Thursday, August 24, 2006

Malcolm found himself musing on the State of the Nation and its Media ...

One source Malcolm watches assiduously is Chris Cillizza's politics blog, The Fix. For those who don't know, Cillizza is the Washington Post's poll-wonk. His latest post (dated 01:09 pm, 23 August) tries to make sense of US opinion polls, and how GWB's ratings seem to stay afloat, just, on the basis of popular support for "the War on Terror". He notes an upward tick in approval ratings for the GOP "since the foiled terrorist plot in Britain".

Meanwhile, a day earlier, The Times had been reading the entrails of an ICM poll to see "Labour hit by terror battle":
a fifth [of those interviewed for the poll] believe the Government is telling the truth about the threat from terrorism, 21 per cent think that it has actively exaggerated the danger. A slight majority - 51 per cent - are convinced ministers are not telling them the full story.
This is August, for goodness' sake, the "silly season" in most years. We should not take polling in mid-August too seriously. Yet, the talking heads and opinion-page fillers strive to convince that something is happening.

  1. Why is there such a discrepancy between US and UK reactions?
  2. Why does "the War on Terror" benefit the Administration one side of the Atlantic, yet is the major drag on public approval for the UK Government?
  3. Why is conspiracy-theory the norm in Britain?

Malcolm thinks that, in this case, it really is the messenger who is to blame. The US has some excellent news-outlets: The New York Times and The Washington Post are Malcolm's sources of choice: comprehensive, balanced and decently liberal. Other metropolitan newspapers cannot be entirely without merit: however mean the editorial line, columnists like Carl Hiaasen and Molly Ivins get syndication. The best American newspapers Malcolm sees seem to be generally improving: what is usually termed "transparency". Articles are frequently foot-noted, for example. In cyberia, let nobody diss, if only as a ready source for the egregious Hitchens (one need not agree with him: just enjoy 1,000+ words of well-fermented bile). And then there is the eternal humanity and sanity of Doonesbury. As a result, big-city America is well-informed and well-served: not entirely coincidentally, these are the "Red States".

Elsewhere, things are less salubrious. Any traveller in the boondocks and bournes from which no hollingsworth emerges unscathed recognises the paucity of information available therein. Motel breakfast on a diet of CNN and USA Today achieves the near-impossible: it makes one hanker for horrors like the Daily Mail. The shock-jocks whom one hear in the diners, too, must have an impact. They have the fascination Malcolm would extend to a rock-python: one cannot afford to ignore something so malign. Fox News is tabloidism-on-steroids.

The UK Press is different quantitatively and qualitatively. Above all, though, it is different attitudinally. Almost without exception, the opinionated Press sees its position as one of criticism, which frequently slides into carping. No-one does this better than the Mail. The Sunday Times is the ne-plus-ultra of sneering. Not for nothing did Wapping need to invent the "reverse ferret". The Independent tends to the heterodox, the trick of singularity. The Daily Express is now a hopeless case: once, Alfred Christiansen, Carl Giles and Rupert Bear went through Middle England like Blackpool went through rock; now the confectionery is Diana-conspiracy, Little-Englandism and cheesecake.

Malcolm does not ask for balance, or even fairness from the British Press: just that, occasionally, the other side of the argument escapes before the dismissive final paragraph.

Is there a reason for such negativism? Is it a passing phase? Would all change were Tony Blair to step aside? Nah! Any alternative Labour leader would be fresh meat from day two. Even a Cameron administration would be lucky to have its hundred days.

So why?

First, the BBC is the 600lb gorilla of the British media. In any moment of crisis, BBC TV news is the first source of information. BBC News 24 is becoming the pre-eminent rolling news station: Sky News is slicker, often quicker, but seems less integrated, less "national", and -- certainly -- lacks the local links the massed ranks of BBC reporters can achieve. Add into this the breadth and depth of the BBC news website and the squeals of the Media, especially the Murdoch stable, becomes understandable. If a UK news-source is not the BBC, then it is effectively in competition with, and so must differentiate from the Beeb.

Second, Lord Gnome's organ has a following among opinion-formers out of all proportion to any nominal circulation. This is not itself a testiment to the Eye, but a recognition that the World that Once was Fleet Street is still very tight and incestuous. The Eye's Street of Shame, effectively every journo's opportunity to slag off the competition, is a mark of how the in-crowd gossip. And the Eye's trademark is to be essentially combative and derisive.

Third, the underemployed politician fills the idle hours as a part-time columnist. Inevitably, the product of such labour will be bilious (for which read, "He shouldn't have sacked me") or ambitious ("This is where he is going sooooo wrong ..."). For a prime example, see Roy Hattersley passim.

Fourth, there is the need for news on the cheap. It is only when Malcolm leaves London he fully appreciates how small the place is. Domestic news tends to the triviality. We get into a lather about the barely-significant: distance gives proportion. A General Election, however is big stuff. It nicely fuels columns and provides a month or more of headlines, articles, fillers. Even a juicy by-election satifies the need to have something on page two for several issues, and will nicely fill Friday's and Saturday's front-pages. And the Sunday's will still have enough fat to chew for an editorial and a full-page analysis. Now, if only we could have a General Election, a "leadership contest" every year, a "Government split" every month, a "Minister sacked" every fortnight, how much easier does that make the editor's job? Now, how can that be engineered?

Malcolm's conclusion is that, in Britain, opinion-forming is essentially done from a hostile and negative position. Any branch of the Administration, the Executive, the public bodies is fair game. Journalism is played according to the rules of coarse rugby: go for the man, not the ball. National Interest be damned ... let's get him!

What all that failed to debate was why conspiracy-theory has become British mainstream opinion. To that we shall need to return.
Sphere: Related Content

No comments:

Subscribe with Bloglines International Affairs Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Add to Technorati Favorites