Monday, March 28, 2011

Should the government dictate the academic research agenda

The notion of governments controlling the work of academics brings to mind the regimes of Stalin or much academic work in Communist China, where still the works of Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping et al are core to the curriculum for degree programmes. However there are equally benign interpretations, channelling funding into research into medicine, or even the ways in which to maximise the effectiveness of health campaigns. The prioritisation of the Big Society agenda has sparked fury according to an article published on the Guardian website yesterday. The key problem is because the agenda is largely in slogan form, it is far easier to design the questions when considering how to approach seeking cures for cancer than to consider what to ask about a largely nebulous concept. However, for academics this strikes of government interfering in the act of knowledge generation. The reaction is to ask how a government is allowing an "ill-thought-out, half-formed Tory election idea to divert precious funding away from genuine research".

Perhaps however, academia is missing the point. Around ten years ago there were a number of projects focusing on the Third Way, not to mention a number of colleagues engaged in PhDs asking about the future of socialism, ideology, party politics etc. Largely this was also a slogan that lacked substance, in hindsight now it simply is another label for centrist, managerial politics; perhaps the same verdict will be reached when studies of the Big Society emerge in five years or so. And that is the main point, we need to research to explain this, government cannot just be scrutinised by the media but also needs to be rigorously challenged by the academic community. That challenge needs to focus not just on day to day policy, usually via the media, but long term focusing on the relations between political institutions, the economy and society (big or not).

Unlike Stalinist USSR, China or other less free nations, the government can direct the agenda but not the outcomes. Research should look carefully at the Big Society. Research should question the extent to which society is broken, where the fault-lines are, and how they can be repaired. The various initiatives need to be examined, analysed and placed side by side with economic policy to examine how substance matches rhetoric. We also need to understand the extent to which government can push an agenda, how the media impacts upon acceptance and so how the citizen feels they are a part of a Big Society, do they want to be, and in what way. Without this research the danger is that government will produce its own research, this will be questioned, dubbed inauthentic and unreliable and we return to the policy initiative simply being rhetorical. Independent research is a powerful tool which needs to be linked into governance and society, I think we should embrace the Big Society agenda and raise important questions about the future of Britain. not because the government says we should but because it is important for all who are part of our society.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Alpha Dogs: How Political Spin became a Global Business – BOOK REVIEW

In Alpha Dogs James Harding, Times Editor and former Washington correspondent for the Financial Times, charts the birth and evolution of the political consultant business in the US. Focusing on the partnership between cinema verite film-maker David Sawyer and Ad man Scott Miller, the brains behind the ‘Have a Coke and a smile’ campaign, Harding explains how these two idealists moved into becoming political consultants, started their own agency SMG and exported their model across emergent democracies. The model at the heart of their consultancy was very simple, and one that any modern day consultant would recognise, get inside the heads of the consumer, craft the message, go negative, pre-empt events, tell your story and sell it out. It was this toolkit that was tried and tested getting Kevin White re-elected as mayor of Boston in 1979 and then adapted through numerous unsuccessful (yet very lucrative) forays into South America to be refined in order that they could stage manage the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines supporting the 1986 campaign of Cory Aquino and two years later unseating General Pinochet in Chile. While the SMG team of consultants could at this stage be arguably on the side of God (or Good) and not Mammon, this was to change over the next decade. Their public failures in Peru and the increasing profit that could be earned from Junk bond sellers, tobacco companies saw SMG shift to a more corporate client portfolio. Miller left, Sawyer was ousted and the consultants spread far and wide across the political spectrum of America and beyond. SMG evolved to become Weber Shandwick, a major force in the public relations industry with a solely corporate focus.

While Harding appears sympathetic to the main characters of Sawyer and Miller, as well as many of the other characters that emerge as key or bit-part players in the SMG story this contrasts to his evaluation of the SMG legacy. While they may have talked of ‘electronic democracy’ of television making key players of the people and putting politics into peoples’ front rooms and not hidden in smoke filled board rooms, Harding contrasts this with the techniques used in order to oil this new democracy. Quoting the words of many consultants a story is built of the evolution in political communication ushered in by SMG. Joe McGinnis is quoted talking of ‘style becoming substance’ and that “The medium is the massage and the masseur gets the votes” (p. 80); for SMG selling a candidate was really about manufacturing an illusion and voters bought these illusions. Overall Harding’s assessment is “a decline in the national conversation, a less meaningful politics, a politics of soundbites and slurs, personalities not policies, image and a lack of imagination” (p. 224). Perhaps this assessment is one that Harding would extend to much of the public relations industry, given the critical tone taken when charting the shift to caring for Mammon and extending the SMG model into the corporate world.

As with many accounts of journalists, this is highly readable and accessible while also being extensively researched combining data from 200 interviews with many of the participants with academic works, SMG strategy documents and contemporary media accounts. It is therefore very important for understanding how the evolution of the political communication industry, how it became professionalised and what consultants would define as being professional. Ultimately, tools aside, winning appears to be everything. Whether it is regimes with dubious records for human rights or not, the well-meaning but inexperienced leader or the politico, the consultant can create the compelling narrative of either the self-less moral candidate or the hard-working professional politician and sell them as a brand. The belief is that the consumer democracy is sovereign, so the tools do not matter, consumers can make up their own minds. Yet when one considers the use of data in order to shape campaigns, the cognitive psychology which underpins message creation and the use of negative attacks one does wonder the extent to which consumers really are sovereign or are just manipulated and confused. Harding brings this contrast out well and hence this represents an important account of the industry and its impact upon the conduct of electioneering and political campaigning globally. He questions this impact, hope is hinted at residing in digital democracy but it is also noted that this is now the terrain of the consultant. The masseurs are now found building territory in social spaces online, Harding perhaps will find that the modern day SMGs will adapt that original toolkit and continue to find ways of manipulating electorates while still covering their techniques with a democratic veneer. They have created a political marketplace, for both personalities and their skills, but is this actually a democratic marketplace? Harding suggests it is not and it is hard to disagree.