Dec 15

Politicians and Twitter: not the apocalypse

twitterPolitical commentator Steve Richards argued in the Independent yesterday that “political leadership is impossible in the age of social media”. He gave a gripping tweet-by-tweet account of how Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to impose his will on the Labour Party of Syrian airstrikes had been undone by dissent spread on Twitter.

Richards concluded that the leadership of political parties, as previously understood, can no longer be done then parties will change shape. This is quite the wrong lesson to draw.

The Labour Party is in a neurotic mess and it would be in one if Corbyn had been elected its leader in the age of the quill pen. The party’s membership is out of line with a significant segment of its MPs. Until one of these bodies brings the other into line, the mess, the rebellions and the tweets will not stop.

Communications media have changed often, switching the conditions and context in which politicians operate and requiring new skills in the armoury of anyone intending to lead. Come to that, political parties have changed across time as the gains to be made by bossing MPs have grown.

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Oct 12

I propose an international embargo on the cliché “risks fuelling”

It was the front page of The Times which made me snap. Yesterday the paper’s Political Editor was reporting the start of the Labour Party conference.

Ed Balls had called for the next mobile phone licence tax windfall to be spent on new houses. This call, the story went on, “risks fuelling Tory claims that, by prioritising more spending over reducing debt, Mr Balls has failed to learn the lessons of the past.” Put less archly and more plainly, the writer means that this claim will probably be made by Tories.

I’ve no reason to doubt it. But the over-use of the “risks fuelling” formula is starting to drive me nuts. It’s hardly the only tired and hackneyed phrase of its type in use in newspapers now. Cliché aren’t new.

It’s also unfair to single out The Times. For the simple reason that everyone is doing it, all over the world. People are fuelling risks every hour of the day. Just google the phrase if you don’t believe me. French magazines publishing cartoons of the Prophet, Norway’s oil development assistance, oil in Sudan, the Prime Minister and Barclays Bank – just now they were all risking fuelling something or other. That was just the first page of my search. Hardly surprising that oil often risks fuelling.

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Sep 12

The Leveson Inquiry pre-positioning: editors a bit confused

The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.

The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.

The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:

“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.

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Sep 10

Even in the Labour Party leadership race there is humour

The British Labour Party’s leadership contest, now coming to a close, has been on the most dour and feeble such runoffs in living memory. Nothing I had read about it was even intriguing, let alone exciting or funny.

Very unpromising material for a comedian, you might think. You’d be wrong. See this column by Mark Steel.