As the MPs from my party go to the polls today to decide the two people to put forward to the membership to be the next Prime Minister of this glorious country, I’ve been thinking about the influence of the media on the race and on politics in general. It is usually a good indicator that the writer is a (hate the term, but…) moonbat left-wing lunatic if he/she starts ranting about the press, calling for regulation, and usually wanting to ban the Mail and much of the Murdoch press outright. After this leadership election, I’m starting to worry that they might have a small point. Not in the banning part, of course, nor in the foam-flecked conspiracy theorising that they usually indulge in, but certainly in the fact that the media seems to set the agenda more and more in modern politics. In this leadership election, it is entirely possible, and indeed now very likely, that the media will have ended up choosing the victor themselves. There’s nothing wrong with an individual paper writing a leader column recommending a candidate of course, but when the press from day one seems to choose what they want to write, and then proceeds to shoehorn events into that narrative, something is deeply rotten in our democracy.
The more spittle-hurling of the rabid left sometimes blame the rise of this political wing of the media on the failure of the Opposition to hold the government to account over the last 8 years. Partly, that’s true – the media see the failures on the Opposition benches, and decide to go after the government themselves. Partly, of course, it is a form of subliminal guilt and disappointment being expressed at having elected a supposedly socialist left-wing party that in actual fact is anything but. Gotta keep blaming those Tories… But mainly, it’s an unfair criticism, and particularly now when the government isn’t involved in any way, and the media is still pushing it’s own agenda.
For those who have been out of the country for the last few weeks, here’s a brief summary of what has happened in the Tory leadership race up until now. During the summer, it looked as if David Davis, the council-estate-raised, son-of-a-single-mum, self-made-man, educated at Warwick, was going to breeze through the minor hurdle of a leadership contest virtually unopposed, save for a few deluded souls who believed they alone had what it took to be the leader, despite much evidence to the contrary. David Cameron, the Eton and Oxford educated, son-of-a-stockbroker, part of the Notting Hill set, former member of the Oxford-pub-trashing Bullingdon drinking society, who likes to take lunch in the London gentlemen’s club White’s, was deciding whether to stand purely because someone from the ‘centre-left’ of the party had to do so to push forward Michael Portillo’s old ‘modernising agenda’.
A few months later, party conference sees David Cameron give a solid performance, speaking without notes and verbs in typically Blairite fashion. The media start to sense a story, and immediately get behind the underdog, deciding in advance that Davis has to give the speech of the century, or he’s blown it. Davis, not the world’s best platform speaker, gives a plodding, but reasonable speech that doesn’t set the world on fire, and the press go for him like armed policemen after a Brazilian electrician. Liam Fox, until now, and even still today, dismissed as the ‘right-wing’ candidate, gives an excellent speech covering a wide variety of specific policy issues the next day, and gets virtually no press at all. After all, he’s an extreme right-winger. He can’t be allowed to win.
Fast forward to the last week or two. A story emerges that David Cameron might have been fond of drugs back in his University days (although my guess is he was too smashed with the Bullingdon club on booze to be snorting charlie). The tabloid press, and the Mail in particular, try to make an issue of it, but it largely gets nowhere for lack of any damning evidence, and Cameron repeatedly declines to comment. The only runner in the race who makes an issue of it is Ken Clarke, who initially placed the focus on cocaine by specifically denying that he had ever used that particular drug when asked a generic drugs question at hustings. Davis later writes an editorial for the Evening Standard backing Ian Blair’s crusade against middle-class hard drug users. For this tactical screw-up alone, he should have hung his campaign manager by the testicles from the Tower of London. Aside from the tabloids though, the serious press have been boosting Cameron for weeks, and can’t afford for this issue to derail the narrative, so every single broadsheet paper prints an editorial decrying the ‘right-wing’ of the party for making this contest about smears and non-issues, despite having little evidence that it wasn’t just the media talking to themselves. The media could not support Cameron more clearly if they tried. Consequently, his opinion poll numbers go through the roof, and he will today be all but crowned leader of the party.
Here’s the problem. Read back over the last few paragraphs. At no point in the race have the candidates discussed policy. Nor has the media tried to get them to do so. This race is really about a very nuanced difference of opinion. The ‘right-wing’ candidates believe that we need to modernise the party by applying conservative principles to the issues that real people are concerned about – the poor state of public services, to issues of social justice, and so on – shifting away from economic issues and onto social ones, but in a compassionate way. The ‘left-wing’ candidates believe that we need to modernise the party, but haven’t really stated how. It seems to involve getting more female and ethnic minority MPs, electing a smiley Blair-clone as leader, and hoping the Labour party implode in the next 4 years, but maybe there’s more to it that I just don’t ‘get’. All we have heard is vacuous rubbish, largely from the Cameron camp, about how the leader needs to ‘be the change’, about how Cameron ‘gets it’, and about how we need to ‘modernise’. The media love this shit.
It looks as if the media will have managed to put a man in charge of the Opposition who is, in all probability, entirely unsuited for the job. As a party member, I have to raise a stink about that. That’s our job, for God’s sake.
What should we do about it? Well, as a right-wing free-marketeer, I have to call for more deregulation. In a country where the majority of the population get their news, and therefore opinion, from a monopoly state broadcaster, we can’t have a serious debate. When a few people have the power to change opinion so comprehensively in so short a time, with no real substance behind the change in opinion, we have a problem. We need more media, not less, and we need a wider spread of opinions in the media. And, I hate to agree with the spit-flingers, but we probably need to start looking at the monopoly or oligopoly style ownership structures in the private sector as well. If one politician can meet with one press baron, and decide what the theme for the news will be for the next few months, democracy cannot really flourish. This leadership election has opened my eyes to that problem. At least in the blogosphere, we can write about what we like, but we need to get our voices more into the mainstream, where public opinion can be truly influenced.