The media were right about the march

by Rob Marchant

There is surely no need to add to the articles on last Saturday’s demo which focus on the actions of UK Uncut and the black bloc. Although it seems uncertain whether these groups were not, in the end, a sideshow to the principal lessons from it all. Perhaps trickier to explain was the laying of any remaining blame, as many did, squarely at the feet of “the media”.

Politicians who complain about the media are, as Enoch Powell once sharply observed, like sailors who complain about the sea. But, although we are not all politicians but mostly activists, this is precisely the conclusion we have largely reached regarding the demonstration last weekend. It’s understandable. It seemed grossly unfair, to those who had in good faith given up their Saturdays for a decent cause, for a peaceful demo to be linked to the violence and disruption of a few idiots. But, the trouble is, it wasn’t unfair.

With some notable and honourable exceptions, there are many adverse criticisms you could reasonably level at sections of the British media: overall right-wing bias, dumbing down, laziness in fact-checking, toothlessness of the regulator and so on. Fair enough. And, as a party, we should really have no great interest in defending the media – after all they usually have no great interest in defending us. But just this once let’s try, if we can, to step back and be objective about them.

We are upset, in truth, because the media did not cover the march in the way we wanted them to. But it is really rather difficult to draw the conclusion that they were doing anything except their jobs. The evidence of this, surely, is in the fact that both Sky News and the BBC, far from identical in their approach to journalism, ran practically the exact same sequence at 2pm on Saturday: windows smashing in Oxford Street together with what seemed like an eerily well-synched voiceover from Ed Miliband in mid-speech. The almost inescapable conclusion is that they ran it, not because they were out deliberately to hurt the Labour party but because, simply, it “made great telly”.

It is also significant that no serious complaint appears to have been lodged by the party regarding the coverage, despite the barrage of outraged comments emanating in real-time, via Twitter, from the march. And this is for the obvious reason that, in the cold light of day, it would never survive the most cursory investigation. Even the Guardian put newsworthiness above political leanings – where you might have expected it to be at least roughly aligned with the marchers – and led with a headline on the violence, not the protest. Or the Independent, not exactly a Tory rag, whose coverage, while mentioning the protest, also centred around the violence. No, the media merely did what the media do: cover the news in a way which maximises its impact.

Now, the problem with great telly is just that: it tends to make an impact on the viewer. Perhaps only a subliminal, visual one, as they have a lunchtime pint in the pub, or half-watch it as they play with their kids and let their Saturday lunch go down. But an impact it will have had – the human brain is, after all, an intensely visual mechanism – and neither was it positive, in the view of practically every media observer. And for those who were paying closer attention, to round it all off, we had the speech. A speech which navigated the fine line between inspiration and bathos, and came down on the wrong side. John Rentoul’s forensic summary was this:

To compare a political disagreement over the pace of balancing the government’s books to the struggles of the suffragettes, civil rights movement and anti-apartheid campaigners was an analogy too far. And to quote Martin Luther King opened him to ridicule”.

That last comment, in particular, feels most hurtful to us activists both because it is personal, and because it contains a grain of truth. And it seems that, at that instant, Britain separated into two groups of people: those who went on the march and wanted to believe, and those who did not. Those who did numbered perhaps 400,000. Many genuinely felt it was a modest success. Those who did not march are either unaware a march went on; or have some idea, and therefore an opinion, about it, because they had read a paper or watched the news. It’s not unreasonable to estimate that these number in the several millions. Although his article is otherwise very good, Conor Ryan’s argument that Ed Miliband was right to speak, because he got to address 400,000 souls, in itself does not quite convince; particularly since most of those to whom he was preaching – and, frustratingly, not for the first time – were already converted. As the Americans say: you do the math. A few thousand versus a few million: which one is the more important audience?

But, of these two groups, the entirely well-intentioned one which went on what they thought would be an entirely peaceful day out seems to now be engaged in what Peter Watt, in his excellent Uncut piece, refers to as “groupthink”; entirely oblivious to the feelings of the much more important audience outside. It’s understandable how this happens. You spend the day in the company of thousands of people who think like you. You end the day with a warm feeling of shared injustice, that all those on the outside just don’t “get it”.

However, what is clear is that the vast majority of people who seem to feel that the march was a success for Labour seem to be those who actually went on it. The rest of the world looked on, as Dan Hodges put it in the New Statesman, doing their shopping in Sainsburys, somewhere between nonplussed, bemused and revolted.

The Economist, while politically very free-market, is usually rather objective and clear-headed in its criticism of good versus bad political strategy (for example, note here its equally adverse criticism of the Tories). It opined:

“Labour’s decision to associate itself so closely with these groups (who, in their soft-headedness, are worryingly evocative of some of the company Labour kept in their 1980s dog-days) is, quietly but surely, damaging the brand of a party that is already seen by voters as too left-wing. It may also make Labour look swivel-eyed and perpetually angry, in the way the Tories once did. In the short term, backing the protests might help rattle the government. In the long term, which slice of the electorate is Mr Miliband hoping to win over that he cannot already count on”?

Labour spent the early 1990s carefully changing its attitude to the media, because it realised it was important. Many feel it went too far, and perhaps it did. But, as seems to be happening to us in many areas at the moment, to say that something went too far before is not the same as saying it no longer matters. Because that is the argument travelling round the party. That we worried too much about it in the past, so right now we really need to relax.

But it is not time to relax. It is significant that what many of us called the “dark arts of spin” and which the Tories so much derided whilst in opposition, now form the backbone of their own operation in government. Cameron, on the road to Damascus, has realised how important it is, and he’s good at it.

There are two sides to media management. One is the practical, day-to-day side, which for us is now immeasurably better than it was in the 1980s. Our capacity to attack, rebut and run effective press and media monitoring operations is still well-respected. But there is a second side. It is, simply, that you make political decisions which avoid the problems in the media that are avoidable. You do not, to be clear, let the press set the agenda. In the end, as Tony Blair observed about Michael Howard, if you do they anyway sense your opportunism and it is counter-productive. But neither, simply, do you look for trouble. Avoid car crashes. That is all.

You can hear the knee-jerk ripostes already. “Ah, you mean a return to spin”, critics will say, “pandering to the right-wing press”, and nod knowingly. But that is to miss the subtler point. This is not about right and left. It’s about perceived competence, or otherwise. And still, for many of us it seems almost a badge of honour, that we can boast that “we are no longer media-obsessed”.  And…damn, there goes another one.

In fairness to Ed, I am quite sure he realises, privately, that last Saturday was no triumph. But it would be good if we, without being disheartened, down or bitter about it, could do the same. We may find the media frustrating, stupid, hateful even. But we finally broke through after 18 years of Tory government by no means wholly, but certainly in part, because we had learned to manage them properly by then. Good media is not a substitute for good policy and good management: it is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. And, try as we might, we cannot avoid them any more than a sailor can the sea.

We forget that at our peril.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.


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15 Responses to “The media were right about the march”

  1. Peter Ward says:

    Rob

    Inherent in your, Dan Hodges and Luke Boziers arguments is that people should not have marched at all, that the mobilisation of nearly half a million people was all for nought. In that respect you have seriously misread whats going on in the UK. After years of relative ambivalence and apathy between 1997 and 2010, the coalition have managed to politicise and polarise society (in the way only a Tory led Government can).

    While I agree good media management is key, under Blair and Brown the party became agenda takers from the likes of the Daily Mail etc rather than agenda setters (which in essence is what political parties should aspire to be or alternatively we could just let the likes of Paul Dacre run the country). Problematic within this was the continual triangulation on issues that meant that we set policy as to ensure that we could not be outflanked on the right on certain issues. This was obviously a sop to the media.

    My and your view on the March will never reconcile but if it achieved the politicisation and engagement of individuals who have not been engaged before then this is surely a good thing? One of the criticisms of Blair and Brown was that not only did they stop listening to the party, they also stopped listening to the public. The media is not a cipher for proper public engagement (which is why the fresh ideas roadshows are a good idea, as are the two consultations out on Party constitution and policy making).

  2. iain ker says:

    Thankfully for me, my one week stint as style ‘mentor’ for this board is coming to an end tomorrow.

    Not a moment too soon, not for nothing is this place called Labour Uncut. This fellow’s piece is 1500 odd words long, and 1200 words too long. I’m guessing it’s a public sector thing, where padding out tasks to fill the day has long become second nature. Take it from me, your mentor, that taking a dull 300 word piece and stretching it by the neck until it’s a 1500 word novella does not add gravitas, weight, or intellectual heft to it.

    The US Constitution and all the Bills of Amendment runs to under 30 pages. Ok so no-one knows whether you’re allowed to carry a gun or not, but notwithstanding it’s done the job pretty well.

    With the best will in the world I set out trying to read Activist Rob’s piece, but three paragraphs in I notice my pulse rate had slowed to 10 bpm, my temperature had dropped to 48, and my lips had turned blue. I was literally losing the will to live.

    If aversion to the word ‘coot’ ever prompts you to change the name of the website, I note from Domains ‘R’ Us that http://www.windbag-central.co.uk is still available.

    Snap it up.

    Iain Ker
    ‘Activist’, mentor, classicist, writer, historian, (and I might as well award myself the) VC (as well).

  3. donpaskini says:

    “The rest of the world looked on, as Dan Hodges put it in the New Statesman, doing their shopping in Sainsburys, somewhere between nonplussed, bemused and revolted.”

    Your evidence for this claim appears to come from the Economist, Dan Hodges and that’s it. Admirable as both of those institutions are, they aren’t exactly the go to people for “what your average non-political person is thinking”.

    Here’s some anecdotal quotes from Mumsnet from people who didn’t go on the march (obviously people who post on Mumsnet aren’t exactly a representative cross-sample of the population either, but a bit more grassroots than people who write for current affairs mags) :

    “Total respect to those who are going and thats from a police officer. Most cops that I know support demonstrations as long as they are peaceful. It is the small minority who go to cause trouble who we have a problem with. Good experience for those with children too. Police officers can’t affiliate to any political party which may be why not many are marching on this demo but I know that our federation (union) is planning a protest march soon.

    Good luck out there today and be safe”

    “Good luck to you all – would be there but it is dd’s birthday, and she’s not quite old enough (or young enough) to see the benefits of a 8 hr coach journey & a march over and above a trip to the water park ”

    “Just wanted to voice my support for everyone that marched – good on you. I had to have Alf and am gutted I couldn’t be part of this.

    I work in Social Care. Those on their Daily Mail informed seats of judgement have no idea just how stuffed they will be once the full effects of these cuts kick in in a couple of years or so.

    I am not against addressing the deficit. I am against the speed and level of the cuts imposed.”

    “To all the marchers – good on you. Would be there but DH is working in New Zealand so will be tweeting my support instead. Must show this government that they are not supported by all. We have democracy so let’s embrace the fact we can protest.
    Sorry to hear people calling the public sector lazy, will they remember that when they use the services we provide?
    I also have my own business and am very concerned as think that unemployment will affect my business.”

  4. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Not a triumph, but not a disaster – at least not obviously so by the only objective measurements possible. The Labour lead has gone up to ten points in the last poll.

    That’s not to say they’re necessarily correlated, although the same thing happened after the student demos, so it may be that the public see the disorder and are reminded of why the marches happened, rather than associating it with Labour.

    On the flipside, Miliband’s ratings aren’t good, and whilst Anthony Wells provides some reasons that might please us here:http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/3389 we should probably attach more credence to the ones that aren’t pleasing.

    But I don’t think we can view this as a crushing reverse. Merely the failure of an attempt to break through that was never likely anyway. Marches don’t change government policy. They’re a statement of very deep and very real opposition, but you don’t go on them to stop what you oppose. You go on them because you think it should be opposed, even if you can’t stop it. The violence was more than we expected – although probably down to wishful thinking from most of us (I certainly include myself here).

    But (assuming it doesn’t turn up in the next few polls) there’s no obvious harm done. Now is the time to move on. I agree with your advice on dealing with the media – although as always, I think there are times those rules should be broken. But part of that is going to have to involve moving on quickly where we don’t win. We marched, it didn’t work, and we should move on to fights where we can win. Further forensic inspection of the issue is only going to unearth more bad news for us.

  5. The media as usual were biased, the amount of damage caused was minute compared to the damage done to millions of peoples lives that this coalitions cuts will produce.

    The targetting of the unemployed, the sick, the disabled as “Malingerer’s and layabouts” was media driven, these groups of people are going to suffer in a way that will take us back to 1940s Germany where the less fortunate, “Gypsies, disabled, blacks, jews etc” will be made the excuse for the countries downfall and financial crisis, Thatcher was a sweet old dear compared to this bloody lot in power, I seriously think Cameron and his brokeback mountain chum have seriously underestimated the public outrage…

  6. Alun says:

    I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but self-congratulatory bollocks of this sort is neither enlightening nor endearing. This is essentially a re-working of the piece you wrote on the 24th with additional (and somewhat inappropriate) crowing. Must try harder.

  7. Tim Sewell says:

    You’re right that EM’s appearance couldn’t be considered a triumph. Imagine the storm of invective, from usually friendly sources, if he had snubbed the march. It is ordinary working people who will bear the brunt of these cuts and Labour is supposed to be their voice. When the cuts really start to bite it will be better for the people affected (many of whom are perhaps, at this stage, supportive of the process and imagining they won’t be) to recall that Labour and its leader made a very public statement as to the alternatives.

  8. Alison Charlton says:

    I was for the march, but against Ed Miliband speaking.

    It was right for people, mainly public sector workers, to express how they felt about cuts to the their services, which they believe will increase social inequality in this country. But it should have been a ‘people’s march’ on the government, not a party political rally.

    It would have made sense for Ed to talk to people on the march, to listen to their concerns, and to talk to the media about what he had heard. One of the main issues that people have with politicians, of all parties, is that they are not listening. To give a speech just looks like what people have to say is of no importance, you already know and don’t need to listen.

    True, it was only partly a people’s march because it didn’t include workers in the private sector, who are also facing job losses and declining living standards. It’s unreasonable to expect it be anything else right now. I believe the unions marching is just the beginning of a process. But it was the wrong moment for the Labour leadership to stay in.

    I feel a lot of commentators are seeing the march through a perspective of ‘how does Labour look in this’, not on it’s own terms. It’s ridiculous to think the march achieved nothing just because Ed didn’t come out well from it. He made the wrong decision to speak at the rally (partly bounced by Peter Hain). People just want politicians to listen, not make grand speeches.

  9. @Peter Ward: It’s true the coalition have managed to polarise society and get them out protesting. But they did the same in the 80s, and the result was pretty much zero. I don’t – as I made clear in this and my other article – suggest people shouldn’t have marched, but I do question what the march might achieve over and above some modest awareness-raising and, why not, bringing in an equally modest number of potential supporters. My issue was always with Ed Miliband being involved, and I think the media coverage in the end rather did the arguing for me. By the way, I agree with you entirely that we should bypass the media entirely and go straight to the public wherever this is possible. The internet is a great tool for this.

    @Ian, if I’m to be slagged off it’s nice at least for the perpetrator to do it in an amusing way, so well done. Yes, it’s probably a bit long.

    @Don, nice quotes but if we go on anecdotal evidence we can always find people to back up our own case, can’t we? What I would therefore ask is, could you find any positive mass media feedback from people who *weren’t* on the march, i.e. *outside* the groupthink? Now, there’s a challenge for you.

    @Edward, of *course* they’re not correlated, and one is certainly not a cause of the other, so I’m not sure why you mention it. I have not labelled it as a crushing reversal of fortune, you are right that these don’t happen in one day. But it *was* a media meltdown, the like of which a serious political party can afford few of. I agree we should move on. But if we don’t learn from this, we will repeat. I predict another debacle in a few months unless we start to change our approach. Two or three of these and we really will be damaged.

    @DearEngland: “The media as usual were biased”: well, we are never going to agree. Keeping blaming the media for our misfortunes helps no-one.

    @Alun: if you don’t mean to be offensive, well, don’t be. Be a grown-up.

    @Tim: I’m sure you’re right that there would have been opprobrium from various parties if he hadn’t spoken, which I mentioned in my
    earlier article. It’s just that there were a lot of other reasons (five, I counted) which more than compensated for this negative. There are, of course, other ways to stand up and be counted.

    Another big problem (as was pointed out to Ed on the Today programme the other day) that it’s difficult to justify being on a March for the Alternative when you haven’t really defined the Alternative. We have said we will cut less but haven’t specified what we will save and what we will chop.

  10. @DearEngland: I should also say I clicked through to your blog and rather found myself agreeing with your article on the female Muslim pilot. Vg.

  11. taffarel50 says:

    Eddie boy won over no new friends for his joke of a speech. So 400,000 public sector workers who would have voted labour anyway, wow.

    How does the vote decider in middle england view the whole event of a muppet speech, militants and criminals?

    Did this event turn ‘mondeo man’ into voting Labour?

    Thankfully I think not. If we can keep Labour out for a generation, this nation may have a chance again.

  12. @Alison: I wasn’t against the march, as I have said on a couple of occasions, and in any event it was inevitable given the scale of the cuts. So I agree with much of what you say above.

    You make a very interesting suggestion about having Ed talk to the marchers, to find out their views – it might just have worked too, although it might have been very difficult to not actually march himself, which would then have had a similar effect as speaking. It is certainly important for him to understand who was actually on the march and understand their concerns. But the important point would have been to show solidarity without inevitably being the main focus of the coverage. Difficult to pull off, but perhaps possible if it was managed very cleverly.

    I also agree that the march certainly achieved a couple of positive things, as I acknowledge in my above response. But I also believe that, as it was, the negatives hugely outweighed them. If Ed had not been there, it might have been more 50-50 or even balanced in favour of the marchers.

    In any event, I appreciate your response as it is, although there are points of difference, agreeing on the most obvious point, that Ed didn’t come out well from it and this could have been predicted from the start. I fear that those who are arguing against this fundamental point are doing so from, as the Economist put it, a “flat-earth” mindset. The rest is open to debate, and I welcome that debate.

  13. @Rob Marchant

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article about the female muslim RAF pilot, thanks…

  14. Alun says:

    “if you don’t mean to be offensive, well, don’t be.”

    I note that you haven’t dealt with my point. Or, really, anyone else’s. Presumably you see yourself as a ‘Hard Headed Realist’ or something. Either way you can see the truth as it really is, unlike idealistic fools such as the rest of the Party. Presumably we ought to be grateful that you have deigned to share your wisdom on this issue with us – twice, as it happens.

    You cry for evidence when people have the temerity to disagree with you* but provide remarkably little to back up your own assertions (protip: never cite the Economist as evidence for the popular reaction to, well, anything). That isn’t good enough.

    I should note that I don’t actually find the content of your argument at all offensive (even if I think it’s wrongheaded, but understandably so), just your methods and style.

    “Be a grown-up.”

    I’ve never much liked that idea, particularly on the internet. Sorry.

    *Although there’s no way you would have written and posted this if you thought there were be no irritated – and ideally angry – comments in response.

  15. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Rob: That’s not a very strong argument, is it? You can tell by the ‘of course’. Almost as much as a give-away that somebody’s attempting to make a debateable point as ‘certainly’.

    There was a definite drop for the Tories in the polls when the student protests occurred. There appeared to be a bounce for Labour last week, cancelling out Osborne’s small budget bounce, although polling has returned to normal now.

    These could be normal sample fluctuation, but it’s hardly vanishingly unlikely that these events which dominated the news cycle had an effect. And if they benefited Labour, then the natural explanation is that the protests reminded people of government actions of which they disapproved. And if we’re benefiting, it would suggest that we aren’t considered by the general public to be too closely linked to the violence (if we make the fairly uncontroversial assumption that the public disapproves of violent protests).

    Hardly conclusive, but not so paper-thin as to be able to be dismissed with an ‘of course’.

    And whilst you might not have labelled it a crushing reversal of fortune, a gentleman by the name of Rob Marchant did do something very similar here: http://thecentreleft.blogspot.com/2011/03/aftermath.html

    Perhaps you’ve met?

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