Friday, 19 September 2008

Can liberals get a fair deal from the media?

As so often, Alix Mortimer talks a lot of sense on this issue. Her posting makes a lot of good points about the bias in much of the media against liberal ideas, and the two-party mindset that afflicts so many journalists.

But I think we have to recognise that the failure of much of the media to discuss our liberal ideals is as much down to us as it is to any bias on the media's part.

First of all, I should defend my fellow journalists. It's entirely possible for a reporter to come up with a well-written carefully crafted examination of some aspect of liberalism, only for one of the Evil Sub-Editors to tear it to pieces because it's too long for the space available in the paper or the slot on TV (and I speak as a member of the Evil Sub-Editor fraternity).

I also don't blame journalists for trying to report things in relatively simple terms, focusing on matters related to personalities rather than issues, as that is a way of getting people interested in a subject which detailed examination of an issue might not achieve.

Of course, quite often some media take things too far and focus on the utterly trivial. You know the sort of thing: "In a dramatic day at Westminster, Gordon Brown raised his left eyebrow by a whole half centimetre, indicating he's about to sack David Milliband/considering resigning by the end of the week/ is actually a Stalinist commie who's been in the pay of the North Korean government for the past 30 years."

But although the media quite often focus on trivia, and there is undoubtedly some bias against liberal ideas in some sections of the media, one of the big problems we've had is that over the last few years, we haven't really had a narrative explaining liberal ideas in simple, easy to understand terms.

That's now changing, and Make It Happen is one of the best statements of our values we've had for a long time, written in a clear and simple style. It's not perfect (eg the constant references to 'hard-working families') but it's a very good start. I'm not sure about Make It Happen as a slogan - we perhaps need something a bit more clearly liberal, and I still think my suggestion of 'Choose Our Future' was the sort of thing we should look at.

But what we need to do now is communicate the narrative behind Make It Happen in everything we say. Almost no matter what the question is for the next 18 months, it needs the answer "Lib Dems will cut taxes for low and middle income people." If Nick Clegg gets asked what he had for breakfast, his answer should be: "I had corn flakes, and the fact that they've gone up 25% over the past year shows why we need tax cuts for low and middle income people."

And beyond that, we need to be a lot less reactive when it comes to dealing with the media. All too often, party press releases are utterly dull and worthy and entirely lacking in newsworthiness or vision. 'Commenting on the House of Commons Environment Select Committee's species protection working group report on saving the purple-nosed tree frog in Leicestershire, Lib Dem MP Ernest Serious said: "This is an utterly boring and vacuous quote. Please feel free to ignore everything I say."' I exaggerate, but not by a lot.

We need to be far more creative in coming up with ways to make the media pay attention to us. The walk-out from the House of Commons earlier this year on the Lisbon Treaty was the sort of thing we should be doing more of - not all the time, as that would lose its impact. But we certainly should be thinking creatively about stunts we can use to get our message across - as long as the message doesn't get lost. For instance, at one session of Prime Minister's Question Time, why not get all 63 Lib Dem MPs to turn up in T-shirts saying: "Cut taxes now!"

And now I'm going to do a rare thing in Lib Dem circles: I'm going to praise Lembit Opik. Lembit does understand the need for occasional stunts to help get a message across. It's just a pity that he does it for essentially trivial matters like dicking about on Segways, rather than things related to the party's core message.

So, ultimately the responsibility for ensuring that we do get a fair deal from the media comes down to us. Rather than waiting for the media to pay attention to us, we need to make it happen ourselves (I knew that phrase would come in useful somewhere!).

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