What’s the election communication system like now?

Faults are usually found in election campaigns afterwards. This time criticism morphed into widespread condemnation. Why? I answer by considering how election communication had evolved in four systemically important areas.

Parties’ campaign strategies: Building on their 2017 campaign, the Conservatives comprehensively applied a consultancy-led model (based predominantly on simple slogans, etc.). Ethically relatively unconstrained, the objective was to win – full stop! Labour followed a movement-led model, much more policy-heavy. The purpose was to educate people of the need for radical anti-austerity, anti-inequality change. In 2017, I declared the consultancy model `wounded’, in 2019 it seemed to be alive and kicking (literally!). Equally I surmised in 2017 that exposure to Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas and personality in BBC news and current affairs had `probably’ explained much of Labour’s campaign-period surge, in 2019 no similar boost occurred.

How come? Labour’s ambitious proposals opened a `credibility gap’ over their funding and practicality, which opponents frequently attacked and journalists incessantly probed. Its more nebulous position on Brexit continually deflected attention away from its core domestic policy themes. And on charges of anti-Semitism, Labour was continually given a `when did you stop beating your wife’ treatment! Labour, seemed to have failed to fully anticipate the onslaught – unlike pre-1997 when, according to Philip Gould, Labour had `set up rebuttal and attack teams, backed up by computerised research systems reporting to a unified command’.

Journalists’ strategies: Elections are increasingly characterised by what academics term `journalistic interventionism’ (alternatively `interpretive journalism’) – in 2019 to a greater extent than 2017.

Tabloids’ attacks on Jeremy Corbyn were more virulent. Even the BBC Director of News and Current Affairs Fran Unsworth endorsed this approach, maintaining that, `due impartiality means understanding that not all issues are “on the one hand, on the other hand”. We don’t support “false equivalence”.’ Apparently BBC policy encouraged journalists to vigorously challenge politicians’ claims. And those challenges often seemed particularly aggressive (e.g. accusing politicians of denying and misrepresenting the facts and misleading voters) and threatening the parties trustworthyness. Andrew Neil’s relentlessly fierce gutting of Nicola Sturgeon’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s credentials were examples of which the Corporation was evidently immensely proud. Whatever the revelatory merits of this approach, its potential downsides should not be ignored: keeping party spokespeople on the back foot; over-confidence in journalists’ news-value determined articulations; indiscriminateness in lines of attack, some forensically effective but others trivial; and reinforcement of ordinary voters’ disenchantment with politics, fostering what academics term an all-round `media malaise’.

The BBC’s Role: The BBC has come under unprecedented attack. During the 2019 campaign the integrity of its commitment to public service fairness was severely challenged. In its defence, the Corporation may point to its extensive campaign coverage throughout its numerous news programmes, much of it substantive. BBC 2’s lunch-time Politics Live programme, with panels of fresh faces encouraged to engage in civil and respectful discussion, was a welcome innovation. That acknowledged, independent commentators accused the BBC of `behaving in a way that favours the Tories’, `letting the people down who believe in it’. Examples: editing out Question Time audience members’ laughter at Boris Johnson; replacing his clumsy laying of a wreath for the unknown soldier in 2019 with his more assured 2016 performance; Laura Kuenssberg’s over-reliance on Dominic Cummings’ briefings; a tendency to treat Johnson and Corbyn as equally untrustworthy; and its U-turn over the terms of Johnson’s interviews. As a critic concluded: `It is time for the BBC to regain its confidence as a fair-minded news organisation admired throughout the world.’

The Fragmentation of Almost Everything: The most fundamentally transformative of all, manifest in the following:

•the communication system’s ever greater abundance, with more – and more diverse – media outlets, channels, news providers, reception devices, augmented latterly by popular streaming services;

•people’s different repertoires for navigating this fragmented information environment

•the onset of identity politics;

•the fracturing of intra-party ideologies and support;

•a public sphere, with entries to it of think tanks, official domestic and international bodies, charities and activist groups, all campaigning to attract media and public attention

•issues competing for public consideration – e.g. national security, climate change, housing and homelessness, child poverty, social care, Isis refugees, mental health, youth unemployment, the future of the Union, BBC finance, etc.

Future Questions: Will the government fall back on simplistic messages whenever challenges arise? Can Labour eventually produce a policy programme that combines radicalism with feasibility? Can the BBC reconsider its public service role, invigorating a more distinctive one? How will the new government be held to account? In 2017 I thought the `crisis of public communication’ had `eased a bit’. But this time it had demonstrably intensified.