One might be forgiven for thinking that the Shadow cabinet had decided on a boycott of the national broadcaster so rare have been appearances by its members on the airwaves. Of course we know that Labour is still in the throes of its thirty seven policy reviews. It would, indeed, be helpful if the wannabe ministers had something to say. But this in itself should not impose a vow of silence on them.
The result is that over a year after they were elected most members of Labour’s front bench team remain strictly unknown not simply to the British public but even to the dwindling numbers of the politically engaged. The team is likely to be rejigged following the rule change which gives the captain the pick for the whole bunch but unless the party develops a more aggressive media strategy their successors will remain similarly anonymous.
Fair political debate would normally have direct confrontations between government and opposition speakers. The fact of the matter is that the BBC and other broadcasters appear to have decided that we have now a full- bloodied three party system and that Labour spokespersons have to vie with their Liberal Democrat opposite numbers for airtime. Symbolically it is like last year’s Cenotaph ceremony where the leader of the Opposition was mysteriously relegated to third place after the deputy Prime Minister.
In fact the change is even more insidious. The broadcasters appear to have come to the view that the Labour interest on any issue can just as well be represented by the movement’s former glories. So while a prime time TV appearance by a shadow cabinet minister is about as rare as a snowflake in July, the airwaves are awash with the Lords Prescott, Reid, Kinnock, and Mandelson-occasionally complemented by the likes of David Blunkett or even Jacqui Smith. These stalwarts may be more entertaining- they are certainly more experienced media performers; and they are naturally not hidebound by any subservience to Labour Party policy. And of course if any of their words can be interpreted as being critical of the current leadership, well, from the broadcaster’s point of view, that’s just a bonus.
So a little vicious circle has been created; party spokespersons are for the most part in media terms relatively inexperienced so they will not be put on our screens and hence they remain inexperienced. The outcome is that the viewpoint of the main opposition party goes largely unheard.
The problem of balance in broadcasting goes wider than the narrow issue of numbers of Labour representatives going on air. As economic issues come increasingly to the fore, the BBC in particular is using an ever growing number of ‘financial experts’, ‘business analysts’, public affairs people from banks and hedge funds, ‘independent investment advisers’ to comment on government economic policy, the travails of the euro, the US budget deficit etc., Given their background and provenance it is unsurprising that the essence of what they are saying is broadly similar; radical cuts in public spending are essential, raising taxation on the highest paid or closing tax loopholes would make the UK uncompetitive; specific measures to support growth would be counterproductive and the euro is finished. If anything the Osborne cuts don’t go far enough.
By calling upon these ‘experts’ our broadcasters seem blissfully unconcerned about any possible issues of balance. They only rarely call on leading economists, such as those Nobel Prize-winners who question the prevailing austerity orthodoxy. People from NGOs, let alone trade unions rarely get a look in. But the mouthpieces of the financial services or the banks- those who brought us all to the very brink of ruin- get on the air day and night.
They never come with a health warning. It is not really explained who they are, or precisely what interests they represent, or their real expertise or their track record. No, they sit in the studio, on the sofa, or at the desk, as if they are dispassionate observers of the scene, with the wisdom of Solomon and the foresight of Nostradamus. The interviewers take their utterances as gospel beyond challenge.
Bit by bit this daily drip-feed of propaganda promoting the prevailing orthodoxy begins to change the terms of trade in the economic debate.
Unless Labour starts to take a tough line with the broadcasters and insists on some balance, not just for its own spokespersons but for the whole way that policy choices are presented in the audiovisual media it will to tolerate the public being deprived of the wider and informed debate on the nation’s future it deserves. The leader of the Opposition now has quite a sizeable media team- it should start cutting up rough with the TV authorities. Come back, Alistair Campbell, all (or nearly all) is forgiven.
Waterloo, August 9th 2011