Thursday, December 07, 2006

Badges of Honour

I commented in 1998, at the time of New Labour's Strategic Defence Review that, rather than considering decommissioning of our nuclear deterrent, the report simply made any alternative to continuing to have some form of nuclear defence appear too expensive. While the growing threats from non-state actors was recognised, it was deemed too risky to abandon the UK's nuclear capability. Such ideas are reiterated 8 years later. Blair called it unwise and dangerous to not have the weapons, on the basis that 'rogue states' who also possess nuclear weapons may also 'sponsor terrorism'.

This reminds me of a wonderful exchange between fictional PM Jim Hacker and his Head of the Civil Service Humphrey Appleby from the wonderful comedy Yes Prime Minister. The conversation first enquired when the button would be pushed, 'When Soviet troops on manoeuvres in East German got lost in the fog and ventured over the border', no, no, no, of course not. 'When a Soviet submarine enters the Thames', er, no, well, I don't know. "So when Prime Minister", Appleby demands; prevarication continues. The upshot of the conversation is that the UK government knows they would never use them, the Soviet government knows the UK will never use them, the only people who believe they are a form of protection is the UK public. Perhaps again the rhetoric suggests that something is being done to prevent terrorism.

While it would be amusing to rewrite the exchange to include Tony Blair, 'so you suspect Pakistan of not acting as forcefully as it could against Al Queda; the button Prime Minister?', perhaps this misses the point. That while the deterrent may be a symbolic message that defence is being taken seriously, it has greater symbolic value in the post Cold War world.

What is this value, it is a badge of honour. In having nuclear weapons it places this small nation among the elite. It means that there is a seat at the top table when world leaders meet, the voice is slightly louder among the rest, the perception of power increases. Yet here also is the danger. If there was a visible state threat that required this form of deterrent,and one could envisage the usage of the weapon, then perhaps the position would be tenable. The problem is that many nations, North Korea and Iran to name the current suspected aspirants, previously India and Pakistan, want a slice of the pie. If all you need is a badge saying 'I gotta Nuke' to be heard on the world stage is it any wonder that nations who have felt marginalised historically want to wear the same badge, share the glow of the spotlight of power and dine on the meat with the kings of the world.

I accept this is an argument for unilateral disarmament. I am happy to state I have never been in favour of these weapons, their destructive capability, and doubt how these weapons can be used after the effects which can still be seen on the descendants of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, what makes the position seem more relevant is the fact that the enemies that are faced in the modern world are either impotent, as Iraq was, or unconnected to states. We cannot 'nuke' terrorism, equally we cannot 'nuke' global warming, so why else would any state leader want to waste money on such weapons?

Imagine the scene, the meeting of the United Nations. Prime Minister Tony Blair approaches the banquet hall. Take a seat anywhere the usher suggests, a quick flash of the badge. "Oh Mr Blair, nuclear defence, that will do nicely, this way to the top table sir!"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Symbolism, Rhetoric and Newness

New Labour, as a phrase, descriptor, perhaps even ideology, was largely a rhetorical device. Its purpose was made clear by Philip Gould in The Unfinished Revolution, the expose of how Labour was modernised into an election winning machine, it was created to delineate the Blair led party from that of his predecessors. It was a re-branding exercise, a marketing gimmick perhaps; fundamentally it was an outward representation of the fact that the party's policies were to be a fusion of the vague Third Way ideas emerging within the global socialist movement and the neo-liberalism established by Thatcher and Reagan during the 1980s. As such therefore New Labour in itself meant very little, only that it created another rhetorical device: 'Old Labour'.

But now we are told that New Labour has had its day, it is moribund, it will crawl up the curtain and join the choir invisible on the day that Blair leaves No10 for the last time. These are the ideas advocated by Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, the man Blair never wanted to be in that position and who, like Ken Livingstone, found himself facing all manner of tactics designed to hinder his election. Though reasonably quiet in his dissent it appears he now wishes to comment on Labour's future at this seemingly important juncture.

Interestingly he appears to invoke rhetoric familiar to many from beer adverts; that New Labour "reached parts that other Labour programmes and projects and political leaders have not been able to reach". He also likens it to the Venus di Milo "you have to gawp with admiration at its quality and brilliance, but it is indisputably incomplete and beginning to show more than a few signs of its age"; harsh words indeed. He also calls for a 21st Century socialism, though without offering too much detail on what this means. So what is this all about?

The answer is: nothing! Though deemed newsworthy it appears as nothing more than rhetoric on rhetoric about rhetoric. The purpose of New Labour as a phrase was achieved, it was probably moribund by June 1997. Its symbolic value is more in other rhetoric that has become attached to the phrase: 'best when at our boldest', 'New Britain', those phrases that demonstrate being of the modern and not of the traditional or out-dated or conservative. Therefore as an idea 'newness' remains at large, perhaps the point Morgan should make is that Brown can no longer aspire to this given that after 10 years New Labour is no longer new and neither is he.

But does the rhetorical and symbolic aspects of New Labour remain, I argue that they do. Not in the Labour Party, not in this vague idea of 21st Century socialism that is almost beyond definition; no the symbolism that thrust Blair into office in 1997 is alive and well and being exploited by Cameron's Conservative Party. They may not be calling themselves the 'New Conservatives' but they attempt to invoke that new image coupled with not representing themselves as the party not in power so an alternative to the Labour that people seem to be becoming tired of.

Rhetorically, the symbolic associations of new have long escaped from No10, slowly ebbed away by the familiarity that is unavoidable when in government. The clothes of New Labour are being borrowed and adapted to suit a new government in waiting, a new round of rhetoric begins as the Conservatives re-brand themselves in all ways but in name. Hence the fuzzy tree perhaps, though what this says rhetorically or symbolically is more than a little hard to grasp.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Two little words - Nick Robinson!

Nick Robinson, BBC's News political editor has had a blog for some time now, it is really an extension of his reports to camera on the ongoing Westminster sagas that he brings into the homes of millions on a nightly basis; but is it also a place for Nick to offer his own perspective on events?

The style is instantly recognisable, often with journalists you can umagine them saying it as you are reading. So is the general framing of news. Important news is Blair's slip of the tongue, adding the 'it has' to the statement that the situation in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam has been pretty much a disaster. In fact the use of words and phrases, or their absense from conversations between Blair and Musharraf, is standard fare for both the blog and Nick's reports to camera. Is there something missing?

The problem with the Newslog is that it is stuck within the confines of the BBC news format. Yes the sideswipes at politicians recur, the reports fit in to the narratives of the Blair/Brown conflict, or Blair's protracted demise, but we do not get anything of the experiences of Nick Robinson.

This man is followign Blair around the world, he is party to so much that he cannot report, but that would be the interesting stuff wouldn't it? Sadly we have to wait for his memoirs in years to come to find out the gory details from behind the scenes. But this leaves us with a question, why read the Newslog at all, why not watch the pictures accompanying these comments at 6pm or 10.30? There is an answer, sure you can scream at the TV, but you can actually publish a comment to a blog.

And here we find the interesting stuff. Replication of the negative attitude towards politicians by many, or Mr Siddelley's criticism of the disdain demonstrated by Nick through his semi-sarcastic tone. Here we find out what the public think, or do we? Perhaps this is worthy of some study, or perhaps it is simply a conversation between a few people that anyone can access but do not. Whatever the case this attempt at interaction is at times vibrant, though one gets the sense that Nick Robinson is actually talking past many of the contributors; rather than responding the next report goes up. So why is this any different to screaming at the TV?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How to bury bad news

George W Bush had a really bad day, in fact he admitted himself that he and the Republican Party had received a 'thumping' from US voters. But in his own unique way he brushed this aside. The smile, the impression of innocence remained, though the swagger was described by one journalist as not that of the heroic cowboy who had tamed the wild steed.

But the sense of defeat, and accompanying narratives that should have pervaded the media were cut short. There was more important news on the way. The media's agenda of the weeks preceding the UD mid-terms was going to be fed the ultimate feast: Rumsfeld was to be sacrificed. This has been called for by the pentagon, the armed forces and the voters for months; with the campaign becoming more vociferous as the election neared, so why as the results were being counted did Bush decide a 'new direction' was needed in Iraq? Did he experience a eureka moment, realise that others knew better, or was there a more cunning reason for this announcement?

Anyone who has heard of Karl Rove, and his role as advisor / spin-doctor / media manager extraordinaire behind the Bush presidency should not be surprised by Bush's announcement. While Bush being forced to sack Rumsfeld could be seen as a climb down this is not how it was painted. Perhaps if Rumsfeld had been sacrificed in an attempt to save the election result the coverage would have been worse; but this joint decision is not viewed as a U-turn.

What Bush appears to have achieved is to deflect the coverage from his 'thumping' to the resignation of his Defence Chief - Karl Rove strikes again! Hence we can read this as a fantastic example of managing the news, burying bad news with the story the media wanted; and it seems to have worked. In fact the consensus appears to be that this is the right decision by Bush, could he regain his credibility? Is this the first step? With Rove's guidance who knows how history will remember the man they call Dubya.

Friday, October 20, 2006

How unprofessional is that?

The last Labour MP to resign was Brian Sedgemore, he 'crossed the Rubicon' to support the Libdems at the height of the 2005 General Election. No great loss perhaps thought Blair, but the timing was unpeccable in order to gain maximum media coverage. That, we hear, is the professional way to communicate; that all communication must be aimed at gaining attention. This is as true in this political era as it was previously, though the tools may have changed a little.

And so we turn to the reason for posting: Clare Short, a confirmed anti-Blair maverick, has gone independent. Why? And more important, why now? There are countless moments when this gesture could have not only had an impact but been seen as a principled move. She opposed war against Iraq, but retained ministerial trappings until her credibility had been dashed. Then she stepped down from the front bench and the media said - So What? Tonight she earned fourth place on the BBC news and few will see this as anything but another less than credible act. It was intended to be an anti-Blair statement, but the timing is highly questionable. Had she resigned in a years time, in opposition to Brown's contination of Blair's political trajectory maybe it would have been newsworthy; but as a comment on the legacy of Blair it is ineffectual.

So here is the conundrum - Why resign? Was there a last straw? Was it just a case of things came to a head in her mind? Should she consider the media's demands or how they may comment on her departure? The media think she should, as these questions were all posed in a way to make her look like one of those famous 'flip-flops', just unable to make up her mind or to make the right decision.

So was it a meaningful move or not? Was it another, perhaps the last, maverick act of a career maverick? Does the move make her unprofessional in her timing? How should history judge Clare Short's stance over the last three years - opportunist or devout Labourite hanging on hoping for a leftward swing?

Spin - the human condition?

I want to put forward a hypothesis - we all tell lies from time to time, true? yes? We will flatter our friends, tell them they look good to make them feel good etc. We will also make ourselves appear better than we are. How many times do we tell someone when we are late that insurmountable problems caused our lateness, not the truth that we couldn't put down a book, had to finish the level on the game of the moment, took too long getting ready or actually couldn't be bothered to get out of bed. All of these things we do!

Yet we expect more from politicians, and in fact one small lie (white usually), one small deviation from the pure unaldulterated truth, and they are damned. Are we expecting too much. I don't suggest this out of a love of all those who enter politics, far from it, but from a recognition of them as human beings who share all the same foibles as the rest of us. Equally I want us to consider how new spin is. We may see it as an invention of Blair, Mandelson or Campbell (Alastair of course), but do you really beleive that spin was post 1997 only. There are famous examples from history, but also there are many instances we may wellbe unaware of - as it is only since there were rottweiler political PR men badgering journalsits that there was the rise of the rottweiler journalist who actively sought out spin to report it to a shocked nation. So should we not just accept spin as normal and not castigate the politician; or is there another reason for us getting worked up when we detect a lie from our leaders?

The First Post

This is the first post, hopefully one of many. The idea of this is to put some ideas out there and see what happens. My research focuses on political communication and how that uses the tools of public relations and marketing but without the sophistication.
Many may already think at this point what sophistication? What does this mean? Well here is the problem. Richard branson spends a fortune on marketing his companies and himself, he uses PR to the max, yet we trust him don't we? Certainly the public have general positive attitudes towards him despite his profits, wealth or disasters. Yet when a politician speaks we here the word 'SPIN', we block our ears, we ignore it - not maybe all of us but enough to concern the political classes. But the answer has been to look to corporate communication (PR & Marketing), the rsult seems to be the reduction in engagement, not an increase. I don't necessarily want to offer reasons at this stage, they will emerge, I would prefer to get a sense of how people view politics and its discourses, collect ideas and perhaps see why others out here in the blogosphere may think political communication is unworthy of serious attention.