Conning the media

As polling day approaches in Britain and the United States, politicians are pulling their usual tricks. Independent columnists warn of dangers for the public, parties and press
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A warning of the sheer scale of politicians' effrontery as they get close to an election was provided by the Republican convention in San Diego earlier this month. Here was a great political party, whose dull candidate, Bob Dole, was trailing President Clinton by 20 points.The question was how it could best engineer a recovery byusing the wonderful selling opportunity provided by an hour of prime-time television on four consecutive days.

The party managers knew exactly when the networks would screen live coverage of the convention each evening, so they decided to control what happened to the last second.Market research and daily polling had also indicated what the public apparently wanted. So Mr Dole was persuaded to put forward tax and budget proposals of the kind he had spent a lifetime in Congress denouncing, and his running mate, Jack Kemp, ditched his liberal opinions regarding affirmative action and immigration. That achieved, the Republican Party managers then set about creating an "infomercial" so that the 15,000 journalists sent to cover the nomination would be bypassed.

Speakers' scripts had to be approved - the Republican governor of California refused this humiliation and was denied the rostrum. Applause was graduated and carefully rehearsed. Neither supporters nor opponents of abortion were given a hearing even though the issue is as important to Republicans as Europe is to the Conservatives. The far-right champion, Pat Buchanan, who obtained 3 million votes in the primaries, was silenced. Protest groups were confined to an obscure parking lot and each given precisely 55 minutes to make their presentation, at which point the microphones were switched off.

The networks, eyes open, knowing they had been had, ran this contrived event exactly as it was presented. The Fourth Estate was nullified. Mr Dole's ratings jumped 10 points.

Could Tory or Labour party managers pull off a similar marketing triumph here? They have the desire and understand the techniques. They likewise start with market research and polls. They similarly simplify the proposition being put to voters. Labour already suppresses debate and dissent and the Conservatives will surely attempt to do so. Both will tightly control their annual conferences. When we get to the General Election itself, public meetings will be all-ticket affairs for obedient supporters. The party managers' single- minded objective is to prevent the media from interrupting the message.

However, the United Kingdom is not the United States. Limits on election spending keep advertising expenditure well below American levels. The party conferences in their present form cannot be boiled down into an hour's infomercial each day. TV news programmes are unlikely to be captured by the political parties.

Of course the media do routinely try to interrupt the message. For example, at midnight last Tuesday on radio news the BBC led its story on Maurice Saatchi's elevation to the House of Lords with Labour's protests. We were thus informed of the reaction before we were given the news even though the item was absolutely fresh; midnight was the time fixed for the announcement. A similar technique is to suggest a "split" or "damaging gap" whenever a politician departs from a word-for-word rendering of party policy.

Both these familiar approaches, often distortions of balanced reporting, are ways of challenging political marketing campaigns. Frankly neither achieves very much.

But there is a movement of great promise under way. This is the detachment of traditional Tory newspapers - the Daily Telegraph, the Times, Mail, Express, Sun and their Sunday counterparts - from the Government, which they have periodically attacked since the last election. This change gives hope that for the first time this century these newspapers may decline to become propaganda sheets for the Conservatives during the next election campaign. Whether any one of them will actually recommend readers to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat is impossible to guess. But it would be a tremendous gain if they at last gave up the role of Tory megaphone.

It is also important that newspapers and broadcasting companies try to widen the debate well beyond the narrow bounds set by the political parties. The list of subjects not debated during a general election campaign is extraordinary. Here are some questions that will be neither asked nor answered unless the media raises them: should the proportion of national wealth devoted to defence continue to run well ahead of what, say, Germany or Japan spends? What should be done about increasing poverty, the plight of the young homeless and unemployment rates of more than 20 per cent in black communities? Should the UK go forward into a currency union with the rest of Europe? The party managers want to close down debate; the media must force it open.