Danny Boyle might have shown it thus at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in one of his nostalgic tableaux of British history: A delivery boy in hobnail boots wobbles over the village green on a heavy framed bicycle, laden down with sacks of newspapers balanced precariously on his handle-bars. Citizens in tartan dressing gowns clutching mugs of tea lean down to their door mats to retrieve their copy of the The Times with headlines about the main changes in Her Majesty’s Government’s following the previous day’s reshuffle.
News of the minor posts, the analysis and the revelation that the Prime Minister had been drinking Horlicks when interviewing victims in Downing Street would only emerge in the next day’s editions. No-one cried, of course.
Cut to The Present Digital Age and we could almost have a webcam in Number 10. It’s a political version of the Big Brother House, but with the public telephone voting replaced by Twitter babble. Does this make a difference?
I think it does, but I’m not sure whether it’s of style or substance.
No Time To Think?
Politics and political commentary now happens instantly, constantly and interactively. Tony Blair has reflected on how the political news cycle has shortened drastically. He said that means that the time for political thought has almost disappeared. Any political ‘event’ such as a reshuffle is now swimming in a stream of 24 hour TV and radio news. 24 hour online newspaper websites update continually. Polling/analysis/reaction websites such as PoliticsHome, ConservativeHome, and LabourList provide endless reaction, data and deconstruction. And, of course, on Twitter journalists and political wonks think aloud and argue as it happens. (Facebook doesn’t really count does it?)
To regain some control means Governments and political parties must put much more effort into pre-event spin and continual briefing. We saw that at the last budget (and how it can go horribly wrong).
I wrote a piece on the morning of the reshuffle in the middle of the sackings and appointments looking at the limits of maneuver for the PM. It probably missed the later spin effort to dress this up as a carefully calibrated shift to the Right. You can judge whether my instant judgement was in error, or whether it was more accurate because it didn’t take that version of events into account (except through updated links to other people’s pieces).
But more interesting than my effort was the way that political correspondents themselves were thinking aloud on Twitter and writing slightly different pieces as the process unfolded. The fact that journalists like @IainMartin1 blog as well as write for the paper edition of the Telegraph and comment assiduously on Twitter means that you see his workings. I assume he also reads other people’s tweets.
In my 2008 book SuperMedia I quoted one political correspondent who said that even back then, pre-Twitter, new media and continuous broadcast news was replacing the traditional discourse of the Westminster Village. Instead of gossiping with advisors, MPs and other hacks in corridors and bars, correspondents now went to the blogs. Now it’s Twitter. This was partly because contemporary journalists are much busier, with less time and more outlets. News is on-demand. And their news editors demand it all the time.
I think that one good consequence is that we get much more detail (“I broke off reshuffle to help my son with ‘Furry Bear’ Cameron reveals’) and a kind of transparency. Just look at this brief extract from @IainMartin1’s Twitter feed to see how he reacts to other people and sources as well as opining himself:
The downside is that the occupants of the Westminster village may become even more caught up in their own chat.
A reshuffle is by its nature an insider event. Yes, some journalists did note that no-one outside W1 gives a stuff. But this comment under one article is probably more typical than we’d like to admit:
I wonder if the truth is that covering these political process events is becoming much more fun for those embroiled in them, but might be putting off the general audience even more? I would like to think that’s not the case as the public join in via those same platforms like Twitter used by the political professionals, but I’m not sure. Thoughts welcome.
Here’s one interesting reaction to this article from someone at the heart of the reshuffle, David Jones MP, a regular Tweeter, who became Welsh Secretary:
Thanks for this Charlie a good piece and some interesting observations. As someone who spent 25 years covering politics in the UK, the US and Brussels, I think the political village has always been more interested in this than the poor old electorate. You assume it is supposed to interest the voters. I don’t think so, if it was purely a re-shuffle, then Cameron would do it quietly over the summer, issue the list and get back to the business of running the Government, assuming that is what he thinks being PM is about. But that’s not what we get: why not? Because this isn’t for the voters, its actually for the Westminster village, and in this case it was a piece of political theatre designed to do two things: one to give that voracious old dinosaur, the right of the Tory party, more of a feeling of power and being in charge, and secondly it was to give the media, another voracious old dinosaur (bit less carnivorous these days), the impression that SOMETHING IS BEING DONE.
It was all about the message, not the substance, does twitter etc make that worse, yes probably, and yes we can see a bit more of the thought processes of the poor old hacks running around, (if we really want to) but it doesn’t change the purpose of the action. Isn’t this what Harold MacMillan was doing when he “laid down his friends for his life” in the 1950’s as the shine came off SuperMac, its exactly what Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Edward Heath, John Major and Gordon Brown did. The reason for it is that we have reached the Headless Chicken stage of this particular administration, the big plan has gone wrong, its too hard and there isn’t enough time, or political room/credit to change tracks, so lets have some political theatre, throw it all up in the air and see what happens when the pieces land.
So I would welcome some serious thinking about how to change the entire process of drawing up policy and carrying it out, the public would like something different, and I don’t think that they are fooled, or at least they are weary of this kind of theatre. Do they know that being a minister is a pretty ghastly business when you don’t understand your portfolio, you bring in policy because of an unwise and unthought through manifesto promise and your only hope is that after 2 years or so you will get shuffled out, leaving the incomer to try to wriggle their way out of the mess?
Thanks for that response. I think you make an excellent additional point – what effect does all this have on policy-making? As I said, the reshuffle is a classic insider story and you are quite right to point out that the real audience was probably the media and politicos not the public.
I guess the interesting thing about social media is that all of us can now see the insider process both in politics and the media – my question remains whether that improves public understanding or the political system.
My hunch is that it does mean that a bigger minority are better informed – the sort of people who who are interested anyway. At the same time politicians are becoming more professionalised – it’s no coincidence that the current PM has a PR background. I don’t mean that he’s insincere or incompetent, but the obsession with the message is overwhelming. As I said in my earlier blog, that might be that in the context of coalition and a global economic crisis, he’s relatively powerless.