This week saw the closure of an outdated and unprofitable Sunday tabloid newspaper. It also saw a feeding frenzy on the unholy relationship between broadcast media players and politicians. One of these stories is very important.
It is so easy to use pantomime villains like Murdoch and Brooks, or even Cameron and Blair, as the focal point of our righteous indignation. To do this is to ignore something much more fundamental at work. What we are seeing is an assassination attempt on the now long-standing axis of News International and the British Government.
The white blood cells of the Guardian, celebrities and the massed ranks of the Twitterati are in full onslaught against every chink in the Murdoch armour. They are determined to use this moment, in which News International should have been celebrating their impending ascendancy as masters of the convergent media battlefield, to bring their ambitions crashing to earth.
This is no mean feat. After all, this is one of the most potent power relationships in the UK. To an extent many certainly do not realise.
This is also in the context of an entire past century in which political power and media broadcasting have been inseparable. In fact the political history of the 20th Century can be seen just as clearly through the lens of media change as through the lens of political wings. After all, it was the era of mass newspaper distribution, of radio fireside chats, of movie newsreels, and live televised debates.
When you think of the icons of the political nineteenth century, you might think of them through their portraits. Or perhaps through their speeches, or their nicknames. When you think of the icons of 20th Century Media, you almost immediately think of them through their media appearances. To be a political superstar in the 20th Century, you had to be a master of the media.
Perhaps the greatest of all was Churchill – just one of a list (FDR being another great example) of true gurus of the radio broadcast.
JFK is of course one of the most iconic American politicians of all time – despite a decidedly patchy administrative and moral record. But he was great on TV. Nixon (at this point a hugely respected figure of great integrity) was not.
And to take things to their most logical and ridiculous extreme, let’s not forget that this man is now pretty much the most respected President of the 20th Century.
And played out to its worst extremes, of course the 20th Century brought us the tide of fascism, of Communist based dictatorship – usually established on a bedrock of broadcast-driven cultural brainwashing.
Even in the succeeding and supposedly more cynical age, the power of the broadcast media continued. In particular, still the press, with which politicians remain absolutely entranced, it being the only medium that is truly interested in them, and which enables them to keep score. Particularly the tabloids, which they perceive as being able to connect with ‘ordinary people’ in a way that they have forgotten. And of course to many of them, it is still the Sun wot won it (or lost it).
Blair and his ‘spin doctors’ were described as a new generation of super-cynical, media-obsessed politicians. In reality, they were the end of the old era – the last generation of effective media managers. They could still, just about, manage public opinion through 3 or 4 really big media relationships, with Murdoch as the centrepiece. But the mere fact that the world of spin is one of the first things we think of in relation to a government that brought peace to Northern Ireland and war to Iraq is testament to the unravelling failure of that form of message management.
And now, we see Cameron, the apparent heir to Blair, the PR man in Number 10, playing out the next stage of this decaying power structure. Suddenly his power base looks fragile, and his big bet on Murdoch and Coulsen looks rash and destructive. Not only because of ethical questions – but because when it really comes to the crunch, even Murdoch’s legions represent a pretty small part of the spectrum of opinion, and a tiny fragment of the playing field of active participation in political discourse.
The relationship with the media isn’t going away as a crucial success factor for politicians. It can only become more extreme as media itself becomes a bigger part of life. But the axis of politicians with ‘The Media’ – ie a small circle of powerful but venal owners and editors – is no longer a sustainable power model. It is more transparent than ever, and there is more of the political discourse outside of their control. It is a more fragile base than ever on which to build control.
Nor are the traditional skills of message management going to retain the same power as before. The idea of owning the ‘news cycle’ practiced so successfully by Blair and Campbell in their honeymoon period, simply do not work if your ‘workings’ can be scaled to the population at any moment, without the need for a broadcaster to drive the distribution. Which is why this kind of approach from Ed Miliband simply will not work any more.
A new generation of politicians will find a new way to bend the media to their ends no doubt, but retaining the kind of control they are used to won’t be possible in the future. We see politicians dabbling in listening exercises and ‘Twitter Town Halls’ as they dip their feet in the future. But it is fair to see we haven’t got it work out yet (I will consider this in a future post.)
One thing that is clear is that as with entertainment and marketing, a distribution model on its own will not be enough. Ultimately content – transparent and compelling actions – will be more powerful than ever.