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British Politics and the Media – The Third Phase of Political Communication

Mass Media & ‘Entertainment’

Mass Media businesses have expanded from single media operations into coverage a range of different types of media and across different countries.

This has led to more competition between the companies, intensified by the entry of satellite and cable TV, and the treatment of the people that use the media as consumers.

There have been two effects:-

In the desire to win audiences, the information and education function of the mass media has been downgraded and the vast majority of output is presented as entertainment. This has also spread into the treatment of politics so that personalities, party divisions and scandal are seen as good stories and entertainment whereas stories covering policy are not.

Adversarial interviewing of politicians is seen as more entertaining than traditional interviews searching for what politicians are trying to do.

David Frost, who politicians saw as a particularly probing interviewer, found that during interviews the editor started to give him prompts through his earpiece about how what the politician was saying contradicted something he said earlier.

Frost, fed up with the way this disrupted the main purpose of the interview, just took his earpiece out and carried on with the interview. Whereas news and comment were previously separated in newspapers with comment in an editorial or special feature, they are now generally indistinguishable. New roles have gradually appeared:-

The Political Pundit who gives an analysis of what is happening in politics rather than just reporting on it. Political programmes such as The Daily Politics becomes a vehicle for these pundits.

The Political Bard who produces a comic take on politics. Reporting of Westminster in the papers is now mainly humorous while a programme such as Have I Got News for You makes fun of politicians and political events

The Political Feature in newspapers allows for a journalist to take on a regular role in promoting views on politics

See Brian McNair, An Introduction to Political Communication, 2003, for an elaboration of these roles.

News is still a key product

News is still a key product for companies and the development of satellite allowed for 24 hours new channels. Global satellite links from the 80s made it much easier to put news together and send it to any broadcaster. 24 hour news means that a lot of material is needed and much of it presented as ‘breaking news’ to add excitement.

Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire point to the BBC showing ‘live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK’ (their blog, originally in the Guardian, and now on the website of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, questions whether 24 news channels will survive in the internet age). The need for instant reaction puts a strain on politicians.

As Tony Blair said in his well known speech (12th June 2007) reflecting on the media, ‘When I fought the 1997 election – just ten years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on’.

He also commented that in the 1960s the Cabinet would meet for two days to discuss a serious issue but ‘It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant’.

The 1990s and 24 hour News

By the 1990s the politician/media relationship shifts as media competition and 24 hour news means that the media moves to a coverage which is designed to entertain the audience and constantly provide new material and parties seek to fit in with this new style of presentation.

Newspapers react to competition from other outlets rather than always following the traditional partisan line. Party competition is also a factor. By the 1990s, Labour having been out of power for over a decade and having suffered at the hands of the press in previous election campaigns were determined to use all possible political communication technique in the run up to the 1997 general election.

Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould, having been sidelined during the period that John Smith was leader of the Labour Party, returned as director and opinion pollster respectively for the run up to the 1997 election campaign.

The Conservatives suffered similar problems from the press during the Major Government and afterwards and also developed their strategies. The management of news is also something that parties continue to carry out when in office.

Gianpietro Mazzolini and Winfried Scholtz call the new process mediatisation (to distinguish it from the previous process of mediation, by which the media transmit politics) so that the media becomes a political player in its own right and begins to shape other organisations in its own image (Political Communication Volume 16, No 3, 1999) .

There are a number of consequences of the new relationship:-

‘How will it play with the media?’ becomes a consideration in deciding policy proposals for parties and Governments.

As a story can develop within an hour or two and because opponents are always looking for unfavourable material there is a need for a rapid response capability so that stories can be redirected or spun.

Internal party critics are a good media story and so they have to be marginalised by spinning stories against them.

Party organisation has changed with more control by the central group of advisers around the party leader and closer central coordination of campaigns.

Parties have reduced the prominence given to ideology in favour of more readily understood and even populist messages.

The growth in the number of media outlets fragments the audience. Politics also has to compete with other areas on the news such as business or sport. Some people can now ignore politics entirely, while those who are really interested have a lot more available to them.

Journalists have adopted a more combative style

Media journalists have adopted a more combative style in dealing with politicians as this is felt to produce more exciting stories. Attacks on the political class in general have become more frequent. Because the parties are always seeking to spin messages, journalists have become more mistrustful of politicians and media-politician relationships have soured.

Jeremy Paxman comments on how the relationship has changed from the First Phase, ‘Once radio and television reported speeches in Parliament. Then we asked Cabinet Ministers what they would like to say to the nation. Then we cross-examined them. Now the political editor comes on, after they have appeared, to pass judgement on whether the performance was convincing’.

Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Alistair Campbell perfected the new approach, which has been called Spin Doctoring, of dominating the news agenda, entering the news cycle at the earliest moment and then re-entering it repeatedly and took it with them into Government.

The party brand had been remodelled as ‘New Labour’ to be contrasted with ‘Old Labour’. The neutral Government Information Service was reorganised to give political control and a Strategic Communication Unit was set up in No 10. A daily ‘grid’ was set up to manage what news would go out that day. All output from Ministers to the media had to go through No 10.

Norman Fairclough New Labour, New Language, 2000 and Nicholas Jones Sultans of Spin, 1999 are good sources for the new language and new techniques.

Problems by the end of Tony Blair’s Labour first term

The press found attacking the Government provided good news and Labour politicians and Alistair Campbell were surprised to find that the support that they had had from the newspapers in the 1997 election had largely evaporated.

Spin Doctors started to become part of the story with the divisions between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and the rival teams around the two politicians briefing against each other. Charlie Wheelan, Gordon Brown’s spokesman had to resign after leaking information about Peter Mandelson’s financial affairs.

There is a question as to whether the Strategic Communication Unit was too centralised and actually prevented rapid reactions from Ministers to events. This is certainly the view of Damien McBride, Gordon Brown’s special adviser.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister he looked to provide a looser control of Government output to the media, although the Government Information Service was not restored to its former character.

However, after a few difficult stories in the media, such as the coverage of a plan by the Environment Secretary to sell Britain’s forests, a tighter control was exerted.

Cameron’s relationship with the press was just as difficult as that of Blair and Brown during the New Labour period and a spin doctor became a major story when Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, had to resign as the accusations about his role as editor of the News of the World when phone hacking was taking place began to circulate.

Impact of Social Media – Less control

The impact of the social media is now making it much more difficult to control the news both for politicians and the media themselves:-

As we have seen in looking at direct political communication, the political parties now have more means of communicating with the public and can by-pass the media.

In the 2010 election, the parties, having found that the media had been giving less and less coverage to the campaign and what the parties were saying, shifted to concentrate on the campaign in the constituencies. Journalists found that little was happening in London and the number of press conferences and press releases decreased considerably.

Stories are more difficult to control. A story can appear in social media and be spread to millions of people before Government or opposition party media operations can do anything about it.

Journalists are finding stories via Facebook and Twitter or on the Internet and having to post them with even less time to carry out traditional journalistic checks as to the truth of the story. As they have to keep up with all these sources and emails, they are becoming increasingly time-pressured.

Political blogs are providing an alternative view to that of the central party machine. Far more Conservative candidates during recent elections looked regularly at Conservative Home than the official party website.

So is a Fourth Phase developing?

(Ivor Gaber’s chapter in Political Communication in Britain edited by Dominic Wring, Roger Mortimore and Simon Atkinson, 2011, illustrates the difference between the 2010 and earlier campaigns and the book overall looks at the 2010 campaign).