The political shocks of the last two years, Brexit and Trump, find reflection in a newer and darker language in which politics is discussed within the mainstream media. We are said to have entered an era of ‘post-truth’, within which facts no longer matter as the electorate fragments into self-referential communities locked inside their filter bubbles and liable to be manipulated by shadowy actors on the sidelines. Established wisdom, things every sensible person knows to be true, loses its power as the dark overtures of the populists lead the masses in ever greater numbers from the centre-ground that would otherwise be their home. These are dark times. Winter is coming.
Unless you see much of this as self-indulgent catastrophising by an insular cultural elite only now becoming cognizant of their declining status. Their capacity to consecrate facts is being eroded by alternative sources of legitimation, encouraging them to lash out at these nascent rivals without confronting the lessons that could be learned from their rise. There are important social, political and cultural consequences to how these commentators respond to their decreasing centrality, as emerging leaders reject the unspoken Faustian pact that has been the norm for decades.
It’s for this reason that I’m interested in the lifeworld of political commentators. Tom Mills adroitly captures this on loc 2036-2059 of his The BBC, discussing current Today anchor and past BBC political editor Nick Robinson:
For Robinson, politics is, in short, what politicians say and do, and the task of the political correspondent, meanwhile, is to effectively communicate and explain this, as well as the formal political process, to viewers and listeners. His job as political editor, he declared during a stretch at ITN in the same role, was ‘to report what those in power were doing or thinking’ –or, as he later wrote in his book Live From Downing Street, to expose ‘publicly what many know to exist privately: tension between colleagues, policy contradictions or a failure to have thought through a policy clearly’. Robinson has undertaken this task with gusto, describing with great clarity and inordinate enthusiasm the personalities, cliques and machinations of Westminster politics.
At best, the sort of approach Robinson exemplifies makes for accomplished insider journalism, offering a window on the insular world of high politics, bringing greater transparency and thereby enhancing democracy. The reality, though, has been far less satisfying. The approach tends to foster an elitist, ‘insider’ perspective on politics, encouraging viewers to see it as a strategic game between its leading players –with whom viewers are encouraged to identify –rather than a system of public deliberation over social policy or contestation over the distribution of wealth and power.
He goes on to quote Andrew Marr reflecting on ‘his trade’, particularly the harmony of perspectives achieved between politicians and commentators through any number of interpersonal interactions:
If you really talk with a politician about their in tray, and the problems of rival departments, or of dodgy past initiatives, it is hard to avoid seeing things their way. The same perspective that gives you insight, also blunts your hostility. So is it better to stand outside, defiantly ignorant, making judgments that the crowd will applaud? There is no final answer. If you don’t form close understandings with senior politicians so that you can hear them think aloud honestly in a relaxed way then you are unlikely to understand much of what is really going on. Yet if you do then you drift closer to them emotionally and may very well flinch from putting the boot in when they have failed in some way.
Populism represents a rupture in a previously harmonious system of relations between politicians and commentators. Other figures contributed to this harmony, such as political consultants and PR specialists, with some exploiting their “marketable connections in the intertwined world of media and politics” to move back and forth between these worlds (loc 2102-2122). However, something fundamental has broken, reflecting an objective transformation in status and a subjective recognition of this fact by the commentators. Will they (re)harmonise with populist leaders in spite of their significantly decreased influence within such a relationship? Or are the days of the centrist insider political commentator numbered?