THE NEW MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
Speech

CIPR Fellows’ Lunch, House of Commons

In an editorial last Saturday, the Financial Times, in an almost perfectly contrived insult to all of us here, wrote,

“.. there is still too much of the PR man about Britain’s Prime Minister.”

Next Spring I stand down after twenty three years as a Member of Parliament.

Throughout those years, I have often realised that my previous life in public relations consultancy was the best possible training for the job. How wrong can the FT be?

In the great circus of life that is both PR consultancy and politics, you must learn not just to juggle, to keep many and very different groups – of clients or constituents – content, but also to tame huge issues, lions, that threaten to devour you if you make a single slip.

In fact, as I said in a recent CIPR interview, what you really need to perfect is the art of juggling lions.

To take an example I remember particularly clearly,
my training in PR proved its worth within two years of my election. In 1994 I bought my nine year-old daughter a girls’ magazine – and was genuinely surprised to find sexually explicit content on its letters page.

I soon discovered it was one of many magazines aimed at girls between eight and eighteen using sex to sell. There was a race to the gutter going on in the name of circulation.

These magazines were both sexually explicit and deeply sexist. Their disturbing message was simple. Boys did real things but girls –well their role was just to be girls for the boys.

So I decided to use my position as an MP to raise the issue.

During this targeted campaign I applied some widely appreciated rules of communication.

Above all else, I focused on communicating a clear and compelling message – never prim, condescending or lecturing. Not a preachy message, just a sense that girls were being let down by the magazines that were supposed to help them.

I said I understood the need for sensitive and professional advice but what the magazines were doing was excessive, sexist and robbed children of their childhoods.

It turned out that I had articulated what thousands of parents thought – and public opinion was on my side.

I also repeated my message until people got sick of hearing me say it. As my old political boss Peter Walker often told me, “It’s only when you are sick and tired of your message that you’re just beginning to communicate it to others.”


I focused on the big picture, dealing with the relatively few TV, radio and print titles that held the influence nationally. Success with those would move opinion.

And it worked. I had used my PR training to run a one man campaign that actually changed something.

After some very bad publicity, the publishers - who were unable to believe I did not have funding and campaign mangers behind me - soon capitulated; a new independent regulator, a code of conduct, and only professionally qualified counsellors to offer advice on the problem pages. The magazines actually improved.

Such a campaign wouldn’t have succeeded if I hadn’t followed the advice I had been giving clients as a communications consultant.

I was both attacking part of the media and using the media to help me. It was an exercise in the triumph of democracy over commercial interest.

I don’t tell you this to blow my own trumpet. I tell it to blow yours.

PRs have a genuinely important role in challenging the status quo and gaining profile for their clients and causes.

We won’t all agree on the merits of those causes or clients, but we should agree that they have the right to be heard. That is democracy after all.
So, contrary to the views of the FT, we PRs make good politicians – we serve democracy pretty effectively.

Democracy is very topical at the moment – and about to become even more so.

Next year, election year, marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the 750th Anniversary of what is generally recognised as the first broadly representative English parliament.

Our contemporary freedoms and democratic representation began their evolution from these two, related events.

So this is a good time to reflect on the health of our democracy.

And I take as my text – or perhaps my warning to myself - that famous quote of Enoch Powell,

“For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship's captain complaining about the sea.”

Nonetheless, my subject is a simple and well-worn one – the relationship between politicians and the media and the consequences for our democracy.

I am thinking of the consequences of;
• the new need for speed which drives instant reaction to often complex events;
• of the growing commercial pressures that drive even the most respectable news outlet into a search for sensation;
• and of the loss of journalistic interpretation in the new social media that leads to unmediated news triumphing over the mediated.

My thesis is simple. It is that democratic societies need shared places - particularly in the media - for rational, informed political debate.

My concern is that the decline in the reach and quality of traditional, “legacy” media coupled with the fragmentation of the population caused by the new “social” media, endanger those places - and so it is ever more important to uphold them wherever we can.

These changes might actually help some politicians, parties and interest groups ; if they use media management techniques and the social media well, they can by-pass objective criticism and make their unmediated case direct to their supporters and potential supporters.

But they make life harder for democracy as we lose our shared national narrative and understanding and as the essential, constructive challenge to politicians provided by good journalism is no longer as effective.

The conventional view is that a free press and technological change has driven increased awareness of opportunity and liberty – and so played a major part in ending tyranny in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

But are the new social media always the same force for good?

They certainly do good.

Above all, they spread knowledge.

I have seen their power and positive impact as they share news among specific vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the disabled or those with special medical needs.

The same public service can be performed within local communities as events and issues, like flood warnings, are spread rapidly to residents.

And in times of conflict they can give the lie to the propaganda of ruling elites and autocrats.

But what of the harm?

By providing channels for bad men to recruit converts to their cause, or to spread poisonous disinformation in an instant, for example, they can do actual harm to democracy.

More subtly, they undermine our democracy in another way.

The social media reduce society to groups of self-selecting special interests who spend more and more of their time talking to those with similar views, isolating themselves from contrary points of view.

Who do we talk to now to form our opinions? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was the coffeehouses of London where society’s elite formed its shared understandings. We still need those coffeehouse forums, actual or metaphorical, where exchange and debate takes place.

My conclusion is that the diminution of such shared places in the media – and of the atomisation of public debate caused by social media - mean that more and more of the burden of nurturing our democracy falls on the shoulders of just one media organisation – the BBC.

Public relations professionals need the ability to engage in a free exchange of information and to conduct public conversations that are well-informed. But democracy needs those things just as keenly.

My argument has two caveats.

NEVER TRUST A POLITICIAN

Caveat number one.

I’m not about to issue a plea for politicians to be liked. A degree of healthy cynicism is essential.

One of my favourite lines in Shakespeare comes when Lear comforts the cruelly blinded Gloucester with these words,

Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

I think that modern cynicism has reached dangerous levels, yes, but the politicians’ response must be to win back respect, not to seek popularity.

My heart sinks when I hear another politician is going on “Have I Got News for You” to try and be funny.

But I suppose it’s better than going into the jungle to eat mealy grubs in the deluded belief that “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” is a good vehicle to engage the alienated.

Or believing that sensational Tweeting is a satisfactory substitute for serious thought.

NO MEDIA GOLDEN AGE

And caveat number two.

I am definitely not making a plea for a return to some lost golden age - for politicians at least - when journalists and newspapers knew their place. No such time ever existed, although I do look back with a twinge of nostalgia at some of those early, intensely deferential television interviews.

You know the sort of thing – “Please Mr Macmillan, do tell us what you think.”
The truth is, as you all know, that the British media have always been robust and politicians have always complained. Somehow democracy survived and even flourished.
Perhaps no complaint was more famous than that of my illustrious predecessor as a Worcestershire MP, Stanley Baldwin, who famously attacked the papers owned by Beaverbrook and Rothermere three days before the election in March 1931, when he said,
“The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of the two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context...What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
To be fair, the British press has, rightly, always been anxious to expose wrongdoing. But their targets have not always been fair ones.

Look for example at the fictional travails of Septimus Harding, warden of Hiram’s Hospital, at the hands of The Jupiter – a thinly disguised Times – in Trollope’s outstanding 1855 novel, The Warden, first in his glorious series The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

The warden was a good and honest man, traduced and hounded to near penury by the press.

Good people have indeed been hounded unfairly for centuries. That can be the price of a free press – that it can make mistakes.

So, to be absolutely clear I am not asking for journalists to stop doing their job – politicians must always be treated with scepticism. They always have been and happily there’s little prospect of that changing in a hurry, even in a post-Leveson, post-phone hacking world.

So I am not saying politicians should be treated with kid gloves, and I am not saying that the media should not be robust.

But it’s time to worry when hard-nosed observers like Andrew Marr writing ten years ago, say,

“… the truth is that we political journalists have spent too much time metaphorically jamming wastebins on politicians’ heads. We have become too powerful, too much the interpreters, using our talents as communicators to crowd them out. On paper we mock them as never before and report them less than ever before. …. We are overshadowing the institutions that made us; we have become insufficiently serious. Once my father bought a rose bush for our garden in Scotland. He supported it with some insignificant-looking sticks. The rose died and the sticks grew. That is what happening in Westminster too.”

I am also worried about a declining respect for the truth and an increasing recklessness in political comment that would make even harlots blush.

That recklessness is in large part a product of the need for speed I referred to earlier – forget the 24 hour news cycle – now it’s more like five minutes.

Snap judgements - by politicians and commentators - become the conventional wisdom and deeper reflection becomes challenging.

As Andrew Marr clearly recognises, politicians do need a minimum level of respect - and facts are very precious things indeed.

We live in a time of unprecedented change and complexity when more careful thought is needed than ever.

But our politics and our media are conspiring together to drive us to instant reactions, meaningless sound bites and gross simplifications.

And the awkward truth is that politics in the UK has become rather boring.

As Kevin Toolis, author of “The Confessions of Gordon Brown” observed recently;

“In the olden days, the Labour and Tory Party conferences were guaranteed political barn fest. Revolts – among the delegates, errant union bosses and pro-hanging Tory wannabes - were as common as bare-breasted women in Game of Thrones. Passion and politics mattered. But post new Labour, bar the odd expenses scandal, our ideological ground has narrowed. Shut your eyes, and it’s hard to tell Tory and Labour MPs apart. … if modern British politics is an art form, it remains a very dull one.”

No wonder colourful but implausible figures like Nigel Farage - or eccentric dissidents on the government backbenches - attract support.

And this is not just a UK problem; as the now very elderly former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said recently,

“Media democracies don’t produce leaders, they produce populists.”

They also produce robots.

In one particularity cruel briefing recently ahead of the last reshuffle it was reported critics of a cabinet minister were saying of her, using a rather dated metaphor,

“She puts in a tape, presses play, and this stream of stuff comes out. She doesn’t listen.”

That description fits most political interviews I hear these days with front benchers in particular too scared to deviate from the line to take.

No wonder voters feel disengaged.

MEDIA CHANGE

As Parties have declined in their power and the respect in which politicians is held has sunk ever lower, the traditional media have fragmented and decayed and the social media have blossomed.

Technology and commercial competition have ravaged the newspaper industry and proliferated the electronic media.

And so often in the explosion of television channels and the frenzy of commercial radio, news broadcasts play second fiddle at best.

Not so long ago a couple of interviews and a piece dictated to the Press Association were enough to ensure your information, as long as it was sufficiently compelling or important, would be carried to a majority of the population.

I can remember as if it were yesterday a world with just two television channels – and I can recall the day our first television came to the Luff household in about 1960.

I still tend to think of commercial radio as pirate radio. The Home Service and the Light Programme were my only two radio stations.

Then it was unthinkable to start the day without reading a national newspaper. Now most people never pick one up at all.

And that is a shame. Or should be.

There still is a shared news agenda that the country as a whole hears, but it is spread over more and more platforms and is becoming fragile.

Our shared national understanding is at risk of decay as news sources proliferate, and become more superficial, as politics is taken less seriously and as news bulletins become briefer.

As much as ever, perhaps more, we need the media - and that means journalists, good journalists, to mediate, to explain and to comment. To put in context. To provide background and reason.

Journalists and commentators like Matthew Parris and Danny Finklestein, like Steve Richards and Robert Peston, like Andy Marr, John Humphries , Jeremy Vine and Nick Robinson – who, whatever their personal views, clearly care about politics and society.

But, in many cases, the approach to politics of too many journalists and editors has become trivial at best, destructive at worst.

What worries me now is that the ever-deepening contempt for politicians in which so many newspapers seem to hold us is matched only by an equal contempt for the truth.

Here are some recent examples.

• First the Daily Mail and the Daily Express:

At the beginning of the year both these papers played to the gallery in the most exotic terms over the coming wave of Romanians and Bulgarians.

“Benefits Britain Here We Come; Fears as migrant flood begins” screamed the Express on New Year’s Day. The Mail headlined one of its stores that same day;

“Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians head for the UK.”

Except it just wasn’t true. The flights were not sold out – there were seats at reasonable prices on all of them. And the numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK actually fell slightly in the first quarter of this year.

But reports like these set the context for the most sensitive debate in our democracy at present - immigration.

• Second, The Times

Not to be outdone in the “Let’s drive the reputation of MPs even lower” contest the Times joined in last month with the extraordinary headline “ MPs’ £750,000 bar bill”.

It turned out the £750,000 bill was the total for all alcohol served at the bars and restaurant to MPs, their staff, Commons staff, journalists, all these groups’ guests –and included bottles of whisky sold to the general public from the gift shop and the alcohol drunk by people at the many events hosted in Parliament.

Incidentally, The Times went one better on July 11th with its devastating - and truthful - revelation “Scissors, stapler and plastic ruler among MPs’ latest expenses”.

Yes, our office costs budgets really are used to pay for – shock horror – running our offices.

• Third, the Sunday Times:

I’m specially troubled by The Sunday Times’ growing reputation for sensationalised reports that hang by the barest thread to a semblance of the truth. Here is the home of investigative journalism of the highest kind. Now though, it gets so much just plain wrong.

On 15th June under the headline “RAF’s new fighter gets so hot it melts runways” it reported on what it went to on to describe as “Britain’s troubled new £100 million fighter jet.”

Leaving on one side that the F35 is for the RAF and the Royal Navy, it’s most egregious error was its “revelation” that we’d only just worked out that it got rather hot where the powerful jet engines point when it lands vertically. Apparently none of the clever people at the MoD – or the US DoD - had thought of this and so we were having to rush to install concrete landing pads at UK bases for the planes in yet another defence cock-up.

Sadly for the Sunday Times and its scandalised readers, the story was wrong on every count. Of course we knew it got hot when an F35 lands and we had always budgeted for and planned these landing pads. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

And let me repeat that point about investigative journalism – great scoops like the Sunday Times’ hard work on the Qatar World Cup story.

We need the occasional brilliance of this paper to manifest itself more often, but it lets itself down every time it runs a story like the F35 one.

How can I believe its investigative scoops when I know its routine news is so often just wrong?

How can a democracy flourish if the voters are so grievously misled or only partially informed at best?

So the traditional media – newspapers, television and radio - facing a daily battle for survival, have become more varied, less coherent. Our news now is:

• Fragmented
• Transitory
• Sensationalised and
• Often just wrong

Thank God, you may say, for the extraordinary decline in national newspaper circulations.

Every single national daily and Sunday paper has seen serious falls since 2010, typically after long periods of decline.

Only the good old Daily Mail has held its head high, bobbing around the two million mark for the last fifty years – but it’s still down from 2.3 million in 2000 to 1.7 million now.

But the fact is that, while newspapers remain very important sources of views, if not news, nowhere near enough newspapers are now sold in the UK to use simply printed media to communicate your political philosophy, your policies or your views sufficiently widely.

Indeed, unfair criticism or plain error of the kind I have described may be less significant to politicians and parties than once it was. We can shrug off what the papers say more readily than our predecessors ever could.

Apparently Andy Coulson’s successor at Downing Street, Craig Oliver, a former television journalist, doesn’t think newspapers matter much and avoids speaking to them if possible. Ed Miliband has let it be known he doesn’t read them often.

Downing Street does, though, worry about the television and social media – and they are right. As The Economist put it recently,

“For the tyranny of the leader column, Mr Oliver has substituted the terror of the tweet.”

But television offers a ray of democratic hope – step forward the BBC.

BBC TV News reaches around two thirds of UK adults every week. This reach has remained remarkably resilient over the last decade.

Radio One Newsbeat reaches 42% of all 15-24 year olds with its two daily programmes.

And the BBC website is a remarkably reliable source, attracting some 20% of all UK news website visits.

Over 80 per cent of people consume some BBC news every week – and it seems many of them use the BBC to verify stories they have first head from social media or less authoritative websites.

Encouragingly for the BBC, it is by far the most trusted news source in the country – 58% of us say it is the single most trustworthy source of news – no newspaper scores more than 2% on that measure.

The other sources of national news are also-rans by comparison - although honourable mentions must go to ITV News and Sky.

And I must note the magnificent role of local papers in supporting a sense of community at local level – a healthy relationship between those hard pressed institutions and their local BBC radio station is crucial.

Much of the health of our democracy really does rest on the shoulders of the BBC, to spread a measure of common experience that is mediated, contextualised, interpreted, all of which is essential for our democracy to work.

SOCIAL MEDIA

So what of the social media?

For me, and I suspect for you, they are often my prime source of news.

But the problem with the social media is that they amplify something that was also true of the conventional printed media –you choose your sources of information and you tend to choose things, sources, people you agree with.

As constituency parties decay the real danger for MPs is that they hear too much from a smaller and smaller and less representative section of their electorate.

One of my least favourite phrases, and one often used to trump opposition to a contrary point of view is “And all my friends agree with me”. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? That’s why they’re your friends.

As we all use social media more and more, just like the decaying political parties in our nation, we retreat into ghettos of mutual reinforcement, only choosing as “friends”, or only to “follow”, those who share our view of the world.

This is a mistake made by both politicians and the public – as Simon and Garfunkel so famously put it in The Boxer,

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

But to be in politics, to understand politics is to need to listen to conflicting points of view and to reach judgements on them. Not just to do what your friends would like you to do.

Even the most strident newspaper forces you to look at stories that didn’t immediately interest you and exposes you to opinion pieces from writers dissenting from the paper’s editorial line.

Not only do the social media build ghettos of mutual reinforcement, they also lend themselves to brevity and assertion, often abuse, more than to reason and explanation. 140 Twitter characters are just too few for the complexity of most important arguments.

But it is surprising just how abusive you can be within that limit. One recent favourite, from my near namesake Davie Tuff, and directed at me and on or two others just for canvassing in the Newark by-election said simply,

Evil scum who prey on the disabled. #nazis

Pathetic and harmless? Perhaps not. Davie Tuff or @bigtwix has 108,000 followers.

Social media are not, in fact, media at all. They are publishing technologies, and the views in them are unmediated – that is a large part of their problem.

Companies with reputations to protect have to maintain a close watch on the potentially ruinous rumour or libel that can “trend” on a social media platform in nanoseconds.

And the skilful modern politician will work out how to exploit the lack of mediation in social media to promote his or her cause without the tiresome intermediation of the public spirited journalist – and that’s what many of them still are.

This is not just a British problem, of course. It can be a much more serious problem in the developing world or in cases of extreme social disorder where there are no established news sources local people can rely on.

The experience of newspapers, radio and TV stations in Kenya in the wake of the disputed 2007 Presidential Election was a case in point: many regular journalists reported that they felt 'left behind' or 'irrelevant' as SMS and web-based systems to report and track the violence of the post-election crisis rapidly overtook their conventional journalism techniques.

Skip forward to 2011 and the events of the Arab Spring, and there was an explosion in the role of social media in not just overtaking legacy media correspondents but in the very organising and mobilising of revolutionary movements leading to regime change.

The media development organisation Internews Europe observed across the region a dramatic void rapidly open up between the discredited remnants of state-media propaganda machines and the all-powerful social media across Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

The freedom of speech and free expression seemingly being offered by digital media rapidly led to citizens regularly citing social media as their primary source of news, information and analysis.

Internews has witnessed both the dramatic success of social media journalism, but also the pitfalls and, at worst, abuses where, for example, actuality and images from one place are passed off as events elsewhere some months later.

This has led Internews Europe to test and deploy the first versions of a highly sophisticated, semi-automated, News Verification tool to make sense of the social media chaos in the region. The algorithm and editorial principles behind it are being trialed directly with newsrooms and media outlets.

The system is felt to be helping editors distinguish rapidly fact from fiction and also preventing them falling behind the agenda. In time, greater citizen education of the need for the curation of social media and for news verification is absolutely critical.

Perhaps technology can help to authenticate the accuracy and reliability of social media and make the news these media propagate trustworthy. But perhaps that has dangers of its own. Who writes the algorithm? He or she is the new but anonymous editor with immense power. What subjective judgments have, knowingly or unknowingly, been written in to them?

VOLUME AND NOISE

And the other challenges prompted by technology include volume and immediacy.

We live in a transactional world where the customer is king. Our on-line gratification through Amazon is immediate and we expect the same service from our politicians.

Campaign groups like 38 Degrees who bombard us with emails from constituents who have been hoodwinked by brief campaign messages from the organisers do harm, not good.

They breed a sense of entitlement that their view should prevail on the bogus basis that volume outweighs reason - and that anything short of acquiescence to their often ill-considered demands is a rejection of democracy – when quite the opposite is generally the case.

My contention is that democracy is diminished, not enhanced by electronic communications – but the perception is very different.

Electronic communications have created a false sense of access and engagement but have actively separated MPs from direct personal responsibility to respond to all communications; the sheer volume makes it impossible to do so.

The volume, the aggression, the ability for your enemies to transmit one of your unguarded thoughts to the world at the press of a button, makes politicians seem more remote, more guarded.

I am by nature a glass-half full man so on reflection I do, just, remain optimistic.

Most obviously, people contact MPs in increasing numbers to solve their problems or to address their concerns. An institution experiencing such sharp increases in demand cannot be said to be irrelevant.

People still form opinions on political issues and of politicians, but do we understand how this happens?

Fresh ideas can still be communicated powerfully but it requires a new approach – or is it largely a question of being diligent about the tried and tested methods?

Twenty year ago in my teenage magazine campaign I learnt for myself the power of advice I was always giving to my clients. And if you have a message to communicate that advice is still powerfully valid.

The message matters most

Get the message right and everything else falls into place.

You can’t repeat the message too often

As I’ve done on many campaigns since – and as I’ve seen politicians so often forgetting to do - repeat the message until you’re heartily sick of it. Don’t make a speech and move on as we so often seem to do

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Be relevant and authentic

Don’t sound like just another politician. Don’t condescend, don’t lecture, and don’t parrot lines to take - but be human, authentic. Say what you believe. Be more like Boris.

Understand the media landscape

In a sense this is the same as it always was - learn how the media work and use them. But proliferation and the social media have made this much more complicated

So there are my four rules. On reflection they’re no different from the old ones, just more important than ever.

These golden rules answer the problem of how to communicate your view, your proposition, and your message.

They don’t, though, guarantee that democracy will be well informed.

So still I worry – we face a dangerous combination of circumstances.

Newspapers that say things that are not true to sell copies, social media that isolate and reinforce prejudice, and politicians who can exploit the unmediated social media to their own ends.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that this all makes work for public relations professionals like you.

So continue to do your job with pride and passion.

And two final thoughts.

Crucially, whatever else you do, be careful; never Tweet after a drink. Always pause before pressing send, post or tweet. So put your phones down – now!

And never forget, something you won’t hear many fellow Conservatives say; we democrats should thank God for the BBC.

To return to Enoch Powell’s warning about politicians who complain about the media being like sea captains and the sea – the BBC is our democracy’s lifeboat.

ENDS


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