I'm a lifelong Labour member. And at the Tory conference in Manchester yesterday, Theresa May gave a speech with a lot of substance. That doesn't make her someone I would vote for, but that does make her someone worth listening to. She pledged to cap energy prices--something supposedly 'copied' from Ed Miliband, but why does that make it an invalid position? She promised an independent review of mental health provision, and announced her commitment to new council homes and more housebuilding. She pledged to review student university fees and loans and issued a plea for party unity at a time when she faces mutiny from the very people she handed power to.
But that's not what you'd think if you read the papers this morning. 'May endures ordeal,' said the Financial Times. 'What the F?' ran the Metro front-page headline. 'Coughing and spluttering--May's British dream turns into nightmare,' read the Guardian. Even the conservative Daily Telegraph splashed with 'Luckless May centre stage in tragic farce.'
The take-home point here is that almost no newspaper, from broadsheet to tabloid, appeared to show much more than a passing interest in the content of the Prime Minister's speech at a time when everyone agrees that politics is polarised and the future looks uncertain. Instead, editors across the nation decided it made better copy to focus on the P45 prank pulled by comedian Lee Nelson or the letter that dropped off the screen behind the Prime Minister or the coughing fit that made it difficult for her to make her speech. You might find that entertaining (and it is, to a point) but newspapers aren't just vehicles for comedy. If the media turns politics into a show where the characters are judged not by their character or the substance of their political principles but by how interesting or entertaining they are, then expect the best performers to steal the limelight.
Is there a more perfect example than Donald Trump? He might be a real estate mogul by profession, but he's closer to a reality television star--one who had fourteen seasons of the The Apprentice to hone his performing skills. He now holds the highest office in the US, which amounts to being the most powerful person on the planet, and though there's no doubt he tapped into something in the American population, the media swung the election by treating his campaign as a drawn-out joke. Trump received air time. He received headlines. Huge swathes of the American public all laughed at his latest blunder. He was, indisputably, entertaining. In fact, he was pure spectacle. But entertainers don't make good politicians and now, Donald Trump is president.
It isn't a popular thing to say, but the criticisms that that same Donald Trump has of the media--that they churn out 'fake news'--carries a grain of truth. Newspapers have a responsibility to hold politicians to account, not to treat them as sources of entertainment or to run half-truths on their pages because they make better reading than the actual facts. And yet that is what we've been seeing for the past few years. And that's not to say that the papers or the public shouldn't mock politicians (how else are we supposed to stay sane?) but at some point a line was crossed, and the response to Theresa May's speech is only the latest confirmation of that fact. If the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can't get across to the public what she wants to say at a time when politics is hugely relevant to everyone, all because the media fails to report the real substance, then we all suffer. We become ignorant of the issues and we become easy to manipulate.
If you dumb down politics, expect dumbed-down leaders and dumbed-down policies. Maybe that's worth bearing in mind.