Thursday, 8 May 2008

For grown-ups

I wrote some nonsense about political reporting as story-telling earlier. Hopi Sen has a much better piece on it here.

It's something that's playing out in the American Democratic primaries. We all love a contest, so "Clinton wins the state" is a better story than "net gain of 3 delegates". Each effectively meaningless marginal victory in Ohio and Pennsylvania etc. has allowed Clinton (and the media) to tell the dramatic tale of a close-fought contest/resurgent underdog.

Now things have changed again. Obama "beat expectations" in North Carolina (bigger win) and Indiana (smaller loss/near upset). So the story changes again! Obama has overcome his demons, Clinton has failed to capitalise and now the media have declared the race over. All of which completely ignores the main point - Obama has been practically unbeatable since Super Tuesday back at the beginning of Feb.

What this shows is that:
  • the narrative doesn't have to relate too closely to the facts
  • once a narrative takes hold, it takes a major event to change it
  • the media's interest doesn't necessarily overlap with the public interest
  • people lap this stuff up

For UK examples, consider Brown's trajectory - initially riding a wave of support, until he over-reached with speculation about an election. This gave Cameron a media-friendly moment when he gave his highly predictable "bring it on" speech: now the story was about a fight, and Brown backing out of it. Whether it was actually a good time to call an election was a moot point. Since then, the narrative has been about timorous Brown and dashing Dave. The media could be placing the Opposition under scrutiny - Don Paskini and Freemania find holes to pick on a fairly regular basis - but it's more interesting to have a strong Opposition and a weak Government right now, so those are the stories we get. And, of course, we love it. The Hague/IDS/Howard Tories were good for a laugh, but after 11 years we're a bit bored, a bit fed-up and we want some excitment in our lives. Punch and Judy politics is at least watchable, after all.

This is where Hopi gets too optimistic, in my view. He thinks that there's room for a clash of political philosophies, a battle of ideas raging across leader columns, Question Time and the Today Programme. I honestly doubt if we can support that: it's too easy to turn from ideas to personalities - too easy for us punters, too easy for the media and much too easy for politicians, who otherwise would have to: a) come up with a coherent political programme and b) condense it into soundbites and anecdotes without losing the thread. Whereas painting your opponent as a bottler, or a upper-class twit, is less work, and goes over more easily.

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