Friday, May 12, 2017

UK political games and the media

One of the more alarming developments of the current United Kingdom election campaign is the increasingly heavy handed treatment of the media by both major parties.

While the management of news has been a feature of campaigns since the 1990s, never has the control been so rigid and journalists treated with such distain as in the last few weeks as both leaders race around the nation, anxious for photo opportunities at every stop, while denying access to any newsperson who might start asking awkward questions.

Prime Minister Theresa May has been regularly shunning local media, with regional outlets often barred from even filming or photographing her when she does the routine rounds of their factories, hospitals etc.

Reporters who did get to speak to her at an industrial estate in Helston, Cornwall were allowed two questions each with no follow-ups before the Prime Minister was ushered away.

The representative of a website, Cornwall Live, was not even allowed this access with the inexplicable reason given by a minder: “We consider you print media”.

The editor of Hampshire Life magazine, Simon O’Neill, said this was nothing new: “It happens everywhere she goes,” he said.

Even more blatantly, her visits are coinciding with four-page wrap-arounds in local newspapers, giving the impression that the publication is endorsing her in the election.

The wrap-arounds, which have the headline Theresa May for Britain, are of course paid advertising — and that is confirmed in a tiny banner at the top of the page, but the fact they appear on the news-stands covering the newspaper’s actual front page gives the appearance of a news story.

Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is taking an opposite approach on his travels. He tends to shun the national press and broadcasters following his campaign, but opens up at length to local media.

At a recent stop in Bedford only local journalists and one member of the Press Association were invited to his media conference at which he concentrated on Labour’s promise to save a hospital in the town.

The strategies are clear enough. May wants the campaign to be fought on the overriding issues of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union, its management and its aftermath. She does not want to be bogged down with parish pump-style issues.

Knowing his past Brexit performance has been less than scintillating, Corbyn wants to concentrate on subjects which he believes are closer to the hearts of everyday Britons such as health, education and infrastructure, while keeping the largely hostile national media at arm’s length. 

Political correspondent of the online website Buzzfeed, Jim Waterson says the tactic worked in Bedford at least.

“Look at the coverage he got. The Bedfordshire local news story was about Corbyn backing a local hospital rather than responding to the national agenda. That’s the sort of stories his team wants,” Waterson said.

One of Corbyn’s election promises is to hold a national review into local media amid concerns about the declining number of journalists, but it does not take an inquiry to understand what is happening, and why politicians can take such liberties with journalists which they would not have dared to do even a decade ago.

Traditional media is in decline in most Western countries, but more so in the UK where news about redundancies and closures are a weekly occurrence.   

With people increasingly turning to social media and online news sites for their information, and print media readership plunging, politicians can safely play fast and loose with those journalists who remain, feeding them media releases they can safely assume will never be followed up or questioned.

The wrap-around saga is a case in point – newspaper proprietors throwing ethics overboard in a desperate grab for revenue.

How this plays out in the turbulent times ahead is anyone’s guess.  

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