Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Alastair Stewart and the new theatre of TV politics

Alastair Stewart, moderator of the first ever UK General Election televised debate

“The TV debates were a tipping point in how we do politics” according to Alastair Stewart, who made history as moderator of Britain's first ever televised election debate between the three main party leaders. And having experienced in the flesh the effervescence of the man himself, I couldn't think of anyone better to do so.

For Gordon Brown, there was much to fear from a new spotlight on his persona. For David Cameron, it was a chance to prove his statesman credentials. Nick Clegg would be the new boy with the clean slate, railing against the 'Labservative' duopoly. They had everything to lose, and everything to gain. For the broadcasters, the debates were a long-awaited “alignment of the planets” as according to Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, previous Prime Ministers had refused their rivals an equal footing.
It would have been easy to write off the debates as presidential. But for Stewart, they were a chance to revert to “old fashioned campaigning...when TV meets people who are trying to get your vote”. And it worked. Viewing figures compared favourably with, say a Friday night episode of Coronation Street, with the first debate watched by 9.6 million – and remaining consistently high for the Sky and BBC broadcasts.

The debates came at an opportune time for parties to get their message across when public trust in politicians was at an all-time low, in the wake of a damaging expenses scandal and an enormous budget deficit. Stewart reflected the overall feedback seen afterwards in the press, and throughout on social networking sites such as Twitter. Brown came across as “ill at-ease, and made no 'killer' points”. Cameron “hadn't a clue what he was doing”, but Clegg “shone from the outset, with a natural, compelling narrative”.

“The penny dropped in enormous numbers” as the public fell for Clegg's seemingly invincible message. Joint favourites of the 2010 General Election had been the Tories and 'change' – and the result fulfilled a general desire for a hung parliament. But as Stewart said, “the real impact didn't change the outcome” - but did confirm the perception of politics as presidential...the brutal ideological battles are now struggles of the past”.

In articulating party policy, those “three to four minutes of interplay were better than reading out verbatim statements on policy” and for Stewart, from that “brash, commercial channel”, prime time viewing figures were encouraging: “We got 10 million people to watch a TV show about politics – and I'm personally very proud of that.”

Stewart's perception of the debates was unsurprising. And, like Stewart, I'm only partially in agreement with Andrew Rawnsley in that the TV debates dominated to such an extent that they 'sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the campaign'. It could be the fault of the parties themselves, for not creating enough 'real' events. Arguably the only other exciting element of campaign in 2010 was Brown's infamous encounter with Gillian Duffy, which benefited Labour ultimately as they snatched the seat from the LibDems. Might the campaign have benefited from more unscripted encounters? Maybe. “Television has to reflect the tussle that's going on” said Stewart, and, what's more, “there were lots of local candidates who were not being covered by national TV. Local TV needs to work better.”

And, having delivered his script, in true TV style this seasoned pro shuffled his papers as if signing off from the evening bulletin. I half expected the lights to go down and a rousing theme tune to play him out...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cameron's cult of personality: a response to Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer's recent Telegraph article on David Cameron's cult of personality suggests that the recent expansion in the Prime Minister's 'vanity team' masks a massive vacuum of policy. Asking his readers whether they'd prefer he stopped holding politicians to account and offer a defence of Wagner (assuming he means the German composer and not the X Factor's unlikely contestant), Heffer criticises the decision to put 26 people on the public payroll working in roles as diverse as personal film-maker, 'web guru' and a 'behavioural insight team'. All of the above, of course, would not be out of place in the PR department of any large-ish public organisation. 

But Heffer rails against a leader whose 'court photographer' has started to give him a monarchic air – and when the monarch herself is appropriately frugal these days - it's not hard to disagree with his argument. Whereas the case for employing communications professionals in many parts of government has never been stronger – given the need to communicate a great deal of change both internally and externally - when half a million public sector workers are projected to lose their jobs, the right of the Prime Minister to employ hand-picked individuals to make him look good should be questioned.

None of this is at all surprising coming from the pen of Heffer, a man known to be deeply sceptical about the entire Cameron project, and especially since it has been somewhat blurred in league with the Liberal Democrats. And, although I share his scepticism, the subtext of his article is that an alternative Tory government, probably led by a socially conservative leader well to the right of Cameron, is infinitely preferable.

Governments need people to present their policies, and it's right that political parties spend more time and money doing so today than at any time in history. I agree with Heffer's point, but he inevitably misunderstands that brand is crucial in politics. The Prime Minister Cameron brand is six months old, but has not yet developed enough gravitas or substance in order to make a clear break from Cameron the mischievous Leader of the Opposition, to Cameron The Great Statesman. Aside from that, this brand has to jostle for space alongside that of Nick Clegg and the increasing beleaguered Liberal Democrats, although it shouldn't be too difficult to assume dominance given the electorate's rapid falling out with the Deputy Prime Minister. In a year's time we will know a great deal more about what the Prime Minister is capable of. The problem is that there just isn't any substance, because of the lack of clear mandate from a hung parliament, policies are more often or not made up on the hoof. Cameron knows this, and so in Heffer's words 'the deeper motive of survival is more likely'.

If the Coalition is to survive in the Cameron mould, he should look to Margaret Thatcher, the grandmother of Tory strategists, who would tell us that presentation comes second, and policies should be foremost. Even if you disagreed with her politics, she had a formidable presence which didn't so much need to be created, but simply tweaked to suit the television age – for example, she had lessons to lower the pitch of her voice to project more authority. Her government became quite expert in its use of propaganda and talented artistic types to present their policies, paving the way for new Labour in the 1990s.

Footnote: Cameron decided yesterday that his employment of a personal photographer and film-maker had sent a "wrong message" so it seems that general pressure from the public and the media have forced a u-turn,which means two of the so-called 'vanity' team will be placed back on the Tory party payroll.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Tuition fees are the right answer to university funding problems

It wasn't hard to feel sorry for the 50,000 students and lecturers who marched against cuts on Wednesday, in defence of their right to a fairly funded education. The vast majority of demonstrators protested peacefully, underpinned by a serious and coherent political point. But it is understandable that a sizeable group of the electorate should feel let down by a political leader who promised the earth when he knew he'd never have to deliver on his pledge. Now the Liberal Democrats are finally in power, Clegg is eating his words.

I was in the House of Commons in 2004 on the night that the Higher Education Bill, which introduced top-up fees, passed its second reading. It was clear then that Labour was already well down the road of enforcing a greater personal contribution to the cost of higher education. The Coalition's policy takes these Blairite goals further.

It's true that Lord Browne's report recommended that there should be no cap on fees at all, and the only reason that this was not implemented was because selling that to the electorate wasn't palatable. The Coalition has to balance imposing even more personal debt when the country is supposed to be paying off a record structural deficit – and paying for it by cutting vital public services.

But despite public anger, the arguments for a £6,000 cap on tuition fees have never been stronger. The government is in no doubt that higher education has a value. It has also made a firm commitment to ensuring that students from the poorest families have exactly the same opportunities to study at not just any university, but also Russell Group universities which on paper would be closed to them. It has made a significant policy break in deciding that those who decide not to go to university should not have to subsidised by those that do. Self-funding, and the subsequent debt incurred post-graduation by fees, is a fairer prospect than any of the alternatives. A graduate tax would be an education penalty on an individual for life, but the cost of a degree can be paid off over five, ten or fifteen years depending on earnings.

Those who protest are wrong in assuming that thousands of pounds of fees would have to be paid up on day one of an undergraduate degree course. If it were desirable to attack the government for landing all students with a massive bill, upfront, for their education, I'd be doing just that. But, higher education, in theory and at to a certain extent in practice, means better and more fulfilling job prospects.

The irony of the case against fees is that the middle classes - who find home ownership and the inevitable mortgage so desirable - cannot comprehend the value of a degree as something to be invested in and paid for over a long period of time. Debt is a part of life, and it was absolutely right that Labour invested in higher education and introduced fees to fund it – recognising that investment in education is worthwhile not just for the individual, but for society as a whole.

The protests will mean nothing unless they're attached to genuine anger against the scale of the cuts – an 80% reduction in university teaching budgets is counter productive and vandalises the fabric of the excellent institutions already struggling to survive. Students and lecturers alike should continue to fight back - because it's not yet clear what damage the funding cuts could do.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Meddling with the psychology of a nation

"I woke up to a mental image of Moira Stewart standing outside the BBC shouting SCABSCABSCAB in Alan Dedicoat's face"

The good people of the BBC don't strike very often, but when they do, it's somewhat eerie. Turning on your television set on the morning of Friday 5 November, a day usually set aside for remembering a certain dramatic occasion in history, you may have been forgiven for thinking that a national emergency of some sort had just occurred. It hadn't of course, except that several thousand journalists working for BBC news outlets on television and radio and its website, from Humphrys and Paxman downwards, had refused to cross picket lines. The reason was a strike called by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in protest to the Beeb's management over pension reform.

It was said that, during the Cold War, when Radio 4's Today Programme stopped broadcasting, civilisation and society as we know it had ended, and it would be only safe to emerge from your deep level nuclear bunker or Protect and Survive inspired domestic shelter once the programme had started broadcasting again. In fact, as was reported yesterday, nuclear sub commanders supposedly watched for this as sign UK obliterated by nuclear strike. Listening to Radio Four at 7:45am yesterday, I kept expecting to hear a four minute warning and a stern, patrician voice telling me to 'STAY INDOORS', in the sort of imaginary post-apocalyptic way the wonderful Mitchell and Webb sketch so brilliantly parodied.

So, instead of the usual Today gang, we got an peaceful and easy going early morning documentary on birds and, as an extra special treat, like your mother letting you off doing your maths homework because it's your birthday, even Thought for the Day was forfeited. There just weren't any journalists around to 'make' the news. I doubt for one moment many of the big stars were actually on the picket lines, but I loved the spoof 'bbctvcentre' Twitter account, which gave us a running commentary of the comradely solidarity outside Television Centre: “Keep it up, my loves," trills Brucie. "I'll see you in the bar for a drink afterwards”. And the Guardian had its own take on the allegedly gaping void left by Today, with its own live blog 'covering' the same sort of stories that would normally be broadcast.

Did we miss our usual diet of news, current affairs, religious lectures and sport? No, I don't think so. As a friend of mine, who's worked in the centre of the government's media operation, said: “no disrespect to the NUJ strike at the Beeb, but I can't say I miss the Today programme on Radio 4. Tired format, self-important presenters”. And as Breakfast and Five Live carried on with a mix of stand-ins and skeleton staff, repeating old news and even drafting in senior executives, commentators reflected on the different tone set by the lack of BBC news coverage. “The world feels a calmer place” said Steve Richards from the Independent, as “news is determined less by what happens but availability of journalists and tone they take”. It seems maybe for the first time, that the Westminster village (and I put the media at large in that category), is beginning to doubt the quality of the BBC's output and a style of journalism and programming that could be putting self-serving inflated egos before audiences.

I don't doubt that the BBC needs a morning news magazine on radio, and a light and fluffy television breakfast show (which my boyfriend calls 'middle class live'), but I get the feeling that it's time to take a step back and take a proper look at what audiences actually want. The Today programme supposedly plays to a very important Westminster audience who would be aghast if anything were to change, but the BBC needs to remember its wider remit and bring its radio output up-to-date. BBC Breakfast is so twee I can't watch it, and only gets bigger audiences than 'the other side' because its new rival is so awful, and sets the standard of coverage at such an insulting low. News coverage needn't be dry or boring, nor insulting or patronising – it is possible to cover both current affairs, culture and 'lifestyle' issues without assuming your audience are either members of Mensa or can't even sit in a chair because they can barely function.

I'll be pleased when normal programming returns because I like to know what's going on in the world when I start my day. And I support the journalists' dispute, but that's a separate issue here. But a short break in normal service is a great opportunity to reflect on what could be – a sharper, more interesting and less 'personality' led style of broadcasting – which is genuinely led by professional journalism and not mythical audience whims.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The US midterms: will Obama be too late for the Tea Party?

On Thursday 4 November, President Barack Obama will find himself exactly halfway through his first, and possibly his only term in office. In today's election, the results of which will start to trickle through shortly, 435 seats of the House of Representatives, and 37 in the Senate will be up for grabs.

Regardless of the result, Obama should then be able to determine a strategy in which he can survive the rest of his presidency and possibly run again in 2012. And, whether the Republicans can cause an electoral upset not seen on a level since the 1970s remains to be seen.

The first big question is around the impact of the Tea Party, so far an unknown quantity, which has successfully injected a new form of anti-politics into public life. Their success or failure will be a signal of the extent of an hitherto repressed anti-Obama feeling – undoubtedly underpinned by a subliminal racism - which was easily overwhelmed by the media hype around his election in 2008. Since then, hopes of change have been raised and dashed, the American electorate is more insecure than at any time in its history and a strong anti-state feeling has pervaded throughout politics on both the left and right.

The second big question asks whether the Democrats have been able to create an American tale that expresses the hopes and dreams of ordinary citizens in 2010. With unemployment stubbornly lingering at nearly 10% and foreclosures affecting one in every 371 households in September, it's not just about improving your lot, it's about surviving.

A Republican landslide would be a tragedy for America at a time when it needs state intervention more urgently than ever. Political historians point to how Bill Clinton successfully fought off challenges from a Republican dominated Congress in the 1990s – but Obama has even less experience in the sort of political street-fighting skills you need when your legislature doesn't naturally swing your way. And although Clinton presided over a period of healthy growth and economic stability, he also produced law which proved a disappointment to liberals – an example of which includes the pernicious and regressive 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy excluding lesbian and gay people from the armed forces, which Obama will need to fight hard to retract. The political implications for the next two years could see Obama being forced to compromise and water down further his grand designs to prevent the constant threat of gridlock in Congress, alienating those who put him in the White House.

American politics is having one of its periodic bi-polar episodes, the cure for which in many conservatives' eyes is Sarah Palin, a sort of George W Bush in drag. She will speak for the comfort zone of mid-western, small town politics but where she has seemingly boundless ambition and small-town charm by the RV-load, she has neither the nuance, the political skills or the oratory to lead America away from its own self-destruction. The next few days will be very telling indeed.

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