to fire her rightly or wrongly, because of the strength of feeling about the Baby P case.  It will be interesting to see if they recognise this over the next few days.  Watch this space…