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.