We had our second debate last night, and it went pretty well the way it was expected to—Gordon Brown and David Cameron apparently decided that they didn’t want to be Nick Clegg’s best friend any more. Clegg’s (and the Lib Dem’s) dramatic surge in the polls following the first debate seems to be holding up. Much of the commentary, in fact, has been along the lines of “the gloves are off” kind of thing. Still, though, it was interesting and depressing for an American used to the brain-dead logorrhea that passes for political discourse in the US to listen to three politicians who, frankly, knew their stuff. The only American politician who comes close, in fact, is Obama. What a depressing thought. The mood was more confrontational, of course, since both Cameron and Brown felt pressured by Clegg’s continued improvement in the polls. But Clegg, by common consensus, held his own. (The set was even more bizarre than last week’s, if such a thing is possible.)
Actually, there was no clear winner last night, with both Clegg and Cameron more or less topping the polls that were taken following the debate. Poor Gordon Brown keeps coming in third, in some cases by a fairly substantial margin. But the way the voting works here, the leading vote-getter in a parliamentary district wins, whether it’s 50% of the total or 25% of the total. So it’s likely that Labour may still win the most seats in the election, although not an outright majority.
What was disconcerting was the fairly orchestrated attacks on Clegg in the press in the several days leading up to the second debate. Particularly in the two days preceding, The Telegraph (see above), The Daily Mail (again, see above), The Express, The Sun, and The News of the World, fanatical Tory supporters each and every one of them, all had very aggressive, if not outright fabricated, negative stories about Clegg. (To be clear, only The Sun and The News of the World, are Murdoch-owned, along with The Times.) The attacks were pretty brutal, in fact, and even personal, but actually seemed to have no impact on either the debate (except for Sky Broadcasting’s Adam Boulton asking an inappropriate personal question of Clegg based on one of the stories) or on any subsequent polling. The public seems inclined to disregard much of the usual political spin, for a change.
It is hard to underestimate the panic that is afflicting the British media over all of this. There is the obvious reason, of course—no one predicted Clegg’s sudden popularity and current standing in the polls, and everyone looks a bit foolish now. But there is a more compelling reason, too—which was highlighted by David Yelland, former editor of Murdoch’s Sun. Yelland had an interesting column in last Sunday’s Observer, in which he recounts how his marching orders, and that of other Murdoch media properties, were basically to ignore the Liberal Democrats. Yelland goes even further:
Make no mistake, if the Liberal Democrats actually won the election – or held the balance of power – it would be the first time in decades that [Rupert] Murdoch was locked out of British politics. In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite.
I can say this with some authority because in my five years editing the Sun I did not once meet a Lib Dem leader, even though I met Tony Blair, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith on countless occasions. (Full disclosure: I have since met Nick Clegg.)
I remember in my first year asking if we staffed the Liberal Democrat conference. I was interested because as a student I’d been a founder member of the SDP. I was told we did not. We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them.
So while we sent a team of five, plus assorted senior staff, to both the Tory and Labour conferences, we sent nobody to the Lib Dems. And while successive News International chiefs have held parties at both those conferences, they have never to my knowledge even attended a Lib Dem conference.
It gets even worse. While it would be wrong to say the Lib Dems were banned from Murdoch’s papers (indeed, the Times has a good record in this area), I would say from personal experience that they are often banned – except where the news is critical. They are the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored. But it is worse than that, because it is not just the Murdoch press that is guilty of this. The fact is that much of the print press in this country is entirely partisan and always has been. All proprietors and editors are part of the “great game”. The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister.
The consequence of this has been that the middle party has been ignored, simply because it was assumed it would never win power. After all, why court a powerless party?
Johann Hari makes a similar point in today’s Independent:
The British media is overwhelmingly owned by right-wing billionaires who order their newspapers to build up the politicians who serve their interests, and marginalise or rubbish the politicians who serve the public interest. David Yelland, the former editor of The Sun, bravely confessed this week that as soon as he took his post, he was told the Lib Dems had to be “the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored”. Only a tiny spectrum of opinion was permitted. Everyone to the left of Tony Blair (not hard) had to be rubbished – even when their policies spoke for a majority of British people.
Both TV debates, then, have been a very rare moment in which a slightly more liberal-left voice could speak to the public without the distorting frame of pre-emptive abuse and smears. When, for example, have you ever heard the EU defended as plainly and clearly? The window of permissible opinion was opened a little – and people responded with a wave of enthusiasm. It could’ve been opened wider still – to the Greens, say – and found a receptive audience too.
The reaction of the right-wing press to briefly losing the ability to frame how politicians address the public has been a frenzied panic worthy of Basil Fawlty. They have “revealed” Clegg is a paedophile-cuddling, Gaddafi-licking foreigner and crook who wishes we had lost the Second World War. But now – for a change – people can test the smears against what they see and hear with their own eyes, unmediated, on TV.
Rattled, the right-wing press now demands Cameron start publicly thumping the table and articulating the agenda he whispers to them behind closed doors, and can be uncovered in his policy documents: big cuts in public spending, big tax cuts for the rich. But Cameron sees the polling and the focus groups, and he knows the public loathe his real agenda. That’s why his performances in this campaign are so stilted. Once Cameron is forced to address us directly, without being bigged-up by the Murdochracy he has promised to feed and fatten, he withers under the weight of his own deception.
For two 90 minute blocks, the media demonisation of the liberal-left was switched off in favour of equal time and open access – and it revolutionised our politics. If this happened day in, day out, how would our national conversation change?
Over at The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman presents an even more dire scenario for the Tories and their media enablers:
If nerves are fraught at News International, it may be because much is riding there on a Cameron victory. [Former Sun editor Rebekah] Brooks had to lobby hard for the Sun and other Murdoch papers to back the Tory leader, according to the media mogul’s biographer Michael Wolff, because the elder Murdoch had become a loyal friend of Brown’s. “Murdoch is still stewing over an ill-timed and inept endorsement of John McCain over Barack Obama,” Wolff wrote. The faltering of Cameron’s seemingly assured victory may thus be straining his relations with Brooks.
John Lloyd, director of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, said: “Clearly, the newspapers and editors who are ideological Tories are suffering from a howl of rage, now that what had seemed to be a shoo-in has turned into the risk of a hung parliament.”
“There are a lot of very, very powerful people here with a lot to lose,” said the former senior Fleet Street executive. “These editors have told their proprietors it’s going to happen. Before the first debate, the Tories thought they might be in power for three terms, and the debate has made it quite possible they’ll never get in again, if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power and we get proportional representation.”
So for a couple of weeks here people have been reveling in this discovery that politics can actually be responsive, be practical, be interesting, and be hopeful. So no matter how the election turns out, Nick Clegg has done the country a huge favor. I suspect that next week’s debate will be similarly entertaining to last week, and Brown and Cameron will be back to trying to be Nick’s best friend. Since Clegg held his own in the debate and the polls, all three parties are holding at around 30% or so, which means no one is likely to get a majority and be able to form a government. So the Liberal Democrats will be the swing factor in the formation of a new government, In which case we’re likely to get a Labor/Liberal coalition.
One of the less fanciful notions coming out of the some of the discussions surrounding the election is that a Lib/Lab coalition might lead to a breakup of the Murdoch media empire here in the UK. Obama should take note.