“I’m not sure it says government is crap,” said Armando Iannucci recently, of his political satire The Thick of It. “I think it says the people in government are crap.” Nowadays politicians and their aides delightedly declare scenes in their life to have been like the show. The former Culture Secretary James Purnell once told Iannucci, of a scene where characters were trying to make up a policy in the back of a car, “I’ve been in the back of that car”. And we witnessed ex-No 10 enforcer, Alistair Campbell, the inspiration for the bullying Malcolm Tucker, jeering at Iannucci, the son of Italian immigrants, for accepting an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. A handy insight there into the luxury of disdain for honours, possessed by people who’ve been privileged insiders, not outsiders.
What’s most troubling though is not that Malcom Tucker is the most popular character (Milton’s Satan was way more fun than God in Paradise Lost, for goodness’ sake) but the collective delusion that we all see through spin. The reality is we mostly don’t. As the political conference season gets underway, think carefully about the breathless narrative of the rolling news day. Political correspondents stand outside buildings reporting on alleged rows within, in the same tone of gossipy exclusiveness as showbiz columnists updating us on the soaps. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s lost their temper, who’s been humiliated? Union conferences are discussed only in terms of whether strike action is likely. The need to feed the online news machine too often overrides circumspection about the possible agenda behind a piece of information. At least in the old “lobby” system, journalists and the public understood the protocol of anonymous briefing and its likely sources.
Many political satires now feature comic scenes where the hapless politician or senior bureaucrat is tripped up on air by their TV interrogator. Now listen to a real interview. Rarely now do they make the mistake of Ed Miliband who repeated almost verbatim the same answer to every question in one bizarre 2011 interview about imminent public sector strike action. More typical is the statement of platitudes and “feelings” in place of answers in response to tough questions. They don’t deny anything. They just bland-bomb you.
On Radio 4’s You and Yours on September 6th Winifred Robinson did her best to challenge the new boss of the Care Quality Commission over how to stop the scandal of abuse of elderly people in privately run care homes. David Behan, who had previously worked in the Department of Health, said: I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to working with the board and our stakeholders”. He wanted the CQC to be “good to do business with”. The closest he came to an admission was when he said: “The people who drive improvements in standards are the people who provide care”- namely the business owners, but it was hard to pick out that bombshell from his jargon-laden dullness.
Deflection is at the core of how governments spin stories and a headline can have big consequences. Take the case of Clare Gerada, head of the Royal College of GPs. A strong voice in the campaign against the Health Bill that would bring market forces into the heart of the NHS, she wrote an open letter to David Cameron (it had been reported in the medical trade press) about how to work with the government if the bill went through. With hindsight perhaps it was a mistake to have sent at all at that stage, but last March the night before a crucial parliamentary vote on the bill, her 10 day-old letter was picked up by The Independent with a front page lead headline, claiming doctors had “give[n] up the fight“ over the reforms. The Department of Health indicated they regarded the letter as a climbdown. Gerada spent the next day disputing the interpretation and trying to limit the damage as the rolling news day took it up. The bill went through.
Incidents like these are happening every day. The next time you read or hear a political exclusive, or wonder why you can’t remember what the head of an important public body said about a scandal in which vulnerable people were hurt, remember that we are all “stakeholders” in our democracy. And we are all in danger of being so in the thick of it that we fail to see how often people in power bore us into indifference or direct our attention somewhere else.
This column first appeared in The Big Issue on September 17th