Media and politics: what is the space for research evidence?


Lately I have been thinking that when one works, like I do, in the area of policy processes and how they can be better informed by knowledge and research evidence it is easy to think that the demand for evidence comes mainly (or only) from one side: government institutions. Government institutions at national and subnational level are probably the main source of demand for evidence, but they aren\’t the only one. Policy processes are also informed and influenced by, among others, the media. The media has therefore a role when it comes to the demand for research evidence.

One question that I would like to research more is: how is/are media demanding evidence in their coverage of policy issues and/or in their active role of shaping and informing the discussion around policy issues?

I do not know the answer but while reading the excellent book written in 2003 by the late Robin Cook, The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench, I was struck by his description of the relationship between media and politics/policy making in the United Kingdom and the limited space available to research evidence within that relationship.

Here some excerpts from pp. 57-61.

“It is tough for any politicians to write about the nexus between politics and the media because we have become so locked up in an adversarial relationship that any comment on either side is discounted for self-serving. Yet both of us are at fault and we both need to change. Between us we have created a style of political discourse which is aggressive and over personalized and which has become a barrier between us and our joint public.\”

\”To demonstrate my impartiality, let me begin with politicians. We are in danger of seriously boring our voters. The first cardinal principle in modern campaigning is constantly to repeat the same single-line message […] Leaders today bang away at the phrase that they are told works best on focus groups […] It is a depressing feature of single-line politics that the hardest hitting message is more likely to be negative about the threat of your opponent than positive about the promise of your own politics.\”

\”The second rule of modern campaigning is that nobody in the party must say anything original. New Labour goes to elaborate lengths to ensure that everybody knows the message and runs with it. This is deeply baffling behavior to our electors who live in a defiantly individualist society which respects honesty; self-expression and originality. They simply cannot comprehend why politicians repeat the central line rather than speak their own minds.\”

\”The reason why politicians stick to their hymn sheet is that they are dealing with a media which is not longer capable of handgun an original ideas but knows how to report a personality conflict. In my years in the Cabinet I became resigned to the knowledge that if I moved a comma in the hallowed mantra on the euro. I would be reported the next day as having committed ‘a gaffe’. On day two the papers would run around colleagues until they found one who was outraged that I had the nerve to move the comma, at which point the media would report ‘a row’. With a bit of luck and heavy duty funning, by day three they may be able to announce ‘ a split’ over the comma. The irony is that the press constantly complain that politicians are boring, but they are not going to be able to be interesting unless the media starts to reward rather than punish originality.”

“New Labour can fairly be criticized for focusing too much on spin and not enough on substance. But any democracy is only as healthy as its press and there are three aspects of our modern media culture that are corrosive of democracy.\”

\”The first is the single-minded pursuit of the negative story. Today’s headline writers want drama, and drama requires conflict and exposure, not progress and solutions. The ratio of negative to positive media stories has increased from three to one in 1974 to a daunting eighteen to one in 2001. Objectively this makes no sense. […] The BBC’s own research into public disillusion with politics solemnly reported the criticism of their focus groups that ‘There’s never any good news’ without apparently drawing any conclusion for their own bulletins. The danger is that if we constantly present the political process as resulting in unremitting failure we will stifle any faith that democracy can produce solutions.\”

\”The second problems with the modern media is its remorseless demand for novel to spice up the next bulletin on the next edition, a demand that has become insatiable in the era of 24/7 news. Any profound political achievement requires long-term application and does not lend itself to novelty quick fixes […] The overhyped daily initiatives for which government has been much criticized were born of that demand for that novelty rather than substance.”

\”The awkward truth is that serious politics does not throw up a novelty every day for next morning ’s edition. As a result the search for novelty often ends in treasuring trivia.[…] the most profound changes to society happen gradually over a long period of time and therefore never pass the novelty test for front-page treatment. One of the most dramatic changes for the better under Labour is the virtual abolition of long-term you unemployment […] Yet this extraordinary change in our society has never qualified as news, because its gradual achievement lacked the immediacy demanded of a dramatic story.”

“I have left to last the most damaging development in the modern media. Political reporting is now obsessed with personalities and therefore with process rather than outcome. Politicians find themselves conscripted to parts in a soap opera, in which the plot line is solely about who is on the way up, who is on the way down and who is on the way out. The damaging consequences is the growing perception that politics is something top people do within that crucially introverted and gossipy Westminster village. The electors are reduced to being a spectator rather than the owner of the process. Both parliament and media are trapped in a culture that is too introverted, too much about what goes on in the lives of celebrity journalists, spin doors and MPs, and not enough about what is going on in the lives of anonymous readers and electors. It is not even as if the readers and lectors share the media obsession with personalities. One survey of young voters found clear majority were critical of the media coverage of politics because it was more concerned with personalities than issues.”

“If we are lucky the worst result will be a stead decline in the number of electors who turn up and vote for a parliamentary institutions that appears irrelevant to the problems in their lives.If we are inlay the even worse result will be a vacuum which will be occupied by extremists political movements with simple destructive solutions. Neither politicians not press can break on their own from the sterile relationship into which they are now locked. But if I find it difficult to be optimistic about the future of parliamentary democracy unless we recognize that our present political culture is destroying trust not just in government but in our democratic process.”

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