Last Updated: Friday, October 26th, 2012
About this time last week the drama about George Osborne sitting in a first class train carriage was breaking. Journalists went kind of crazy on Twitter and a large number of hacks rushed to Euston station to greet the Chancellor. The intensity of their interest was certainly much greater than anything they could muster for yesterday’s GDP figures.
I was sceptical about the story from the start for various reasons. Knowing George and his aides a little I know that they have more common sense than to say they didn’t want to go to the standard class coaches and “sit with the likes of us”. “Sit with the likes of us” is how Rachel Townsend – the source of the whole story – first reported the situation on Twitter. It seemed to me as though she was, at best, being uncharitable and, at worst, her account lacked a certain veracity. Not long afterwards Virgin Trains issued a statement denying that the story was in any way true. Some of course see a conspiracy behind everything and concluded that Virgin might have been motivated by a franchise they wanted to win. Do you think the ticket collector’s story wouldn’t have been sold by now, however, if Virgin and Team Osborne had lied? I think very possibly.
As Sajid Javid MP, Treasury minister, said on the following day the story could be summarised in seven words: Man Boards Train And Pays For Upgrade. None of the rapid rebuttal by the Chancellor’s office or Virgin Trains nonetheless prevented Saturday’s newspapers reporting the Townsend version as fact. A public liable to disbelieve anything that a politician ever says were certainly happy to believe the worst of the Chancellor.
If you ask Number 10 insiders what most worries them at the moment it is the quality of press reporting. They blame Twitter for much of the problem. Twitter means that stories that are too trivial for a newspaper or would be fact-checked and reflected upon in a previous age – where accuracy sometimes mattered more than speed – become facts. Journalists find themselves committed publicly to positions via Twitter before they’ve had chance to engage their brains. Twitter encourages people to outdo each other in assertiveness. During Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Conference journalists tweeted positively at first but there was then a race to be more dramatic and retweetable than their peers. A genuinely good speech became great and then the best for a decade and then historic. In the big scheme of things it won’t make much difference to the outcome of the next election.
Another problem with current political journalism is its obsession with the horse race of politics. Ross Douthat (in the New York Times, 27th September 2012, http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/the-media-bias-that-matters/) and Mark Textor (Australian Financial Review, 22nd October 2012, http://afr.com/p/opinion/commentariat_leaves_voters_short_5mQrboTjGRdmG3ZKDWzJ7O) have both examined this phenomena in their own countries. We have a journalistic class that would rather write about things that don’t matter than those things which do. When I say that they write about things that don’t matter I don’t say they’re writing about things that entertain. Many readers are probably very interested in the personal habits of MPs but voters start off with a very, very low opinion of politicians. Sadly, they expect MPs to be vulgar, adulterous and ‘on the make’. When they read that some MPs are vulgar, adulterous and ‘on the make’ they shrug their shoulders. What really matters to them is whether a certain party or government is more able than the other to run things in a half-decent way.
One man who gets this is David Cameron. His unflappability is sometimes frustrating to me and many others but it is a strength in this frenzied media environment. He is increasingly focused on the issues that matter to the country: jobs, energy prices, NHS waiting lists, the tax burden. He doesn’t quite have an operation to match yet. That man Mark Textor again has said in a previous article that journalists should not run political campaigns. “Ignore media commentators and stick to your part of the plan,” he has written. Continuing: “Especially ignore their strategy, marketing poll interpretations. There are almost no former journalists who have been successful campaign managers. This is because they are tactically focused on Monday morning’s headlines and not the long-term strategy required to get a consistent and, critically, a salient message to the public.” He is, of course, completely right. No modern politician can ignore the impact of Twitter on politics but the biggest challenge for modern political communication is to focus on the things that matter and manage rather than be diverted by the endless distractions.
By Tim Montgomerie
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVE HOME
COMMUNICATING COMPETENCE: “Norman Tebbit is largely right in his article for today’s Observer. The public wouldn’t mind ‘toffs’ running the country if the country was being run well. There’s a perception that it isn’t being run well. This is deadly for any government but particularly for a Conservative government. Voters don’t always think our hearts are in the right place but they vote for us as the hard-headed party when the country needs rescuing.” More via http://conho.me/XtIWRz
ECONOMIC COMPETENCE: “The real comfort for Conservatives in the underlying data is that Cameron and Osborne remain more trusted on the economy than Miliband and Balls. Their advantage has narrowed but as The Guardian points out, voters have moved to the don’t know column rather than to Labour. Those believing that Balls and Miliband are best placed to run the economy has also actually fallen in the ICM/Guardian survey. Tories hope that if they can stay ahead of Labour on economic competence during a double dip recession then they can widen their economic advantage if an economic recovery narrative takes hold.” More via http://conho.me/VzIza5
LABOUR’S ECONOMIC PESSIMISM: “Labour has maxed out on pessimism. Labour has opposed every difficult economic decision that this government has taken. At this doldrums stage of the economic cycle that has paid electoral dividends. But what if the public, especially by the time of the next election, come to believe that the medicine was necessary and is working? Cameron and Osborne will be able to paint Labour as deeply irresponsible and unpatriotic for not acting in the national interest when tough decisions were needed. If a party comes to be seen as self-serving and unpatriotic then that is deadly.” More via http://conho.me/THzWDi
TORIES AND EU MEMBERSHIP: “I am not sure that the significance of the Gove intervention – the Education Secretary’s admission that he would vote to pull out of the EU were there an In-Out referendum today – has been fully grasped. It marked the moment when a view held by roughly half of party activists and a significant percentage of Tory MPs was backed without reproof at Cabinet level – and by the Government’s most successful senior Minister at that, and one who may yet be, for all his protestations to the contrary, a future party leader.” More via http://conho.me/TGO85o
LABOUR STILL HOLD OFFICE: “The latest data suggests that we may have a Tory Prime Minister but you wouldn’t realise if you looked at the ratio of Labour to Tory appointments. 77% of people who have political backgrounds who are getting appointed to public bodies are allied to Labour. The Tory percentage is at a miserable 14%. The LibDem percentage is even worse. After hitting 12% in the Coalition’s first full year the LibDems are down to 4%. Norman Lamont famously accused the Major government of being in office but not in power. If this government wants to acquire the same reputation then appointing your political opponents to positions of influence across the British public sector seems like a good way of succeeding.” More via http://conho.me/TGS2v8