Iraq, Austerity, Brexit

Adapted from a photo by Robert Mandel, under Creative Commons licence CC BY 4.0.

There are lots of complex reasons for our current national crisis.

But here’s one way of looking at it. Not the only way, a comprehensive way, or the best way, necessarily. But one way.

Three political sagas have shown that it is possible to tell blatant lies to the British public and succeed in obtaining your objective. Each has involved lies more brazen, and consequences more grave (domestically, anyway), than the last. It seems very likely that people who wish to tell lies to the public for their own ends (or maybe even, in some cases, out of a genuine conviction that the ends justify the means) have learned from each of these episodes, and incorporated the lessons into their work on the next. The three are the invasion of Iraq, the imposition of large scale public spending cuts (‘austerity’) and the successful campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

A key explanation of this — though whether it’s a decisive, root cause is hard to say — is the professionalisation of media management.

I’m old enough to remember when there were packages on ‘spin’ and what it meant on On The Record (the BBC’ Sunday lunchtime political show from 1988 to 2002, for younger readers). Nowadays spin a fact of life, and even embraced: note the ‘spin room’ after TV debates, as if that’s normal or even good. Spokespeople telling the media — and by extension us — what the politicians meant to say, even if they didn’t actually say it, has become central to our reported experience of politics.

Over the course of the 1990s, media management by political parties became professionalised: parties became much more disciplined at getting their messages across, and tailoring them very precisely. Whether coincidentally or not, the arrival of the 24 hour TV news cycle made this discipline extremely useful, with Sky News having launched in 1989 and gaining traction through the decade. The Labour Party, revitalising itself in opposition, pioneered the techniques (or at least, pioneered importing them from America), with Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell becoming, in time, the party’s most high-profile spin doctors.

In practice, this meant putting a simple message, and often an emotional one rather than an analytical one, front and centre. It needn’t necessarily correspond to the policy detail. Law and order policies are ‘tough’, tax measures are to ensure people ‘pay their fair share’, economic policy is ‘prudent’ and so on. Nobody can argue with any of that… unless they’re in possession of the facts… which depends on the journalists reporting the facts… which they’re less likely to when they’ve got a tailored, neatly packaged message to put across instead.

Crucially, it is in these messages that the lies are now often to be found. Either they are not supported by any reasonable reading of the facts, or they are totally irrelevant to the facts of the matter. Often there is some cockamamie small print accompanying the lie / message, which can be and often is easily shredded by experts. But it’s the message, which may well be totally dishonest, that cuts through.

Fast forward a couple of decades and, whether as a direct result of this alone, or in combination with many other things, we now appear to have a media landscape in which political actors have quietly come to realise a key truth: if you lie brazenly, but discipline your message well enough, you can get away with it. Most people will hear the message, and few will be equipped to interrogate the substance that lies beneath it.

(As an aside, this has even led to governments trying to implement messages from time to time, and completely forgetting that there should ideally be a policy underneath them somewhere. Believing in the ‘big society’ rather than big government is a great slogan; getting immigration down to the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands sounds fantastic; but they aren’t actual, workable policies, as efforts since 2010 to implement them have proved.)

Arguably (and I’m very open to hearing earlier examples) New Labour in office were the first to stumble on this — or at least, with their case for war in Iraq, the first to succumb to the temptation of actually using these techniques in a completely cynical, dishonest way. It was obviously a bad policy move, whether legal or not, and obviously hard to justify: why Iraq and not any other country in breach of UN resolutions? Why in 2003, not any other time? Did anyone actually believe the package of highly tenuous ‘intelligence’ put forward as evidence? Tony Blair put forward a threadbare case for war, cloaked in respectability, for instance the dossier and the parliamentary vote, supposedly ‘doing things by the book’ — both, in fact, completely innovative, but designed to create the impression of the opposite. The public-facing case rested on presenting the Iraqi regime as a combination of threat and moral evil.

And it was brilliantly successful. I still remember when, in late 2002, the broadcast media (notably the BBC) started talking about war as something that was going to happen, not merely possible, without any analysis or recognition of the shift. The ’45 minutes from destruction’ headline was a classic of its type — a press release that relies on misinterpretation of carefully worded messaging that doesn’t actually say the thing that the author wants reported (‘45 minutes from destruction’) but could be read as doing it by journalists who aren’t focused on the substance (and it’s a trick I’ve used professionally myself, later successfully pointing out to the annoyed public body in question that actually, if you read our press release, we didn’t make the claim that was reported to our target audience by a slightly incautious journalist, hashtag innocentface). The media was fed a stream of argument and political theatre, and overall failed to ask the basic questions of why Iraq, why now, and was it a good idea.

Not that Labour completely got away with it: suspicions did surface at the time, and Blair’s reputation never really recovered. The public did eventually tumble to the idea that it as a con — but it did so vaguely, and over time. There was never a clear day of reckoning. And in fairness, the shoddy tactics did appear to be deployed in pursuit of a course that the leaders in question, and particularly Blair, sincerely believed was the right one — they just happened to know that there wasn’t strictly speaking the evidence needed to support their belief. It was perhaps because it was the tactics that were dishonest, even if the intent was sincere in its way (if spectacularly misguided), that the Chilcot report ended up being such a boring document. It uncovered folly, but not the sort of deceit and malice outlined in, say, the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report — by far the more compelling read. But that’s by the by…

Austerity was an even more successful episode. Simon Wren-Lewis has written a book about it. It was a cynical but brilliant communications operation: the Tories came to talk as if ‘the deficit’ was a problem, rather than a normal function of government; and as if it was somehow the drag on the economy, rather than a symptom of the wider economic crisis (and note the use of shorthand, part of the comms toolkit used in these cases— ‘the deficit’ in 2010, ‘Saddam’ in 2003). Mainstream macroeconomics — and bluntly, therefore, the truth — was excluded from the media discourse, and a government elected with a mandate to run our public realm into the ground as a result. Unlike with Iraq, there remains no clear widespread recognition that this was a cynical tissue of lies. Also unlike Iraq, there seems a much stronger case for believing that there was a genuinely duplicitous agenda at work in this instance: the government that had been elected to reduce the deficit as its supposedly top priority set about both spending cuts and tax reductions, suggesting an ideological programme of shrinking the state was at work, not any genuine attempt to remedy actual economic ills sincerely misdiagnosed.

And so to Brexit. No end of lies told, many still believed. Both sides guilty, but the Leave campaign massively more so. We don’t need to recap that here.

This environment has a few key characteristics. Obviously the partisan print media is important, and its backing appears to be a prerequisite for such a cynical strategy to succeed — hence Cameron lost the referendum because it was his first ‘away match’ with a hostile press, for instance. Just as important is the tendency of the broadcast media generally, and the BBC in particular, to take its cues from the print media, and attach importance to reporting the ‘stories’ that are big in the papers, rather than the facts as they relate to important matters of the day. The effect is for the 24-hour news media to amplify the importance, and therefore the biases, of the print media. The BBC is more to blame than ITV and Sky, which are there to make a profit (and to be fair, Channel 4’s coverage is not as consistently dubious), plus it has a dominant market position, including its behemoth of a news website. To be fair, one can sort of understand the BBC being wary of offering challenge, when both Labour and the Conservatives in office have screwed it over within the past fifteen years or so. What’s less clear is whether its approach has been driven by political nervousness or a sheer lack of rigour and competence; in a few cases, outright partisan bias is probably in the mix too (Andrew Neil obviously, Kuenssberg possibly, and Humphrys is simply an embarrassment), but mostly not.

Whatever the mechanisms, the upshot has been significant: political actors have realised that it is possible to tell blatant lies to the British electorate and achieve success by doing so.

Now, there are some counter-arguments and possibly complementary analyses here. One big question this invites is whether the rigour of our broadcast media slumped at the same time as political media handling became professionalised, or whether it was always vulnerable to getting spoon-fed rubbish, and it just took professionals a while to exploit its inherent weakness. Put another way: are there examples going further back than the pomp of New Labour? Possibly Boris Johnson’s semi-fictional reports from Brussels in the early 90s? Anyone care to go further back?

And never mind broadcast media: what about print journalism? Was there a point when it started to discard the facts in favour of scoring an emotional reaction with readers? When? Why? I mean, almost certainly it sells more papers…

Beyond that: is this just how things have panned out, or did some dark forces see that we were vulnerable in this way and act…? If so, who? Putin’s Russia? The American evangelical right-wing crazies that increasingly seem to have been poisoning our politics through various think tank-style shills? Others still?

And there are all sorts of other currents in British politics that intersect with this, or are entirely separate but still hugely important. Maybe they are the things that really matter — the socio-economic consequences of the post-1979 settlement, preparing the ground for Brexit for instance. Or even, with weak journalism apparently able to disable our public discourse so profoundly, should we be worried about how well our education system equips people to understand the world around them? Maybe these factors are far more meaningful.

A final possible criticism of the Iraq / austerity / Brexit take: it effectively boils down to it all being Tony Blair’s fault. His New Labour pioneered the professionalisation of media handling, and his government was the first to attempt to sell such cynical whoppers at scale, opening the door to what came after — if you believe the line, that is. But for me and my contemporaries, dislike of Blair is somewhat the default option, either because of Iraq or because of his preference from governing (or being seen to govern) from further to the right than many of us would have liked, and often both. So have I just come up with an overly-neat analysis that in truth just seeks to confirm my long-held views?

Well, maybe. But… Iraq, austerity, Brexit: it certainly seems like they are all important in British politics today, and not for any positive reason.

Working in public policy and writing here about politics, infrequently, in a purely personal capacity.