Tag Archives: media

Russell Brand and the media

It is almost pointless in writing an article about Russell Brand. Opinions are so divided about him that his haters seem to eat up every criticism of him no matter how stupid while his supporters seem to shrug off any criticism as if it’s all some grand conspiracy.

I’m not a Russell Brand fan, and at some point I may well bore on at length about why. For now though, I’m going to focus on his latest spat on Channel 4 News with reporter Paraic O’Brien.

Outside 10 Downing Street where Russell Brand was presenting a petition with residents from the New Era estate in protest at Westbrook Partners buying up their homes, O’Brien pressed Brand over his own living arrangements. An visibly irritated Brand evaded all questioning on the matter, pulled a protester into the shot to defend him and then stalked off, calling O’Brien a “snide”.

So far, so predictably divisive. Brand’s critics will leap on this as evidence of his hypocrisy, Brand’s supporters will attack it as the media attempting to discredit it so as to continue their neoliberal agenda.

Yet the fact is that if you watch the full report shown on Channel 4 News, it by no means focused on Brand. Instead, it was a genuine attempt to draw out the bigger picture. Leaving aside boring accusations of hypocrisy, the fact is that London’s inflated rental market is the real story here, making Russell Brand’s own living arrangements relevant. These wider issues are now struggling to gain attention, with Russell Brand’s behaviour in front of a camera once again dominating the story.

I would genuinely suggest to Brand that he gets some media training. The thing is, not only were Paraic O’Brien’s questions reasonable, but with a bit of preparation, Brand could have responded with something reasonable. He could have said something along the lines of “I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford my rent but if Westbrook are allowed to put up the rents of residents on this Estate, many people will be forced out of their homes. There are wider problems about the cost of housing in London which urgently need to be tackled and hopefully this campaign can help force this issue up the agenda and force politicians to listen.” If pressed, he could have said something like, “Yes, the amount of rent I’m able to pay for my luxury flat is part of the problem; so is the cost of your home. Ultimately this isn’t about one home or even one housing estate, but the bigger issue of housing in London.”

Okay, maybe it lacks a certain Russell Brand panache. Indeed, the fact it is a little dull is kind of the point.

Of course, this practice of staying on message is exactly the sort of thing politicians do. I can understand that might feel that indulging in such practices would be to play the media game. But it seems to me that if you want publicity (and he could quite easily evade publicity if he wanted) you have two choices: play the game or get played. The latter is what seems to be happening. Unless it was Brand’s intention all along to steal the limelight from the New Era residents, he can’t possibly be happy with the press his interview has garnered, which relegates the actual issue to paragraph 8. If he’d kept his calm, the New Era protestors might have been deemed less newsworthy, but at least it wouldn’t have been used simply to deflect attention away from the actual issue.

Of course, all this assumes that Brand actually believes there is a wider picture about London housing, and that the New Era estate controversy is the part of something greater and not just a unique story about corporate greed.

Even leaving aside the tactics of it all, one thing I don’t understand is how it squares up with Brand’s own calls for greater spirituality. Because surely the spiritual answer to “are you part of the problem” is always “yes”? Surely the solution always starts with the individual? Yet despite hearing Brand talk endlessly in abstract about how we are all one, and that our egos, greed and selfishness ultimately only work against us, when it comes to politics, he only ever seems to talk about Them vs Us. I’m genuinely mystified about how he can reconcile the two, because on the surface of it his political agenda is less spiritual than the most cynical Westminster hack. Perhaps I should read his book, but by all accounts it won’t actually answer my question.

Clegg’s campaign: the view from afar

This is a very different election campaign for me. In 1997 and to an even greater extent in 2001 and 2005 I was up against the coalface campaigning in target seats (Oldham East and Saddleworth and Hazel Grove in 1997, agent for Leeds North West in 2001 and campaigns organiser for East Dunbartonshire in 2005). This year, my job has meant that I’ve spent most of the campaign thus far in front of a computer screen watching the campaign itself from afar.

The week started badly for me, with the news seemingly dominated by that most nauseating of phenomena, the leaders’ wags (actually, they’re all wives but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the media, Labour and the Tories are taking their cues from. The Daily Mail going for Sarah Brown on the basis of her feet was probably a new low for journalism. Far from discouraging this kind of trivialisation, Labour and the Tories have been doing all they can to encourage it, with the Conservatives promoting “Sam Cam” to key spokesperson status.

Treatment of the public as face slapping morons continued throughout the week with Labour’s attempt to target their manifesto to that all important 5 year old demographic. Sadly, the Green Party have clearly decided that this is the way to go and so brought out their own 1970s children’s animation-inspired Election Broadcast. By the end of Tuesday it seemed like this whole election campaign was going to get drowned in trivial and patronising drivel.

And then on Wednesday things started to change… Actually, that’s not quite right because the first thing which excited me this week was Nick Clegg’s Jeremy Paxman interview on Monday. Paxo was his usual contemptuous, bullying self but what was astonishing was that he failed to land a single blow of Clegg. Throughout Clegg looked relaxed and calm and often rather quizzical, as if Jeremy had wondered in off the street from a different political era when the rules were different. Which, in a sense, he had. Watching this performance I was astonished to learn that not only had Brown and Cameron not confirmed to appear on a similar programme but that Cameron had ruled it out. Surely this clearly showed that Paxo was passed his best and that there was all to play for in securing a half-hour of prime time immediately following Eastenders? The fact that Cameron has turned this opporunity down suggests there are major jitters currently shaking CCHQ.

Anyway, back to Wednesday. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Lib Dems’ manifesto development process so it contained few surprises for me. What was rather more surprising was the Election Broadcast. Lib Dem PEBs are something I endure, rather than look forward to. At best they are dreadful, generic vox pop affairs with “ordinary people” saying how much they like Lib Dem policies and the leader popping up at the end to say how it is really important that people vote for him. Utterly uninspired, completely dull. Remarkably similar, in fact, to this.

So I was pretty astounded when it turned out that the party had managed to come up with a broadcast that I thought was actually good:

In fact, I thought it was more than good. It works because it isn’t simply a litany of policy-bites but constitutes an argument. It puts the leader front and centre. It has striking, cinematic visuals. It avoids talking down to people or sinking into that chirpy, horrifically inauthentic tone that party films often resort to as their comfort blankets (see the Labour, Green and Tory examples above). It has a nice soundtrack (thank the gods they didn’t use that awful theme tune the party launched at conference), scored by someone who is very definitely a Lib Dem supporter. It even tickles my geek fancies. The Brian Eno track was also used in the film 28 Days Later from which the film clearly borrows some of the visuals from as well. What kind of inspired genius suggests that a major political party’s election broadcast should essay a funky, low budget horror film and actually sees it through?

Pleased as I was with that, Clegg’s performance on the ITV leader’s debate yesterday was just the icing on the cake. I thought he was doing well while I watched it but never imagined that he was getting through to the ordinary public. The ComRes poll today, showing a whopping 14% increase in the party’s share of the vote amongst people who watched the programme clearly demonstrates to what degree there is all to play for in this election and how it might yet end up surprising people.

The anti-Clegg spin today has been hilarious. In particular, I’ve been highly amused by all the Tory and Labour politicians stating that they always expected Clegg would walk it. If you put a tenner on Clegg winning (on Boylesports anyway), you would have made back £27.50. By contrast, Cameron’s odds were 4/5 and Brown was in second place at 15/8.

The other bit of spin is that Clegg can say what he likes because he won’t be in power. Yet the Lib Dems are the only party going into this election with a costed manifesto. Yet we have been staring a hung parliament scenario in the face for over a year now. If anything, Clegg had an even bigger credibility gap to negotiate than the other two precisely because he was the insurgent candidate. Yet he overcame that handicap and romped home. As a result, he could well hold the balance of power in three weeks time. Not exactly consequence free stuff, is it?

The received wisdom is that Clegg and the Lib Dems will now be under increased scrutiny and that there is no room for complacency. That is absolutely right but there are two reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, if we get attacked more, it means that more of the debate will be on our agenda which in many respects will be helpful. I’d love it if the debate focused around around our plans to raise personal allowance for example; bring it on. That combined with the fact that the audience didn’t seem to like it when Cameron and Brown went on the attack last night suggests that the best strategy of the other parties might still be to grin, bear it, and where possible ignore Clegg.

But the second thing is that it is clear from what we’ve seen throughout this week, starting with Nick’s assured performance on the BBC, followed by the much more astute messaging in the manifesto and election broadcast, that the leader’s debate was part of a wider strategy that he is getting right and not just a fluke. The messaging is clear and it links together seemlessly with Nick’s style and narrative.

Contrast Clegg’s consistency throughout the week with Cameron flailing around with a wide variety of different messages and themes. One minute he’s doing this “big society” thing, the next he’s talking about “broken Britain”, the next he’s talking about “all being in it together”. He’s got plenty of slogans but they don’t add up to a particularly clear message and he tends to use them interchangeably rather than focus on one. The result is a mess. Brown to his credit does have a much clearer message, although his narrative (stay the course) and his sloganeering (a future fair for all) are totally different. Once you get past the Mr Men stuff, their actual election broadcast with Sean Pertwee is actually quite effective – I don’t understand why they haven’t made it a more central part of their campaign. And even if they were to sort this out, their fundamental problem would still remain: Gordon Brown.

So there is everything to play for, but nothing is going to be easy. As I finish writing this, YouGov have just released their latest poll:

* Conservative: 33%
* Labour: 28%
* Liberal Democrat: 30%
* Others: 9%

Sounds great, but when you put those numbers into the BBC’s swing calculator, you get the following result:

* Conservative: 245 MPs
* Labour: 276 MPs
* Liberal Democrat: 100 MPs
* Others: 29 MPs

So even if Labour get bashed down into third place, they will still have the plurality. The next time an interviewer presses Clegg on whether he would work with the party with the most votes or the party with the most seats, let them chew on this.

Credit where it’s due

datacameron

The Evening Standard and Liberal Vision have been patting Guido Fawkes on the back for observing the uncanny similarity between David Cameron’s latest airbrushed photo and Lt Cmdr Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Only one slight problem with this: Guido actually got the idea from me as I tweeted this observation over a week ago.

Back in the day, Guido used to run a regular feature on diarists who regularly ripped off bloggers. These days of course, Guido is feted by the mainstream media. Fascinating how times have changed.

It is also worth observing that the substance of Angela Harbutt’s blog post is that Jo Swinson is a hypocrite for criticising adverts with airbrushed images of women whilst not criticising Cameron for this blatant act of fakery. Wrong again, I’m afraid, as any twitter search will tell you.

UPDATE: Guido has issued a carefully worded non-denial denial and accused me of “bloggers narcisim” – possibly the most self unaware statement ever uttered on the internet. Just for the record, I don’t expect or demand an acknowledgement – I’m just putting the facts out there. People can draw their own conclusions.

Which side is Peter Watt’s side of the story?

Why has Peter Watt chosen now to put forward his side of the story? It is hard to see how any of this helps the Labour Party’s cause. If his book were being published six months earlier he could at least argue that there was still time to get rid of Brown; if his book were published six months later it wouldn’t matter either way (and it would subsequently be less profitable for him to do so). One hopes that the full book will go some way to answering that question but at the moment it is mystifying.

Based on the Mail on Sunday extracts, I would tentatively conclude two things. The first thing is that Gordon Brown is even more of a waste of space than I assumed he was. Even if only half the things in these extracts are true, they portray a man totally ill suited to lead the country, let alone a general election campaign.

But if Brown comes off badly, in many respects Watt himself comes off worse. The extracts all have the tone of someone who appears to deny any personal responsibility whatsoever. This may just be selective editing on the Mail’s part – seeking to emphasise all the bits that put Brown in the worst possible light – but it is hard to see how they managed to do this when publishing the substantive section on the Abrahams affair.

David told me he used an accountant to ‘legally gift’ the money to his associates.

He had apparently been advised that as long as they were UK residents, on an electoral roll, and – however briefly – legal and rightful owners of the money, there was no problem. Every donation was reported to the Electoral Commission.

Over a five-year period, Kidd, Ruddick, Dunn and McCarthy collectively gave us a total of £600,000 – money that was gratefully received.

Kidd had also donated money to Harriet Harman’s deputy leadership campaign. Nobody at HQ ever really thought these donations were anything other than lawful.

If no-one really thought that was the case then Labour is in an even worse state than we thought. As Mark Pack pointed out at the time, the guidence emailed to him and Watt by the Electoral Commission was quite emphatic. And as someone whose job at the time mainly consisted of pointing out all the potential loopholes of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it was clear to me that any rational person perusing the law would quickly conclude that such an act was against both the spirit and the letter of the law. The problem with the law was how easy it would be to bypass in practice, not what it said (in this instance at least).

To read the fact that Watt still maintains that he had been neither negligent nor dishonest therefore is quite gobsmacking. To make matters worse, it appears to flatly contradict this article – written by Watt’s ghost writer Isabel Oakeshott – where it is “understood” that Watt did not know that the donations from Raymond Ruddick and Janet Kidd came from Abrahams:

Now the case against Watt is on the brink of collapse following evidence that he did not know that David Abrahams, the Newcastle businessman and donor, was using agents and took reasonable steps to ensure the gifts did not break the law.

Watt is said by friends to have been devastated by the so called Donorgate affair, believing senior party officials had made him a scapegoat. Sources involved in the inquiry say Watt told police that he believed the go-betweens – Raymond Ruddick, Janet Kidd and two others – were donating the cash in their own right.

It is against the law to make a donation to a party on behalf of someone else without making the true source of the cash clear. No prosecutions have been brought, however, and lawyers believe the wording of the law make a successful case unlikely.

This 2008 account flatly contradicts the Mail extracts. In the latter, Watt admits that he knew about Abrahams using Kidd, Ruddick and others to act as go betweens. In the former, he apparently told the police the exact opposite.

Given Oakeshott and Watt’s subsequent relationship, it seems highly likely that Watt himself was the source for the 2008 article. Perhaps the full book will in some way reconcile these two wavering accounts from the same people. Either way, the account given in the latest extract is barely credible.

Overall, Watt comes across in these extracts as an innocent, something which I don’t mean as a compliment. It suggests that he was out of his depth. It is an interesting counterfactual to wonder whether a more grizzled national secretary would have been able to keep Gordon Brown on track when he wavered over the 2007 phony election.

It is worth noting that, in keeping with other Labour national secretaries, Watt was elected by the National Executive Committee not employed. He was also not Tony Blair’s choice, with the “grassroots alliance” out voting him by 16 to 10. Whatever misgivings I might have about how the Lib Dems’ equivalent – the Chief Executive – is appointed and held to account – I wouldn’t wish Labour’s system on my worst enemies. You need a system whereby committees can come to a consensus, not one in which the individual is seen to be owned by a particular faction on day one. No wonder Brown didn’t bother dealing with him directly and left it to Douglas Alexander to work as his intermediary. The very best thing that can be said about this working relationship is that it cost Labour an unneccesary £1.2million.

Peter Watt has decided to tweet his experience of this book launch, using the very Grant Shapps-esque “peterwatt123“. Thus far, his utterances regarding the launch and extracts have been very Kung Fu, with him tweeting this morning that “Loyalty is a two way street” (there’s a philosophy essay in that). More bizarrely, with both his profile picture and past tweets, he appears to be using his kids as a shield on the apparent assumption that people will go easy on a family man (see this as another case in point). Why not keep this stuff seperate from the book? It’s all very odd (and before you argue that these tweets are none of my business, I was only alerted to them because his publisher started promoting them).

Does Simon Cowell have the political X-Factor?

No, is the basic conclusion of my article on Comment is Free today:

In reality, the X Factor could only dream of having as many voters as we take for granted in UK elections. Ten million votes may sound like a lot, but it is only two-thirds the number of people who voted in the European parliament elections this year and a third the number of people who voted in the 2005 general election. The campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to deny Joe McElderry the Christmas No 1 also suggests that the X Factor can alienate the public as much as any MPs’ expenses scandal.

Read the full article here.

Why Nick Cohen should worry less about twitchforks and more about the media Frankenstein

Nick Cohen is up in arms about how Twitter is embracing the power of the mob and that this is bad news for freedom of speech. Ironically (at least ironic to anyone who has read Mr Cohen’s denunciations Revolutionary Communists), his old sparring partner Brendan O’Neill feels the same way.

I have to say there is a grain of truth in what they are saying. Twitter has proven itself as a useful tool for fighting the forces of darkness, but it has not yet been successfully used to actually deliver progressive ends more positively. It is a profoundly reactionary medium and while it has been dominated by the left thus far we should be prepared for the fact that this may not always be the case.

The case of Jan Moir’s deplorable column about Stephen Gately’s death is an interesting one. Personally speaking, the closest I have come to having a feeling either way about Boyzone and its alumni is resenting their cold blooded murder of Baby Can I Hold You? by Tracy Chapman, which unaccountably has still not been brought before The Hague. I was profoundly and deeply unmoved by Stephen Gately’s death in the same way that I am by all the other thousands of people who die every day. Nonetheless, Ms Moir’s article was one of the most mealy-mouthed and cowardly homophobic attacks I’ve read in a UK national newspaper and it deserved a response. I’m not entirely sure the right response however was to complain to the Press Complaint’s Commission. Any PCC which rules that the Daily Mail was not entitled to publish a piece of spiteful bile like that is not one I would want to have operating in this country, on a statutory footing or not. It is only a short hop, skip and jump from there to having David Miliband prosecute a newspaper for making allegations about Binyam Mohammed’s torture in the face of the official record. Let’s not go there.

What was very much positive was the fact that many more than 22,000 people took a stand against Ms Moir and the Mail and forced a tacit admission – if not a convincing apology – that they had behaved unacceptably. This was a triumph for common human decency. They haven’t been censored but they certainly have been censured. I can’t see how this small tactical victory in the fight against the coarsening public of discourse can be in any way reprehensible and the idea that millions of tweeters should have their freedom of expression clamped down on just so a few newspaper editors and their muckrakers can have theirs is pure self-regarding nonsense coming from the fourth estate.

Mr Cohen should be less worried about censorship and more worried about the vacility of the media in the face of a few thousand emails. Mr Cohen cited the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand-Andrew Sachs incident. Here was an example where public opinion was genuinely divided, yet the BBC went for the path of least resistence and chose to side with those who shouted the loudest. The PCC would be equally wrong to somehow punish the Mail for publishing Ms Moir’s article (not that I’m very clear what exactly it could do). By the same token, I didn’t bother complaining to the PCC about the Telegraph’s unfounded attack on Jo Swinson (and presumably she didn’t either) because I knew they would ignore it and I could never rustle up a “mob” to force them to listen. We shouldn’t have to raise an online mob to persuade the media’s watchdog’s to do the right thing but if that’s what it takes then it is inevitable that people will feel they have to organise in that way. The solution is simple: get a better watchdog.

The biggest threat to the freedom of the media is their own failure to take a stance in defence of it and to engage in this mad rush to the bottom. If Mr Cohen thinks the problem is rooted in the fact that a few million people suddenly have a slightly louder voice than they had a few years ago, he is part of the problem.

Rolling news and the BNP

I’ve been watching the BBC’s news coverage. Since 5pm they have had one new story – Nick Griffin. This despite the fact that the Royal Mail strikes are ongoing, 6,000 Sri Lankans have been released from internment, another soldier has been killed in Afghanistan and Ethiopia has asked for food aid.

Why are the BBC so obsessed with, um, the BBC? In fairness to them, the UAF have been doing all they can to feed the media beast by protesting outside TV Centre, invading the building and helpfully coordinating parallel protests outside all the other BBC offices around the country.

Throughout the hour broadcast there was just one short two minute item which went into what Nick Griffin actually believed – pretty much everything else was talking heads and process. This isn’t news – it’s noise – and the only two memorable images to come out of it is a bunch of students being dragged around shouting something incoherent and silly about Nazis and a grinning, avuncular Nick Griffin entering the studios from the rear.

I think the BBC are right to have Griffin on Question Time. I’m a bit concerned at the format. In common with all political broadcasting in recent years it has become more soft focus, featuring celebrities and members of the commentariat to voice their often empty headed opinions. I am concerned that if the mix of questions is got wrong then Griffin will be let off the hook and allowed to express reasonable views on an assortment of fairly uncontroversial issues. I still think however that he is likely to get a harder time on the programme than I’ve seen any BBC interviewer give him – most notably Gavin Esler this afternoon.

But if every time he goes on a programme like this the UAF and the BBC decide to turn it into a day-long event then how he looks on the programme itself will be irrelevant. All people will remember is a big row which they can spin into their narrative about standing up to a wicked and venal establishment. Both organisations really need to consider their policies here and what exactly they are trying to achieve.

I’d rather have politicians interrogating the BNP than the BBC

The debate surrounding Nick Griffin’s imminent appearance on Question Time is hotting up. I’ve been intrigued by today’s events which, to cut a long story short, has resulted in Griffin suggesting that the army chiefs who have stood up to him today ought to be hanged.

It is an idiotic thing to day and something he will no doubt be challenged over on the programme on Thursday. And related to that, Sunny Hundal has some good suggestions of points that Griffin’s fellow panelists ought to challenge him with.

Here’s the thing though. I’m quite confident that Jack Straw, Chris Huhne, Bonnie Greer and even Sayeeda Warsi will be briefed up to the eyeballs and give Griffin a hard time. If anything, I’m worried that in their enthusiasm they may give the impression that he is being bullied. Sadly however, I don’t have the same confidence in the BBC to do the same, either before or afterwards.

The treatment meted out (or rather not) by Radio 1’s Newsbeat to Mark Collett and “Joey” perfectly encapsulates this. But generally, the BBC tends to talk up the chances of the BNP’s prospect and talk down quite why exactly they are “controversial”.

It isn’t just the BBC. The media generally tend to report the BNP as a phenomena without actually examining what they stand for in detail, leaving that to organisations such as the UAF, Hope not Hate and Nothing British.

My own encounter with Mark Collett was a case in point. A lifetime ago (well 2000-2002) I was the campaign organiser for the Leeds Lib Dems. Collett was standing in Harehills ward against one of our sitting councillors in a ward hotly contested by Labour. The Yorkshire Evening Post were obsessed with this, and convinced that Collett was about to march to victory. This despite the fact that the ward was only 60% white. They were putting him up on the front page every other day, screaming about an imminent BNP invasion. At one point, out of frustration, I bet a journalist that Collett would get less than 5% of the vote. Sadly we did not agree terms regarding money (I certainly needed it at the time): he got 3.8% of the vote (pdf).

The BNP are certainly a threat in Leeds now, having maneuvred themselves into the largely white parts of the borough. Their influx would have been slowed somewhat if only the media had been willing and able to keep some perspective.

So, far from condemning politicians who agree to go on Question Time, I’m hopeful that they will do a rather better job than the journalists who interview them – with less controversy – on a daily basis.

++ EXCLUSIVE: Clegg and Cable quit PoliticsHome’s Phi100 ++

I was planning to write a nice, leisurely blog post about a) why Lib Dems should be following Lynne Featherstone’s lead and resign from the Phi100 panel and b) the wider trend by the right to take control of the media agenda, but events rather got ahead of me.

There I was, doing my domestic chores, when I got a series of emails from a pretty unimpeachable source informing me that both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable had quit the panel already.

That’s all she wrote for now, but I’ll try to fit the article I was planning to write in later today.

On sausages, innuendo and electioneering

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is a fascinating character. He’s clearly a very able marketing man, being the driving force behind Kettle Chips, Loyd Grossman’s sauces and, of course, Black Farmer sausages. The latter is a fascinating case study. A black man who bemoans people playing the “race card” yet who has carefully crafted a brand out of his ethnicity. He isn’t, by his own admission, actually a farmer (he prefers the euphemism “gentleman farmer“) and it appears doesn’t even breed the pigs for his products on his estate. Nothing especially wrong with that per se, but it does make him an unlikely champion to drive the spin merchants out of politics.

Emmanuel-Jones the political brand is, superficially at least, a lot like the Black Farmer. Over the last few years the Conservatives have frequently encouraged coverage in leftwing newspapers on the basis that he represents the living embodiment of the modern Cameronian Conservative brand, yet in those articles the candidate himself is at pains to talk his ethnicity down. Yet the stories persist. Last year, the Independent got terribly excited about the idea of the BNP “targeting” Chippenham because Emmanuel Jones was standing. Nonsense of course – the BNP are no hopers there – but it did press all the right buttons, all but making the moral case for all progressively minded voters in Chippenham to vote Tory out of principle.

It took a couple of months before the real target of these articles emerged. The Telegraph covered the same story from a somewhat different angle. In this, Emmanuel-Jones is quoted as saying:

“The Lib Dems have been very sly,” he told Mandrake at The Spectator’s 180th anniversary party, at the Hyatt Regency hotel, in Marylebone. “They have sent out leaflets saying: ‘Don’t vote for the Devon farmer.’ They clearly want to portray me as an outsider and are planting the seed in people’s minds that I am not local. Yes, I have a smallholding in Devon, but I’m no less of a local than their candidate.”

The Tory, who has launched a successful range of sausages and sauces under the name “The Black Farmer”, adds: “I haven’t had any trouble from the BNP. They put up a candidate, but, unlike the Lib Dems, he hasn’t made an issue of where I am from.”

This is echoed in The Observer’s interview with him this weekend:

“The Liberal Democrats have been very clever. Their favourite slag-off is to say I live 200 miles away. Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It’s not exactly racist, but ….”

(as an aside, it does annoy me how interviewers can sometimes be co-conspirators in spin, wittingly or not. In a real conversation you wouldn’t be able to get away with trailing off like that and not having the person you are speaking to ask for clarification – so why the sudden incuriosity of Rachel Cooke here? It’s a serious allegation which she lets just hang)

We’ve been here before. For a long time after his victory in Cheltenham in 1997 I recall Nigel Jones frequently being accused of running a racist campaign against John Taylor. The allegation is familiar: by emphasising that our candidate is local and their candidate is from outside the area we are making a dog whistle signal about their ethnicity and “foreignness.” For such a tactic to work of course, Chippenham voters would have to be racist themselves.

There are four tests however we should apply. Firstly, is the “not local” claim true or not? Secondly, is it a reasonable criticism? Thirdly, would a white rival candidate get the same treatment? Fourthly, is this tactic unique to the Lib Dems?

In the case of the latter two the answer is, respectively, yes and no. Over the past year or so we have had three Parliamentary by-elections and on each occasion the Tories have made an issue out of the Lib Dems’ candidate’s lack of local credentials. This was true for Steven Kearney, a Southampton councillor standing in Henley, and for April Pond, Norwich resident standing in, um, a different bit of Norwich (and it was true for Tory candidate Chloe Smith one of whose opponents – long time Uzbekistan resident Craig Murray – went to the extreme of employing birther tactics to imply her non-Norwich ethnicity).

But is it a fair criticism? I’ve repeatedly said that I think the parochialism of modern politics is pernicious and that the Lib Dems must accept their share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, but while it is not the be-all and end-all there is no question that being local is a positive trait for an MP and while UK politics is as centralised as it is, it will be a bigger factor than it need be for the foreseeable future. Politicians who are rooted in the area they live in – regardless of where they originally came from – pick up local issues every time they walk outside of their front door; politicians rooted elsewhere are dependent on their surgeries and mail sacks. For the typical voter who doesn’t want to have to constantly engage with their MP about every little issue, that is a positive boon.

If I were a Chippenham resident, my key concerns about Emmanuel-Jones would be twofold. Firstly, not only is he not based in Chippenham but when it comes to describing Devon he responds with “I suppose you could say it’s my soul.” That doesn’t exactly suggest that the welfare of Chippenham will be at the top of his priorities, does it? Secondly, there is the question of how much he actually really wants to job.

I follow both of Emmanuel-Jones’ twitter accounts, theblackfarmer and wilfred4change. The former is a highly personal, friendly stream, clearly written by Wilfred himself and broadcasting someone who really loves his job. The latter might as well be churned out by a robot. The former has been updated 703 times and has 317 followers; the latter has been updated 151 times and has 94 followers. There’s no question that Emmanuel-Jones is a British success story, but that doesn’t automatically make him a good MP or the right man for Chippenham. In an ideal world he’d be standing in Devon and have a chance of winning even over and above sitting Tory MPs. But that would involve a different electoral system, something the Conservatives have set themselves against.

But my biggest concern is that in many respects this squalid innuendo about the Lib Dems running a squalid innuendo-laden racist campaign against Emmanuel-Jones is getting their excuses in first. Is Emmanuel-Jones being used by CCHQ as a patsy? They’ve done a great job at convincing journalists that, all things being equal, he is a shoe-in for the job, but all the evidence suggests otherwise. Chippenham, a new constituency, does in fact have a notional Lib Dem majority. Of course, four years on, you could argue that the Cameron effect changes all that. Yet in a year where the Lib Dems did badly overall in the South West, we won both the most councillors and the largest share of the vote in June. Last week we won two by-elections there.

None of these Conservative defeats had anything whatsoever to do with the colour of their parliamentary candidates’ skin. The worry is that an unthinking media, steeped in churnalism, is going to end up being complicit in branding a blameless Lib Dem MP a racist for years to come simply for committing the heinous crime of doing a better job.