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Managing Media Monsters And Brexit

14/03/2017 18:13

Politicians must ensure the media cover their news and views but it is a taxing task, as we saw last week with two flawed initiatives. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn released his annual tax returns as part of a campaign to expose tax avoidance and evasion, which costs billions in lost revenues.

The Opposition Leader receives a state salary, given the role is a key means of holding government to account. But his tax return listed it ambiguously without explanation. Journalists looking for an easy story or excuses to slam him will go for the jugular if they can. And they did leaving many thinking he had not declared all his income and that something was awry. Unfair but why make it easier?

Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, who refused to release his tax returns, presented a budget which was funny and confident given the feebleness of the official opposition. It soon unravelled over a proposal to increase taxes on self-employed people that the Tories had pledged not to do in their 2015 manifesto. Slapping sole traders outraged the effective opposition that is the Conservative backbench, where a handful of MPs can endanger the government's narrow majority.

This again drives suggestions, most recently from former Foreign Secretary and Tory leader William Hague of a snap election. Despite the media furore over the budget, the Conservatives are streets ahead of Labour and could boost their majority and room for manoeuvre in the Brexit negotiations.

A fair minded account by Tim Shipman of the UK's referendum campaign on EU membership highlights the centrality of managing the media and political messaging, which I have taught KRG officials at the European Technology and Training Centre in Hawler.

Any campaign starts with perspective - a rough map of the world - and then develops strategy - where to head given obstructions on the map they have charted. From these flow tactics -what alliances to build, tank-traps for enemies, and devising digestible messages.

The disdain for Blairism sometimes extends to road-testing messages through focus groups and polling. We all have to win people to our view in, say, asking for a date or for a partner's hand in marriage or business. But there are different ways of making a pitch and most of us would sit down with a friend and test the best approaches.

The Leave campaign had a better and more ruthless understanding of the political map, knowing that fears over immigration trumped economic issues. The Conservatives, confident they would win, decided to avoid destroying their divided party so it could govern after the referendum, and therefore sometimes boxed with kid gloves rather than landing knock-out blows on Conservatives like leading Leaver Boris Johnson.

Remainers warned that house prices would fall but many thought this might make it easier to buy one. Their "Project Fear," which worked in the Scottish independence referendum, included alarms about how many thousands each household would lose but were "spuriously specific" while the Leavers' slogan, constantly repeated, was "take back control," which Channel Four political editor, Gary Gibbons, writes in a slim but incisive account of the campaign was "perfectly targetted at the teetering existence of many voters."

The Leavers had no compunctions about simplifying issues to the point, some say, of deceit. Their central claim was that the £350 million that the UK gives to the EU each week could be spent on the NHS. That was a gross figure and the net figure after rebates and redirected spending in the UK was lower. But even arguing about it kept it uppermost in the public mind.

Leave campaigners were also cunning. Remainers sent press releases with an embargo, which means they cannot be used before a certain time. Leavers signed up a fake news agency to receive releases and used advance notice to spike the Remainers' guns. A major initiative by the Chancellor was discredited minutes before a keynote radio interview.

Conservative Remainers also experienced for the first time the force of a hostile tabloid juggernaut. I am not saying the tabloids ensured Brexit. True, they nurtured and reflected decades of deep euroscepticism but the result was close. If just 600,000 people had voted differently the UK would remain in the EU.

Individual leaders also made critical differences both ways. A tad more enthusiasm from Corbyn could have nudged the Labour vote for remaining by a significant fraction. Brexit probably would have failed without Johnson and Michael Gove. Brexit is about to begin and those seeking to advance, ameliorate or annul it must manage the media monster but charismatic and credible leaders can also take control over the narrative. No outcome to the Brexit process is inevitable.

Tim Shipman. All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class. William Collins.
Gary Gibbon. Breaking Point. Haus Curiosities.

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