The media are not the enemy of free speech – but those that say they are might be

media

If you spend much time on social media, you will probably have noticed more and more the UK version of US politically motivated actors looking to damage the perception of “the media” or any stakeholder group that might have an opinion that does not converge with that of their own.

This has obviously this has been happening for some time. I’m not pretending to be some sort of sage spotting future trends. We saw how Trump used multiple owned channels to engage directly with his publics and then encourage sharing of content to control the narrative and gain traction by effectively bypassing the much of the traditional media whilst simultaneously looking to denigrate them so as to negate the effects of criticism.

You can see the same tactics used by the Corbynite left in the past few years. Bypass a largely hostile traditional media to focus on direct engagement, owned channels and using outriders on their social channels to create significant noise, including a lot of criticism of traditional media that sounded very like that leveled at the same media organisations by those a long way to the right of Momentum, Novara and the Canary.

Coming back to today (yesterday) in the UK, when you have actors as far apart as Frankie Boyle (https://twitter.com/frankieboyle/status/1254701518290399235) and Tim Montgomerie (https://twitter.com/montie/status/1254769786803765248) both biffing on about whether the media can be trusted, one could argue that the trolls have begun to win the war; the question of media bias / efficacy / fit for purpose is already well under way.

Spending too long trawling through social media feeds of various different political commentators and their public relations / affairs outriders, it doesn’t feel that they’ve started a debate about whether “the media is representative” because they care about objectivity. There is constant, clearly planned attack. They want to denigrate the media so that they can better “control the narrative” and persuade people to support their broad selection of causes. “Don’t listen to those out of touch metropolitan élite journalists. Listen to me instead. I understand you”.

There is a growing trend to avoid playing the ball and simply play the man. Take Guido Fawkes attack on the BBC tonight – https://twitter.com/MediaGuido/status/1255131746162507785. God knows I’ve had challenging engagements when dealing with the BBC and inherent bias which became even more apparent in private discussion with editorial staff. However there was also genuine attempts to engage with arguments and issues that they found unpleasant and I rarely felt personally judged. Unlike Guido who didn’t even both engaging with the argument or content of BBC Panorama program in a series of tweets. He’s running straight on the “you can’t believe what they say so don’t listen” argument.

It’s anecdotal but I’ve chatted to a couple of mates who are well and truly outside the media / politics bubble recently where they’ve repeated this standard rubric to a point where they sound like they’ve been groomed by extremists. “The media don’t know what they’re talking about” or “What right do they have to print that?”. The arguments are resonating outside of their immediate constituency.

So what are the media doing wrong – if anything? In a free society journos should be questioning, looking to better understand and therefore inform, educate and entertain their audience. This means that they will get things (honestly) wrong. Or they will publish legitimately argued opinion that will contradict what your tribe believes.

In general, good; publish and be damned. Unless it’s about my employer or client – for avoidance of doubt, this is a joke. I’d prefer this to “group think” of either ideological and / or state control. But those that wish to control all levels of communications and debate can’t stand it. They want to reach their audience directly; to control the emotional engagement with the news and therefore influence society’s decision making processes.

The constant criticism of “the media” has now reached a fever pitch. COVID has taken the safety catch of certain actors and they are in full on attack mode, stating that the media have “read the country wrong” or are “too negative”. The constant repetition is classic propaganda / comms / marketing theory. Take a simple phrase and repeat it constantly to create an impression, whether it’s objective or not. It is perhaps blackly humorous that that in this case it’s designed to discredit the audience society should rely on for objective commentary.

Of course “the media” aren’t blameless. The ultra competitive nature of the profession combined with governance and editorial systems that are manipulated by certain sorts of operators (some who you might of thought of as the goodies) can lead to surprising publication / broadcast decisions that a little while later, in the full light of day, might regretted. The system we have in place leaves media organisations and individual journalists open to a certain amount of manipulation by those that may look to align their interests with those of a newspaper or simply offer a scoop or titbit of information that meets the needs of the journo / news org and whomever provided the information. Or by those with expensive PR firms and legal advisors prepared to play chicken with relatively impoverished media organisations.

I also think that some journalists are overfond of the role of (appearing to) “speak the truth to power” – including their rather poorly educated understanding of how comms works in organisations beyond talking to them.

However, if one adds in the ongoing challenge of media p&l digital age and the average hack and media organisation is assailed on all sides. By those that wish to dismiss whatever they publish or broadcast because it doesn’t fit the narrative, by the balance sheet and by people like me trying to persuade them to look on my arguments favourably. Who’d be a journalist?

Some of the best and brightest one would hope. At least it means I can be informed and entertained when I consume news throughout the day.

So maybe we should all stand back and take a breath before we criticise “the media” again? Unless we want to live in a world where all government decisions are praised as “brave” and all corporate moves and to be welcomed as “innovative”

Who wants a newspaper that reads like a bloody press release?

I have never been this angry at a political decision

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a fairly standard middle class liberal leftie. A champagne (pinot noir heavy please) socialist.

I am very interested in politics but I’m not political because I cant find a party that I believe in enough to make concessions to my beliefs.

For instance, I was genuinely disturbed by corbyn’s long term dalliance with global revolutionary forces that he made sound like freedom fighters but are actually sickening and cynical murderers. Chavez, PIRA, Castro etc  It’s a major reason I’m wary of Corbyn. I like a lot of his domestic policy but on foreign and defence his ideology driven position don’t work for me.

But now the Tories have outdone themselves. By doing a deal with the DUP, I’ve found a politicial situation that has made me so angry it makes me feel physically sick.

Forget the hypocrisy of the DUP deal. It’s frustrating but all politicians can be slippery and campaigning doesn’t mean telling the truth.

However the DUP deal is a moral obscenity for three reasosns.

1- it potentially breaks the Good Friday Agreement. The issues that drove decades long conflict have not been eradicated. It could start again. Anything that raises tension, especially given the failure of Stormomt should be very carefully considered. One of the reasons there’s been (more or less) stability in Ulster is that there is the perception that neither side has an advantage in Westminster. Whether the DUP gets an advantage or not, the optics are terrible.

2 – the DUP have some deeply illiberal policies that are founded in their religious beliefs which are fundamentally opposite to wider eng / Welsh & Scottish law. Religious morality has largely been removed from the UK’s political process for what I feel are good liberal reasons. In a multi cultural liberal democracy, basing legislation on religious dogma feel like a dangerous timewarp.

3- finally the DUP is inextricably connected to odious paramilitary groups such as the UDA. These groups still exist, remain well organised and armed and are funded by the proceeds of organised crime such as drug dealing. There are suggestions that UDA men are instrumental in getting the DUP vote out and making sure the community votes DUP not UUP or god forbid Alliance.

Through my MA I developed a fair understanding of the different combatant parties in Ulster during operation Bannner. All parties did horrendous things. It would be wtong to think of the Loyalist Paramilitaries as anything other than brutal and ruthless people who did truly appalling things.

Considering these issues, the thought that any party would use an alliance with the DUP to prop up a minority government for a short time is frankly sickening.

I’ve never been as angry about anything on UK politics as I am about this. I’m seething that for what can only be a short term hold on power, the Tories are putting so much at risk.

I don’t know what the solution is or when I will calm down but for now I’m finding it an interesting sensation; actually caring about UK politics.

 

How Clausewitz helped me think about poppies

There has been an awful lot written and said about the wearing of poppies. There has been a growing pressure in the popular media that poppies must be worn from mid October onwards.

I’ve seen this professionally, with fellow PR advisers understanding that our clients, even if foreign, must be seen wearing a poppy at this time of year, or they are likely to attract quite intense, personalised criticism.

What I’ve found particularly frustrating is that over the past few years the issue seems to have intensified into a binary choice. One is either a patriotic supporter of the U.K. Armed forces, or you’re a traitor. The voice of entitled moral indignation makes me grit my teeth. The certainty that they are right and anyone that disagrees is simply beyond the pale. Take the PM in the house today moaning about FIFA. I hate being told what to do, even if it’s something I might well do anyway.

I’m a big supporter of the British Armed forces, not least because I’ve compared them with other Sovereign operators such as Russia, France and the US. (Some people reading this might be aware of my fascination of military history, which lead to post graduate study of War Studies. I had a particular focus on the integration and interaction of intelligence and military capabilities in low intensity war zones, specifically Ulster & Chechnya). In general HM Forces intelligence, professionalism and commitment to operating within legal and moral guidelines does our country great credit, and has done for many years. I’m not saying I’m desperately keen for Aidan to become an infantryman, but in general I think the institution is a positive one.

Of course WW2, Bosnia the Falklands and Sierra Leone and other conflicts were entirely “just wars”. Of course WW1 was a national tragedy, if not one as morally simple as WW2. These are the conflicts we are meant to remember with poppies and pride. These are the conflicts my family fought in, and were effected by.

Ready for the “however”? The British Army, Royal Navy and RAF have not always been used for pure, certain, moral purposes. Geopolitical decision making in briefing rooms in London can lead to exceptionally nasty reality on the ground. Whether it was the colonial operations of the early to mid 20th century to secret wars in the Middle East for nasty allies; from decades of questionable operations in Ireland by a small minority of the U.K. servicemen actually engaged, to Iraq; UK armed forces are both prone to occasional moral failure and are the tip of the spear, executors of government policy that may in hindsight have been regretted.

This leads me to my final points. The poppy is designed to commemorate all UK combat casualties since 1914. There are therefore two lines thrown around a lot that I just don’t buy.

1- “they fought and died so you’re free to moan”

P2- “poppies are not a political symbol”

Both to me feel incorrect if you’re referring to a combat casualties in conflicts that are Clausewitzian in that soldiers are in harm’s way due purely to British geopolitical interest, particularly if we are referring to professional soldiers and not national servicemen. Often these men are not “defending” us in any meaningful way. They are hard, methodical professionals executing government policy. Saying the poppy is apolitical feels somewhat naive. Forget arguments about how the Irish / Germans / Kenyans / insert your choice here, feel. These men often died due to simple Clausewitzian logic. If war is the continuation of policy by other means, the wearing of a poppy can be seen as a political act.

So my conclusion? Wear a poppy if you want. Be proud of our outstanding armed forces. Give a lot of money to the Legion and Crisis because a horrible % of homeless are ex forces and need help. We should ask why we have to give to a charity, as surely the government should be taking better care of men it has held too close to the fire? At the same time there are plenty of reasons why one might not want to publicly celebrate the memory of wars which were far from self defence or glorious. Those people should not be made to feel as traitors.

As it happens I’ve given regularly to the appeal this year, as I do every year and I wish all UK servicemen well. I don’t necessarily wear a poppy as I lose them all the time. I don’t feel I have to have to wear one on every day up to 11 November. With the slashed budget and capacity stretched to breaking point and some kit not fit for purpose, HM Forces need a lot of luck.

So, Dail Mail Dacre and team, who’s the real traitor, someone who doesn’t buy a poppy, or a government that won’t properly equip troops but send them into combat of questionable legality against enemies who don’t follow Geneva or Hague conventions, and then not support them when they come home and return to civilian life?

Is anyone else bored of the election campaign yet?

The new year has brought us a political communications onslaught. Someone probably let of one of the cannons at Edinburgh Castle or the Belfast fired a salvo to mark what will be 4 months of being blasted with a constant, 24/7 diet of political campaigning.

I’m sure the political junkies amongst you are really excited. Wow, more politics! Brilliant, there’s Cameron, May, Miliband, Clegg, Farrage etc on Question Time, Today, PM, Andrew Marr etc. Oh look, a hectoring piece about how the NHS will go down the can with the Tories in power in the Guardian. What about this hard hitting column in the Mail on Sunday bemoaning the “scrounging culture” engendered by Blair and Brown’s governments.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a combination of politically apathetic and professional communications advisor that I despair of much of the content and tone. There’s a dearth of subtlety and nuance. There’s little sophisticated oration. Speeches are designed to be split up and showed on TV, so they can often appear to be a collection of policy derived soundbites, rather than spelling out a narrative about why I should trust some independently educated 40 something that has only ever worked in politics with the future of our country.

Perhaps it’s because I’m related it immigrants, and wasn’t even born in the UK, but I despair of the UKIP led agenda around both the EU and our demographics. Of course the EU needs reform; it’s a political institution that blends the sovereignty of dozens of States. It’s complicated, which doesn’t help if you’ve got 200 words to grab the attention of a busy commuter in their morning paper.

It’s the same when matters of ethnicity are discussed. I’d be far more willing to engage with someone about ethnicity if I didn’t feel that their starting point was racially motivated negativity. “Bongo Bongo” and the like. Again, I don’t suggest that totally open borders are the answer, but after chatting to a few ‘Kippers, I came away with the impression is that they’d be happier with a far less ethnically diverse UK because “that’s the way it should be”. There are rather than more nuanced arguments than could be made around the economic challenges driven by a growing population dependent on low wage insecure employment / social security dynamic that makes like miserable if your called John Smith and you’re from Upminster or Piotr Pavlevsky from East Prussia.

I’m so dispirited by the main parties. How they don’t have anything new to offer. How it all feels so negative. They’re not selling hope, they’re selling fear. The whole process all feels so tired. The Lib Dems put themselves in an impossible position going into a coalition rather than a more elastic deal. I just don’t believe them. I work in the energy industry, so I’m never going to vote Green. My words above show you my feelings on UKIP.

Add this to the fact that my MP is in the safest seat in the country, as is the opposite party next door, and it all feels such a charade. You could take the same pig, swap the rosettes on its collar and it could win both seats.

It seems so fundamentally against everything I’ve been taught in different sorts of communications, where positivity and dynamism are valued. What your team can offer a myriad of constituencies. Don’t get me wrong, I love working out the political considerations for clients and considering messages that will chime with regional stakeholders. This however seems a world away from what political parties do to reach voters.

I don’t know whether these issues are all intractable. Perhaps there will be a revolution in political communications back to a more positive agenda.

Given the Scottish independence process, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Lies, damn lies & politicians

I’ve worked in various sorts of communications consultancies since 2002. It’s been a mix of Investor relations, public relations, public affairs and international relations. For an industry that is based on crafting language to persuade an audience, accusations of dishonesty are only ever a word or pregnant pause away.

I’ve only ever been accused of lying twice.

The first time was in jest. A prospective client came to my team many years and a number of employers ago as he was impressed with the media coverage we had gained for a client. “How have you persuaded the world that X is a nice guy?” He asked. “You must be great liars”, he finished, whilst laughing.

The point is, he knew we weren’t “liars” but that we managed the client’s communications with a lot of care. He was looking for the same service.

The second time was less fun. A journalist who must remain nameless accused me of lying as I had refused to confirm his theory. The next day he insisted events had proved him right and me a liar. I suggested to him that he was still factually incorrect and that whilst he may morally have had a point, legally he could not write what he wanted to.

I am therefore well aware of the careful line communicators have to tread.

So the Prime Minister’s comments today at PMQ have left me annoyed. Not surprised per se, just anger combined with boredom at the pantomime that is UK politics. Cameron was responding to criticism over the sale of Royal Mail. He said that the same process had been in the Labour Manifesto.

But it had not.

A number of labour tweeters got on the case ASAP (including my boss) to make this point. No one used the word “lie”.

I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s because the political world is comfortable with falsehood than many others. Parliamentary Privilege exists to facilitate debate that could be strangled by threat of legal action and is a Good Thing. However it could be argued this safety net has now stretched beyond the House and has created a permissive attitude to lies if they are politically expedient.

In other industries, particularly regulated capital markets, there are consequences if you lie. Falsifying oil reserves. Pretending you had more customers that was the case. Both quite simple lies. Both major corporate scandals. Both punished.

I’d love to say positive things about my clients with the understanding that I wouldn’t be punished for it. It would make my life an awful lot easier. Or would it? Would I just lose any trust I’ve built up over the last decade?

So here’s my point, politicians lie with impunity because it has become a rule of the game that they’re all allowed to do, no matter what the party. It’s like diving it football. Please don’t think this is coming from a partisan POV. Blair, Brown and Miliband are just as culpable. Is it in any way connected that the UK has a serious problem with democratic deficit and respect for the political class because such a small proportion of the population votes at many of the elections in the last 10 years – especially if we compare our % to those of France? Of course there are other systemic issues, but if I had a quid for every time I’ve heard a variation on “they’re all the same, bastard liars” I could take Kirsty out for a great dinner.

I’m sure my PA colleagues will accuse me of chronic naïveté and I should be more respectful of the rules of the game. Others might suggest I remember how fundamentally unethical investment banks and wider capital markets have been seen to be, and that I should consider my own community before criticising others.

However I just can’t get my head around the simplicity of this particular lie. Either he knew, did it consciously and is therefore not to be trusted, or he didn’t know and he’s incompetent. Either way, he’s broken the 11th commandment, something I’d prefer it if our Prime Minister didn’t do. As an ex PR guy himself, it’s deeply unimpressive.

It’s not the reason why I won’t vote Tory. It is emblematic of why I despair of British politics and I hope that it doesn’t become SOP in my corners of communications.