Looking on the bright side for a change

Prof Em Jay G.Blumler

Emeritus Professor of the Social and Political Aspects of Broadcasting at the University of Leeds.

Section 1: Context

Amidst a mixed overall picture, two key features of the 2017 election campaign stand out as systemically significant for the role of communication in British politics. Should they be sustained in the future, the prospects for democratic citizenship look brighter.

The confrontation between two different models

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in mid-2015, academics, journalists, and the UK citizenry at large have been simultaneously exposed to two radically different approaches, the driving forces, actor relationships, rules of the game and values of which stand in sharp contrast to each other. On one side, there has been a political consultancy-led model, while on the other, there has been a movement-led one. Questions then arise over the staying power of the hitherto quite firmly entrenched notion of the ‘campaign communication game’ and whether and how it may co-exist with the alternative.

Pressures for similarity stem from the uncertainty and unpredictability of the modern election campaign, which often demands immediate responses by all involved to intrusive events and rivals’ ploys. Nevertheless, distinct and sharp contrasts marked the conduct of the major parties in 2017. In particular:

  • preferred style of political discourse: sound-bitten slogans vs. extended speech, repeated Tory emphases on ‘strong and stable leadership’ (later, the dangers of a ‘coalition of chaos’) vs. Corbyn’s sustained critiques of austerity and inequality allied to visions of a social and political order that would serve the interests of ‘the many not the few’.
  • policy detail: a light Conservative offer presented in a short and undetailed manifesto vs. Labour’s policy-abundant one, dealing with nationalization, economic investment, public finances, the NHS, social care, school funding, housing, tuition fees, pensions, the creative arts, etc., etc.!
  • assumptions about the role of human nature in politics: Lynton Crosbyites’ decidedly limited view of the desire and ability of the average person to take in political information as against Jeremy Corbynites’ belief in an appetite of citizens to learn what politicians intend to do if given power.
  • news publicity tactics: the Conservatives catering to conventional news values (novelty, drama, conflict, sensation) in order to dominate headlines in contrast to Labour’s releasing of discrete policy proposals in the hope they would be reported and discussed by broadcast journalists.
  • message discipline: reflected in Mrs. May’s refusal to take part in debates, limited acceptance of interview requests, tendency not to respond directly to questions posed in interviews, appearances in stage-managed events, attempts to control journalists’ access.
  • presidentialization: a Conservative campaign built heavily round Theresa May personally, relegating the party to second place.
  • campaign communication ethics: the continual denigration of Jeremy Corby and occasional mis-representation of his political positions, in contrast to Corbyn’s refusal to make or even respond to personal attacks, which, in his words, ‘would devalue yourself and the process’.

The rejuvenation of public service journalism

Writing after the 2010 campaign, I noted ‘some diminution and decline of the civic mission of British broadcasters’ as one of three main trends that had ‘formatively shaped election television’ since 2001. Writing after the Brexit result, I maintained ‘the broadcasters were jointly responsible [with politicians] for the poverty of the referendum campaign’, instancing four main shortcomings of their coverage. In contrast, in 2017, the BBC had demonstrably pulled up its public service socks:

  • 2016: failure to broaden the campaign issue lens
  • 2017: commitment to cover a broad range of issues from a broad range of angles in Today and extended 10 p.m. bulletins, such as the NHS, the cost of living, the state of the economy, social care and Brexit options
  • 2016: impartiality carried to an extreme
  • 2017: fewer attempts at a strict balancing of rival parties’ claims within reports
  • 2016: shortage of information provision
  • 2017: deployment of specialist correspondents to provide ‘reality checks’ on contested issues
  • 2016: prominent attention paid to misleading/false statements (e.g. a £350 million windfall for the NHS by leaving the EU)
  • 2017: occasional inclusion of ‘fact checks’ within news bulletins (not just online)

The BBC also made a noticeably hard-hitting commitment to ‘journalistic interventionism’. In Question Time specials, for example, moderators frequently challenged dubious or vague assertions by politicians. In interviews, politicians were forthrightly condemned at times for their ‘half-baked policies’, ‘terrible record’, ‘pretty damning figures’ of failure, contradictory positions , etc. Esser and Humbricht (2014) distinguish between ‘desirable’ journalistic interventionism that scrutinizes policy positions and a ‘less desirable’ form that aims at game-related aspects and distracts from the real issues. That distinction probably needs refinement. Policy interrogation can be overly aggressive (e.g. Paxman to Corbyn and May), breach the impartiality norm, or unduly pare a politician’s stance down to its more vulnerable aspects.

Some conclusions

In UK 2017, the consultancy-led model was wounded, whether fatally remains to be seen. But in an ‘age of authenticity’ it may repel more voters than it attracts.

Political agency matters. Politicians with convictions may not need to ‘self-mediatize’.

The existence of a principled, well-resourced public service broadcaster matters.

Exposure to Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas and personality via broadcast media probably explains much of his party’s remarkable surge as well as the equally remarkable transformation of his public image.

The ‘crisis of public communication’, which Michael Gurevitch and I deplored, may have eased a bit. In communication as in politics, hope may stand a chance of beating fear!