A few months ago I wrote about how the media, once they’ve decided on a narrative, use every single minor incident they can to reaffirm this while downplaying every major event that contradicts it. In that case I was talking about Ming Campbell and the fact that the media had settled on narrative focussed on his age, his desire to enter a coalition with the Tories and the fact that he usurped Kennedy. Last week, I think, went a long way to dispelling that story (Kennedy’s speech was flat, rambling and lacked contrition, the mood of the conference was as anti-Tory as ever and Ming didn’t require a zimmer frame during the leader’s speech).
Another week, another conference, and Manchester is gripped with what has almost certainly been dubbed by one newspaper or another as Cheriegate (I think it’s technically Cheriegate 3 but who’s counting?). When I heard this story last night, I was under the clear impression that she had stormed out of the auditorium and said her now-famous 4 words in a microphone. Now it would appear that neither were true.
It is interesting to note how the gloves have now come off on this story. If a similar incident had happened five years ago, it wouldn’t have been reported immediately. Instead it would probably have found itself as an anecdote in an Andrew Rawnsley-penned book published long after the event. I suspect the speed in which it became news was partly exacerbated by the internet: if Bloomberg hadn’t gone with the story, Guido would almost certainly have done it for them. But it is of course also rooted in the fact that after the incidents of a fortnight ago, the Blair-Brown feud has become public property in a way that it wasn’t even as recently as August.
But it does trouble me. Two questions converge: does the fact that she said it actually change anything? and does it actually matter if it is true? The answer to both questions is, I fear, no. We have reached a point where anyone can allege that a political figure said anything that fits a deeply held stereotype, without offering any proof, and if the story is good enough, it can dominate the front pages for a day. As the famous quote from Scott Eyman goes ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The sad thing is that no media outlet can afford to not cover the story for fear of looking out of touch.
It seems that we have reached a point where we rely on the media for myth, not the facts. By myth, I mean in the strictly accurate term of a story that contains a truth but may not actually be true. The danger of course with such stories is that we only tell them to comfort outselves – at that point, the media ceases to be a means of liberation and instead becomes a gilded cage.
In essence, this is what has already happened with regard to the public perception of politics in general. A narrative has been decided upon (“politicians are all alike and on the make”), a cocktail of weighty evidence and trivia is thrown at the public by the media, and the public end up wrapping themselves in the story and cease to question it. It is often contradictory: on the one hand politicians are condemned for following the party line, with the other they are condemned if their party is divided on an issue. And of course politicians end up seeking to ingratiate themselves by swallowing the story and indulging in it, which in turn only makes matters worse.
A new myth has recently arisen: “there is no such thing as apathy, its just that politicians no longer speak a language that the public understands.” Simon Carr in the Independent recently wrote about this, the unwritten assumption being that as a journalist he knew exactly how to communicate with the public (conveniently ignoring the fact that the Indepdendent’s circulation is only slightly above the total number of people who voted Green in 2005). Most evidence I’ve seen, both academic and anecdotal, suggests that actually politicians are very good communicators on a personal level, its just that very few people have personal contact with them. And you only have to look outside to see that apathy is very real and all-pervading (that isn’t to say that antipathy doesn’t exist, just that it isn’t representative of the majority of the disengaged).
The question for me is, are we simply stuck in a cycle that will sort itself out eventually, or could things get so bad that we cease to have a democratic culture in any meaningful sense? Will new forms of media do anything to change this? The rise of the aforementioned Guido suggests that it won’t, but there are other more positive signs.
Ultimately, I think a real test of global civilisation is the extent to which it manages to counteract our tribal need for mythology. From Cherie’s big mouth to suicide bombers (with creationism and Heat magazine in between), our failure as a species to avoid wrapping itself in comfort blankets, is starting to reach a crisis point.