Jan 15

Greece: the signal that the era of manager-politicians has ended

Blair_ClintonThat headline does not refer to the fact that there is now going to be a tense negotiation between Greece and the powers of the eurozone and, most probably, currency turbulence in Europe. The election which has brought Syriza to power in Athens marks something a little broader: the end of a political phase, a change of mood.

Political periods are not always defined, however much paid-up members of political tribes (or parties) might wish it, by elections and changes of government. We are currently living through a moment of change which is proving hard for political journalists to capture because the people they most frequently talk to are politicians. And it is politicians who neither sense nor understand the shift of feeling about politics.

Those who have tried to describe this have often said that there is a revolt against elites under way. Who could argue that Syriza’s rapid rise in Greece (and the equally extraordinary collapse of Pasok, the once-dominant Greek socialist party) has been driven by resentment of a political class seen as indifferent, corrupt and out of touch? And of course established parties everywhere suffer because living standards have been hit.

But the target of this anger is also a political style: the managerial leader. The end of the Cold War dissolved a framework of political belief based around the rivalry between collective solutions (socialism, communism etc) and those of more liberal, laissez-faire kinds (liberalism, conservatism etc). Politicians then emerged who, confusingly, picked policies from either side. They paid due deference to ideas and principles, but their appeal was not based on them. They found political labels old-fashioned and restricting.

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Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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May 11

AV: a lesson in political communication

As I write, the post-mortems on Britain’s bundle of votes this week (referendum on an alternative vote system for parliament, local councils and the Scottish Parliament) are starting.

I have just seen the first – and it won’t be the last – commentary lamenting the failure by politicians to “connect”. This is the politician’s way of worrying about it. If you look at the defeat of the AV proposal through the eyes of the voters, you may conclude that the key failure was a stubborn inability to listen, a mistake made by the politicians. Easy failures to confuse, but not the same.

Look back. New Labour under Tony Blair spent the better part of a decade trying to reform the House of Lords. From that wearisome, grim slog, one simple fact emerged: nobody beyond a very thin stratum of full-time politicians and activists gave a monkey’s. I never detected any particular fondness for, or wish to preserve, the House of Lords in its old form. But I did detect a faint but widespread contempt for politicians who had the nerve to consider this a front-rank priority.

In a democratic system which doesn’t hold plebiscites all the time, voters only have limited ways of passing messages to politicians. Now the electorate has done it again with AV. Voters were supposed to choose between Yes and No. They rejected that choice and sent a different message: do something more important with your time. This isn’t necessarily complacency about the electoral system, just a different ordering of priorities. (Scotland and its degree of autonomy is a quite different local question which voters there plainly do care about).

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Sep 10

Tony Blair’s millennium bug (and media studies)

The wittiest anecdote from Tony Blair’s memoirs about the media that I’ve yet come across is reproduced in a review of the book by Peter Stothard, editor of The Times for several years of Blair’s premiership and at the time of the Millennium celebrations on the evening of January 31st 1999. Stothard is recalling that evening’s fiasco.

“Media studies has long been one of Blair’s specialities – and there is much of it in this book, some nuanced and some not. Excessive examination of media rights and wrongs tends to make its participants mad. Blair focuses comically on one his favourite paradoxes in describing a moment when he admits himself to have been as maddened by media frustration as at any time in the book. The setting is the first night at the Millennium Dome, an early New Labour disaster in which, I should declare, I was involuntarily involved. On the last afternoon of the second millennium, the then Prime Minister, as he describes the scene, is dreading the formal opening of the third, just as is almost everyone else due to be present at Greenwich, including the Queen. In line with his lowest expectations, the big “River of Fire” fireworks go fut; the big “Millennium Wheel” does not turn. While he, his family, and the royal party are safely delivered to the £700 million plastic tent of fun on a new Tube line and in good time for midnight, the nation’s newspaper editors, of whom I was then one, were left queuing for hours at Stratford Station.

At this point of discovery Blair engages the minister in charge, his old friend and flatmate Lord “Charlie” Falconer, vigorously and by the lapels:

“Please, please, dear God, please tell me you didn’t have the media coming here by tube from Stratford just like ordinary members of the public.”

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Sep 10

Tony Blair and Northern Ireland: another version

In his masterfully choreographed world book tour selling his autobiography, Tony Blair has been reaping another round of credit for settling more than three decades of violent “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Without doubt Blair deserves praise for the energy and patience he devoted to the negotiating end-game. But the fact that the long and bloody IRA campaign got to that point of closure at all was very largely down to other people. And they are a great deal less likely to end up on the international book publicity circuit. As I explain here.


Mar 10

Politicians, twittering

Three-way pre-election television debate last night between the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. finance minister) and his two rivals from the other main parties. An unusual event in Britain and trailer for the main movie of such debates between party leaders in the imminent election campaign.

Lots of tweets and posts this morning on how the Twitterstream made this the first new media election event of its kind and how excellent all that is. See for example Charlie Beckett of Polis here (and on BBC Radio 4 this morning).

Hate to rain on the tweet parade, but I’m just not buying this as transformative change. We’re at risk of confusing the medium with the message.

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