Getting a grip on ‘get a grip’ soundbites

There is one phrase near-ubiquitous in UK politics at the moment: “get a grip”. Let’s look at just a handful of examples from the past few weeks. Each of the following was the lead paragraph for a political news story:

“New Culture Secretary Maria Miller has been urged by her own party’s MEPs to “get a grip” on high-speed communications technology vital for the country’s economic growth. A letter from 20 Tory members of the European Parliament says…” MSN 28/10/12

“The BBC’s acting director general has vowed to “get a grip” following the resignation of George Entwistle over a Newsnight report on child abuse claims. Tim Davie said he had…” BBC News 12/11/12

“Conservative MPs have told David Cameron to “get a grip” and halt a string of unforced errors that have blown his Government off course. They urged him to…” Independent 22/10/12

“RenewableUK, the trade and professional body representing the wind, wave and tidal energy industries, is urging the Prime Minister to get a firmer grip on energy policy, after two Conservative MPs, including the Energy Minister John Hayes, sought to undermine the renewables sector. Last night on Channel 4 News…” Politics Home 14/11/12

The bidding process for the West Coast Main Line franchise is a “fiasco”, according to Ed Miliband. The Labour leader said that David Cameron needed to “get a grip” on an “incompetent government.” The government has…” BBC News 14/10/12

Okay, so you get the idea. These quotes represent the tip of the ‘get a grip’ iceberg. Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I have gone through life until recently without realising the sheer ubiquity of the ‘get a grip’ phrase – but could there be other reasons that it is appearing so regularly? Rarely in politics is a line repeated this often done so by chance.

I first noticed ‘get a grip’ when Ed Miliband began using it against David Cameron. Other Labour MPs then began incorporating it into their repertoire. It was shortly after the ‘pastygate’ nonsense and there had been a spate of coverage about David Cameron’s upper class background; how he and George Osborne were ‘out of touch’ with ordinary voters.

It doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to move from ‘out of touch’ to ‘get a grip’: if someone needs to ‘get a grip’ they are in a sense ‘out of touch’. And there were other lines using a tactility frame too. A favourite of Miliband’s around this time, since used by Cameron and others, was: ‘he just doesn’t get it’.

It seemed what the Labour spinners had dreamt up was a line or three – to be repeated as many times as possible – to reinforce the idea of a lack of physical connection between David Cameron, George Osborne and the voter. I say ‘seemed’ as since then anyone and everyone has been accused of needing to ‘get a grip’, as the quotes make clear. The context it is being used in now is more traditional: suggesting incompetence on the part of the accused, an inability to control whatever it is they are supposed to be controlling.

The uptake and usage of this line may well simply be for the reasons suggested above (minus the whole tactility theme): pollsters find the line ‘resonates’ well with focus groups. Perhaps politicians think it sounds ‘real’, whatever that means. I’m never sure. It also has the advantage of being so unspecific that it can be readily applied to almost any situation.

But I wonder if there are not other reasons. When I hear the phrase being repeated almost daily by politicians it brings to mind the sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid’ series, in which he attributes a whole range of social phenomena to the increasing speed and uncertainty of our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps the reason ‘get a grip’ polls well, if indeed it does (I’m only speculating after all), is because people’s lives do feel increasingly out of their control. Plans can rarely be made with any certainty. Pensions collapse, house prices rise and fall, unemployment is an ever-present fear. Even in relationships we are encouraged to keep chopping and changing in the futile quest for perfection.

And then there is technology, of course – technology, supposed to free us from the need to work. But as many studies show working hours have in fact increased as technology such as internet-enabled phones have become more widespread. One of Bauman’s central points is that in the modern world distinctions between work and leisure time are blurring.

One could argue, then, that politicians are right to notice that ‘get a grip’ polls well, that it appears to resonate with voters, that it feels real. But rather than seeking political and economic solutions to help people retain more control of their lives, or at least feel that they do, ‘get a grip’ becomes the latest line to be used in knockabout party politics.

The irony of course is that in so doing, in seeking to prove that their rivals are out of touch or incompetent, politicians simply become ever more disconnected from the electorates. And in this sense, they really do need to get a grip.

Lessons for Leveson from Channel 4’s launch?

What with the Newsnight fiasco at the BBC, two media-related stories have largely dipped under the news radar these past couple of weeks. The first is the Leveson inquiry, due to release its findings in the next fortnight or so. The second was the anniversary of Channel 4’s launch, the broadcaster 30 years old last week.

So what does Channel 4 have to do with the Leveson inquiry? Well, the launch of Channel 4 could be highly instructive for thinking about how to fund the type of public interest investigative journalism lacking in the national press at present.

Launched on 2nd November 1982, Channel 4 was funded initially by ITV companies, who were then allowed to sell advertisements on the new channel. Channel 4 still retained a public service remit, and continues to do so to this day. In other words, parliament legislated that ITV – which enjoyed monopolistic status in terms of broadcast advertising at the time – help subsidise minority interest television in the public interest.

Academics, such as James Curran of Goldsmiths, are suggesting that a similar piece of legislation could help reverse the trend of ever decreasing funds being invested in investigative journalism. And this matters. After all, investigative journalism – holding those in power to account – is the primary argument in favour of press freedom.

The problem is that newspapers are nowhere near as profitable as they once were. Since the launch of Google AdWords in 2000, the ‘paid for search’ category has leeched ever increasing amounts of revenue from newspapers reliant on classified advertising to fund their operations. This has hit the national press hard but the regional press – often where the seeds of future national stories are uncovered – even harder.

Google’s advertising revenue surpassed ITV in 2008, and in 2010 stood at $28.2bn. In the UK ‘paid for search’ accounts for £6 of every £10 spent on online advertising, and Google holds 60% of the UK market. In other words, Google –a content parasite rather than producer – now operates a similar monopoly in terms of advertising subsidy that was enjoyed by ITV back in the early 1980s.

Curran proposes a form of top-slicing. 1% of Google’s UK AdWords revenue would be used to seed organisations solely focused on investigative journalism, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).

BIJ and others like it have done a remarkably good job of holding power to account on meagre budgets. Moreover, its reports investigate typically hard-to-penetrate industries such as finance and defence, rarely investigated in any depth by the national press. Rather like wiki-leaks, the BIJ uses tie-ups with national newspapers who buy the story fully-packaged once it is ready.

This type of investigative outsourcing makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the amount of data that is online. Often what investigative reporting now requires is the technical ability to mine data, or simply the patience to sift through PDFs and piece together details. The type of person attracted to this work often differs from the network-of-contacts-building journalist adept at getting off-the-record comments from high-profile figures.

So despite the attack currently being mounted on public service broadcasting in the wake of the Newsnight ‘scandal’, Leveson would do well to look closely at Curran and other’s proposals and advise in favour of legislation that evolves the journalistic model into one fit for the 21st Century. Channel 4’s funding model can serve as a useful lesson for ensuring those in power continue to be held to account.

Image via Edmond Wells

Forget penguins, it’s time for serious talk about voter turnout

Now that talk about Mayors, penguins, a Labour resurgence and the demise of the Lib Dems has died down, the media really needs to focus on one thing: voter turnout.

Overall turnout across England, Wales and Scotland was just over 30%. In other words over 2/3 of the population thought it not worth taking 5 minutes out of their day to cross a box. Some wards, such as in my old stomping ground, Reading, had turnouts just above 20%.

Claims of ‘victory’ when turnouts are this low are seriously misjudged. Parties may have gained in certain areas but liberal representative politics is losing, and parties themselves have to take a share of the blame for this. Yes these were ‘only’ mid-term local elections and General Election turnout is higher – although hardly mesmeric at around 60% – but there needs to be serious discussion about why people have no inclination to vote.

The consistent decline in voter turnout since the 1960s is not unique to the UK. Similar trends have been noted in Germany, Japan and the US (with the exception of Obama in 2008), referred to be some as the ‘crisis in democracy’. Not all view this decline as a problem. Academics such as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart claim declining voter turnout and distrust of politicians are part and parcel of ‘post-democracy’, where living standards in established democracies have risen over the past 50 years, and so too expectations of the electorate, to a degree impossible to be met by those in power.

There are supply-side problems too. Parties have become less ideologically separated over the past 50 years and instead professional-electoral machines, focused solely on winning elections and staying ‘on message’. Power and finances in the UK have not only been removed from local councils to Whitehall and Westminster (a problem for local elections); at a national level politicians have sacrificed powers to supranational bodies such as the EU, IMF and World Bank (a problem for General Elections).

According to the Norris/Inglehart paradigm, citizens now express their political preferences by other means than the ballot box, i.e. through activism, ethical consumption, and so on. There is surely some truth to this – quite how much is debatable – but it doesn’t negate the need to have a proper discussion about what type of political system we live in, what politicians and councillors are for and how they are appointed. A good starting point for such a debate might be what we understand by the word ‘representative’?

Are the MPs and Councillors we elect representatives ‘for’ wards and constituencies, or representative ‘of’ the people that live in those communities? The difference is not semantic, there is a clear distinction. Moreover, it crosses into all debates. Take pay, for example. We are often told political pay has to be set at a level that will attract the ‘brightest and best’ into politics. But are the brightest necessarily best? That depends on your definition of representative.

MPs and Councillors have an important role to play getting to grips with complex legislation, but they do not do this alone. They are backed up by a (decreasing) army of apolitical civil servants whose job it is to provide the administrative backbone. The problem with conflating brightest’ and ‘best’ is that the brightest often take a very similar path into politics and come from similar backgrounds. Even if it makes sense to have the brightest involved in politics at an individual level it can lead to systemic distortion, overall we are left with homogeneity.

In a piece for Guardian Local Government Network blog Rob Dale also laments the low turnout in the local elections. He suggests councillors use new media to better engage their electorates. Rob is certainly right politicians and councillors should use every communicative means possible to inform constituents but the problems are unfortunately more deep-rooted than simply establishing Twitter feeds, more regular email correspondence and interactive council websites.

Further, study after study finds that those most active on political social media channels and blogs tend to be better educated and more politically engaged. In other words, improving social media channels will reinforce the engagement of the 30% but do little to attract the 70% that can’t be bothered to vote in the first place. To do that will be far harder and requires serious discussion about the electoral system, decentralisation of powers to local authorities, incentivising diversity in politics and enforcing public service requirements in an increasingly fragmented media environment where it is increasingly easy to avoid politics.

Image via blackplastic

Murdoch the master strategist

Whatever your opinion on Rupert Murdoch , it would be ridiculous to deny that he – or the people advising him – made a very smart move this week. The Sunday Times ‘sting’ on Peter Cruddas, in which the Conservative Party chairman offered undercover journalists, posing as business representatives, a private dinner with David Cameron for 250 grand and the opportunity to ‘feed into’ the policy process, works on two levels for Murdoch and News Corp.

1) The sting was a textbook example of Fourth Estate journalism, holding those in power to account and uncovering corruption; the type of reporting so often cited when making the case for a press free from government interference. With the Leveson inquiry in full flow Murdoch is sending a clear message to the public that: a) politicians are not to be trusted and b) the press is one of the few institutions with the resources to expose those in the upper eschelons of government.

2) While making his point about the need for a free press, Mudoch and News Corp. get to stick two fingers up at Cameron and his inner circle. Icing on the cake for Murdoch, it could be argued, after Cameron okayed the Leveson inquiry to go ahead. A tweet from Rupert Murdoch indicates he’s keen to see Cameron put through the ringer just as he has been.

Make no mistake about it, this is a power play by Murdoch. No doubt in the coming weeks and months of the Leveson inquiry The Sunday Times sting will be brought back up by those in favour of laissez-faire press regulation. Of course, the press should not be overly regulated but this one example should not distract from the illegality that was widespread at the top of News Corp and most likely other news organisations too.

There is also a third level to the sting story, and perhaps it is the most ironic level of all. The Sunday Times sting exposed that fact that wealthy people can apparently buy a chance to influence those at the top of our representative democracy. But of course the Sunday Times has for many years been a loss leader for News Corp. In effect, Murdoch pays out money to subsidise The Times as it buys him political clout, which he has used to maximum effect here by exposing the fact that people can do more directly what he has done indirectly for years.

Image via 38 Degrees