July 8, 2019

Political journalism keeps getting things wrong. Big things.

In her valedictory piece for the New Statesman, former deputy editor Helen Lewis mentions David Cameron’s unexpected majority in 2015, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party, the result of the Brexit referendum, the rise of Donald Trump, and the shock outcome of the 2017 UK general election.

Why did the punditocracy not see any of that coming? Why did they leave us so fundamentally unprepared?

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It’s not their failure to prophesy events with unerring accuracy that’s at issue here, because that’s not their job. What is their job, however, is to investigate and report upon the world in its true and fundamentally unpredictable complexity, which might at least prime the rest of us to expect the unexpected. It might also leave behind a thicker trail of useful evidence, by which I mean reportage that asks the relevant questions before, not after, each shock event.

Sadly, the mainstream media has a habit of missing early warning signs, indeed of deliberately ignoring anything that doesn’t fit with standard narratives. Lewis puts the blame for this on what she calls the “teleological view of politics”:

“Historians warn about ‘the teleological view of history’ – assuming a fixed endpoint and then telling the story as if it was always heading for that end point. Something similar has happened, over and over again, in political journalism.”

I’d offer a slightly different interpretation. Teleology suggests a deeply ideological view of the nature and destiny of the world – of the kind that might be held by a Marxist or millenarian sect. Nothing so grand enters the mind of the bog standard political hack. As journalists, what they and their editors care about is the story – an account of what’s going on that’s compelling enough to get clicks, sell newspapers, hold the viewers’ attention.

There’s little room for doubt, nuance and complication if it gets in the way of the plot. And yet, unlike a truly teleological worldview, there’s no enduring commitment. As soon as a story doesn’t serve its purpose anymore,  the script is rewritten, sub-plots brought to the fore, new characters introduced. It’s therefore storification, not teleology, that drives contemporary journalism.

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Still, either way, the outcome is the same: a hopelessly simplistic version of events leaves the news-consuming public worse off than if they hadn’t bothered with the news at all.

The solution is the same either way too, which Lewis gets spot on:

“Ask questions even if they seem odd or niche. Pin down politicians on under-considered scenarios. We must try to tune out what everyone else is obsessed with, and ask ourselves: what could happen that no one is talking about?”

*

It’s not often that a journalist of Lewis’s prominence and calibre offers such a deep and penetrating critique of her own profession. However, I do have some quibbles with it.

The first is over the nature of what the media fails to do when it assumes that something won’t happen. For Lewis, it is a failure to analyse the consequences of an unexpected outcome – the Brexit referendum, for instance:

“In the course of the campaign, I can remember hardly any consideration being given to what form Brexit would take: there was no appetite for discussions of the merits of ‘Norway plus’ against a Canada-style trade deal. Leaving the EU was deemed unlikely to happen, and therefore not sufficiently interrogated. That has had enormous repercussions ever since.”

This is to overplay what such an interrogation would have achieved. The precise form that Brexit might take was always contingent on the subsequent negotiation with the EU and so any insight the journalists could have given us would have required them to get some useful information out of Brussels too – and that was never going to happen.

In any case, the form of Brexit is somewhat irrelevant given a Parliament that has voted down every option put before it. Perhaps the media should have done more to interrogate the Remain politicians who assured us the result of the referendum would be respected and there wouldn’t be a second vote.

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The unlikely rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, is cited by Lewis as another example of the media’s failure to ask the right questions at the right time:

“There aren’t many things that Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have in common, but here is one. Both were treated as joke candidates at the start of their campaigns. And joke candidates don’t face the same level of scrutiny as front-runners – which is a problem when they turn out to be serious contenders.”

Sure enough, there weren’t many pundits who gave Trump and Corbyn any chance at the outset of their respective party contests. However, they both went on to fight general elections in which they received a relentless media battering. It’s difficult to see what more could have been done to alert the public. In any case, both men have been in the public eye for decades and neither has made much attempt to hide their eccentricities.

In short, it cannot have escaped the public’s attention that the liberal establishment did not want them to vote for Trump, Corbyn or Brexit. And yet a game-changing number of them did.

If one were to apply Occam’s razor to these strange events, one might conclude that the real problem isn’t one of the elites not having their voice heard, but large numbers of people hearing it loud and clear and deliberately voting the other way.

Of course, it would have been good had the media taken these outcomes seriously enough to ask timely questions about the consequences, but there’s no evidence this would have changed the course of events.

Indeed, the most important question that went unasked is why so many people were so determined to vote against the established order come what may – a question about the causes not the consequences of a political earthquake.

*

Helen Lewis is a centre-Left progressive and thus, unsurprisingly, situates the failings of political journalism within a context of backwardness and privilege. The UK-specific setting of the Houses of Parliament, and the wider ‘Westminster bubble’ gives her plenty to work with.

She says the place is full of “Confident Posh Men” who thrive in its Olde Worlde environment:

“The Commons is extremely formal, insisting on men wearing ties in the chamber, and is an intimidating place to work. Stella Creasy, the Labour MP, calls it ‘Hogwarts’. The strange quirks – prayer cards, Pugin carpets, tearooms serving spotted dick – are less disorienting if you already attended a public school.”

To help conjure up the fusty atmosphere she also mentions that the Palace of Westminster is “full of mice”.

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None of this is wrong. There are a lot of confident posh men (and women) in Westminster. According to the recent report from the Sutton Trust, only 7% of the population had a private education as opposed to 29% of MPs and 43% of the news media (and 44% of newspaper columnists). Figures aren’t available for Westminster’s mice, but they don’t lack confidence either. I’ve never seen such brazen rodents in all my days.

But while Lewis’s description of Westminster life is true, it’s not the whole truth. To see the other side of the 21st-century establishment you need to walk to the north end of the Palace, where you’ll find a tunnel that takes you beneath Bridge Street and up, via an escalator, into the ultra-modern surroundings of Portcullis House, which opened in 2001.

Portcullis House (or ‘PCH’ as the insiders call it) is part of the Parliamentary estate and arguably where the real business of politics is done. Its various offices and facilities are built around the bright and airy space of the main atrium. There are restaurants, a coffee bar and trees stretching up to a beautifully engineered glass canopy. And it’s full of people babbling away non-stop, quite unlike the hushed and gloomy corridors of the Palace.

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At first sight, the new building may seem to embody the principles of open access and transparency. Don’t be fooled, though. The public are allowed up to the first floor committee rooms, but the rest of PCH is closed off behind electronically controlled doors. That includes the atrium, which for all its village square hustle-and-bustle is the exclusive preserve of passholders and their guests. MPs, journalists and lobbyists sit around in relaxed conversation, but they do so from a position of privilege.

They’re certainly not all men – and even those who are tend not to wear ties. Yet, despite their superficial diversity, those who staff the party HQs, ministerial offices, think tanks, public affairs companies and media operations of Westminster are remarkably alike. These days, they’re dominated by the millennial generation and look the same, dress the same, sound the same. Most will come from middle or upper middle class homes. And if they didn’t go a private school, it will have been a ‘good’ state school followed by a Russell Group university (in many cases Oxford or Cambridge). With a few exceptions, their politics will be some shade of liberal.

Though they’d recoil at the description, they are the establishment now – or at least what the establishment is becoming. And make no mistake, political journalism is absolutely part of it – a cultural elite whose values and actions have an outsize influence on public life.

A prime example is what happened to Sir Roger Scruton earlier this year, when he was interviewed by the New Statesman (as it happens). I don’t intend to disinter the controversy, but it does serve as an illustration of the strength of the new establishment against the old. All it took to force Scruton from his position as chair of a government commission was one journalist (not Helen Lewis), a few decontextualised quotes, and the internet. His long and distinguished career as one of our foremost philosophers counted for nothing, nor did his history of helping dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. A few hours of heat on social media and he disappeared in a puff of woke.

That’s what I call power.

*

Lewis does recognise the ancient and modern sides of the media establishment when she observes that “political journalists are stuck in the Commons and on Twitter – real world and digital versions of Versailles”.

She goes on to argue that in attempting to represent the voices of “real people” they present a distorted view of the nation:

“…who gets depicted as the authentic voice of unheard Britain is governed by implicit assumptions that are grim when exposed to the light. Why are the views of a retired steelworker in Grimsby about ‘where the country has gone wrong’ more important than those of a second-generation Nigerian-British nurse in Plaistow?”

Obviously, both are important. But if the views of the Nigerian-British nurse are being ignored, it’s not because the retired steelworker is receiving blanket coverage in the papers. It’s because the voices and faces seen and heard in the media are overwhelmingly those of the educated, privileged and fashionable.

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Lewis argues that there’s been an overemphasis on the populist surge in flyover communities, and not enough attention paid to the younger, university educated, urban voters responsible for the recent wave of support for Green parties across Europe. These are “real people” too, Lewis correctly reminds us.

But they are not being ignored. As the cultural ‘in-group’, they have never been ignored – not by politicians, advertisers, businesses, recruiters or the media: everyone wants to keep up to speed with the trend-setting knowledge class. One only has to look at the extensive coverage of events like Glastonbury, the People’s Vote marches and the Extinction Rebellion protests to see that the people who make up our media and political establishments are especially interested in people like themselves.

It’s always the people unlike ourselves that we need to make a special effort to keep in focus.

After all, it’s what you don’t keep an eye on that’s most likely to surprise you.