Elections and stories

Broadcast iconThis blog is mostly about the practical ‘how’ of communication, but that’s in service to making a better world and sometimes I talk about issues and change too, especially when it’s communication-related.

This seems like something I can’t let pass without reflection. Here in the UK, we’ve just had elections for some local councils and for Members of the European Parliament. It’s supplied fascinating (and scary) examples of the ways stories can be presented.

Local colour

For non-UK folks, I need to explain that we have a newish political party called UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. Its main policies are to take the UK out of the European Union and to clamp down on immigration. Its other policies are less clear, but from what various party figures have said they’re likely to include faster privatisation of the NHS, ignoring climate change and cutting support for renewable energy, and rolling back workers’ rights.

Its leader, Nigel Farage, is good at appearing as an affable bloke. Various other party figures have turned out to be good at appearing as eccentrics with extreme and sometimes offensive views. My reading is that it’s a home for Conservatives who want to say things the Conservative Party won’t let them say.

That man from the telly

One of the most striking things about the run-up to these elections was that the traditional media – newspapers, BBC, etc – focused on UKIP to the exclusion of almost all else.

Farage was everywhere you looked. On the news, on panel discussion programmes, in the papers… The process was cast in terms of how things related to UKIP. This happened even in the reporting of results: in the local council elections the big picture story based on actual results should have been “Labour wins” (ie gains most seats), but all the talk was of UKIP gains. Which were impressive for a small party, yes, but any party that got so much media coverage would have done well.

Nigel Hood, running through the glen

My theory is that the traditional media fell in love with the idea of reporting that a plucky band of eccentrics had confounded all expectations and overturned the status quo. So they set out to make it happen – in a planned way or not – and framed everything with that goal in mind.

That’s a good story for a film about alienated kids coming together to find their self-esteem by winning a baseball game. It’s not so good for determining who gets to steer countries.

Another part of it might be the Red Team vs Blue Team story. Both Labour and the Conservatives are keen to perpetuate the idea that they are the only possibilities and everything must be seen in terms of the conflict between them. If you’re a media person and that idea has seeped into your bones, and then you’re confronted with something that challenges it, you’re probably going to either reject the input and squash it, or be fascinated by it. Usually the former happens, but in this case it seems to be the latter.

Fear and loathing

Another reason for UKIP fascination and votes is that people are under pressure and disillusioned with politicians. The recession is a breeding ground for fear and suffering, and the three larger parties seem to be promising more of the same. So if a jolly bloke in a pub (on your telly) tells you he’s an alternative, perhaps you’ll grab on to that. If he tells you that it’s the fault of Those People, and if we could just make them leave us alone we’d be OK, perhaps you’ll be glad of an explanation for it all. And not enquire too far into what else your new friends intend.

The UKIP phenomenon has been partly caused by a government that’s remarkable for its lack of empathy with the majority of the population. And, indeed, unconcerned at that becoming part of its story; or perhaps uncomprehending.

No green in the Union Flag?

Another feature of the election process was the lack of exposure for the Green Party. In the scale of things the Greens were one of the largest small parties – starting in similar territory to UKIP. And they actually have a policy platform that’s substantially different from everybody else’s. Yet as time went on it looked increasingly like the traditional media were refusing to give them any coverage.

I think it’s because they fall outside the business-as-usual box that’s the comfort zone of the media managers. Rather than show us a spread of ideas we got the filtered version. It would be interesting to see a survey of the backgrounds and attitudes of media people.

Come to think of it, we didn’t hear anything about the independent or residents’ association candidates in the locals either.

As it turned out, all of them made steady gains and the Greens are starting to threaten the Lib Dems. (Peacefully, of course!)

Big takeaways

As changemakers, what can we draw from this?

  • There’s a great need to spread messages of hope vs fear.
  • The mainstream view of the elections is depressing if you don’t like the UKIP agenda. (And I hope you don’t.) Challenge it, and look for the facts. There are some shoots in there, but – as always, it seems – they are slow to grow.
  • The traditional media may have limited use in creating positive change. It’s important to work with them, but online channels and discussions are probably more open to different views. And the trend is for people to use them more. We need to help good messages rise above the noise.



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