As Ed Miliband warms up for the campaign trail for 2015 and gets out there to meet the people, a posse of journalists and paparazzi lurk outside every cafe he enters, rubbing their hands in anticipation of the next awkward Kodak moment that will propel the Labour leader into the hands of the Twitter trolls. And boom! That bacon sandwich moment happened. And seconds later every news outlet was heralding a collapse in his poll ratings, providing legitimacy for journalists to persist with the question that refuses to die: "why aren’t you popular Ed?”
BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson refers to this as “the Ed Miliband problem.” On his blog he says: “[Ed] has a reputation for the worthy and wordy intellectual analysis. What the party workers who knock on doors are demanding is something concrete – ‘a retail offer’ – to sell to sceptical voters.” So if I understand Nick correctly, this means that Ed needs a clearly articulated position to “sell” to the public to achieve the holy grail of popularity.
But wait… in a different post, Nick writes: “The Labour leader seemed to regard today’s questions as an invitation to deliver a pre-tested soundbite.” Hang on a minute – wasn’t that what you suggested he should do?
This is the modern politician’s double bind. The public and the media want you to nail your colours to a mast, but you know that if you do you will be vilified for doing so. And so the party conference becomes the stage for an elaborate Argentine tango between politician and interviewer, where the politician treads carefully to avoid the stiletto heel of journo criticism crushing their reputation forever.
And that is where the “spin doctors” like Andy Coulson come in. They are hired to second guess the journos (because they were once their kin), and put that “retail offer” together. But, what this leads to in the end is a big fat fake political discourse where everyone is second guessing each other. And what we – the human population – desperately crave is the opposite: we want Ed (and for that matter Dave, Nick and Nigel) to be human, we want authenticity.
I would suggest that the reason why we never get it is that the media never concede their complicity in this – acknowledging that they can be just as fake as the politicos. Coming from their self appointed higher moral ground they will criticise the way politicians are now too polished with their answers – while at the same time seeking that single “retail offer”. Journalism never refers to itself as “spin” – it rather prefers the term “objective coverage” or “neutral reporting” – but I would question if there is such a thing as true objectivity in journalism. Everything and everyone is values-laden. I am, you are... we all come from a subjective position.
It is all of us – the journalists, the politicians, the readers and commentators who collectively uphold the Great British Fake Off in the political discourse by making it so damn precarious to ever slip up (David Miliband’s banana anyone?). The only way we can change it is to practice our own authenticity and then ask it of others. My current academic crush and recent RSA speaker Brene Brown says: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest.”
The only way we’ll ever get an authentic political debate going is when the politicians and media give up the cat and mouse chase, where leaders race around posing for every frame, writing a quip for every question, and prepping for every doorstep encounter, while the media positions itself on the higher ground, throwing in cleverly written questions aimed purely at catching them out.
But while the media stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that we no longer live in the world of black and white secure futures and single saviours, the fakery will go on. And it is still largely the media that holds the power to frame a politician as a statesman in waiting or consign them to a future of click bait for the trolls. So what to do? I would suggest that all we really can do is acknowledge our own role in upholding this inauthenticity and ask of our media outlets and our politicians – and for that matter, ourselves – that we speak with honesty and have enough good grace to hear each other out, rather than simply falling in line with the catcalling when a politician inelegantly squirts a drop of ketchup on the table.
And judge them on their policy proposals. On which point, Ed, I would love an owl. Thank you for the offer.