Thursday 16 September 2010

The day of the great axe: media management versus democratic scrutiny?

The Staggers blog follows up the FT's news report about how the government wants to keep a very tight grip on the media management of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the defining public and political event of this five-year Parliament.

David Cameron is said to be anxious to reveal the spending cuts as a complete package, rather than have different elements leak out at different times, dominating the news cycle and distorting the image he wants to present.

There are warnings that Downing Street and the Treasury will punish ministers who let slip what is about to happen on their patch with even deeper cuts in retribution. (Though George Osborne will honour the rule in the breach - as with his £4 billion benefits cut leak).

The Coalition's ministers are of the view that everything changes on October 20th, as Andrew Rawnsley captured dramatically in his Observer column on Sunday.

There is also a fear that the Coalition risks becoming almost exclusively defined by the enthusiasm with which it has embraced cuts - especially if public opinion does harden around the view that the government chose to cut deeper and faster, reflecting not just necessity but the belief of many on the right that the crisis presents a once in a generation ideological opportunity to challenge the state).

So the emerging media management strategy has two aims - one before and one after.

Firstly, David Cameron would like a final month of talking about the sunny uplands which could yet lie over the horizon, before the tangible reality of the cuts drown out ambitions for the Big Society, which remain considerably more opaque.

Secondly, the hope is also to to try - surely not entirely, but just as far as is feasible - to have one single great day of the axe in which all of the bad news is released in an avalanche.

That approach presents enormous challenges to media, political and civic scrutiny.

October 20th 2010 will make - or at least signal - as many massive public political choices at once as usually happen in a Parliamentary session, perhaps in an whole Parliamentary cycle. There will be frenzied coverage of the shock and awe of the overall scale of what is proposed. Yet there will be fifty or more major decisions which could each have dominated the front-pages in themselves, with significant choices made or implied in departmental submissions about where to cut would have had a whole cycle of scrutiny, stakeholder debate, green and white papers and the rest. Much of this will follow - but often the die will be cast.

These will get much less attention than they merit, given that they are likely to have an enormous effect on everything from the future of the welfare state, the type of society we are and Britain's role in the world, and the future of major issues across the field of policy, from economic prospects to climate change, to say nothing of the impact on politics, parties and personalities at the centre of the drama.

The major broadcast programmes, and the broadsheet newspapers will need to work out how to properly cover a domestic social and political event of perhaps unique scale and complexity in at least a decade.

Much of our media culture is increasingly focused on what is about to happen, and much less on what has happened. The day before yesterday, even early this morning, can now seem like a lifetime in modern media cycles. For Newsnight, Channel 4 News, the Today Programme, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph and others to get the spending review right may well depend on a willingness to challenge that model, if the aim is to inform the public about the spending review and what it means. That can only be done over several days, not within the first few hours.

There are analogous challenges for Parliament itself - the response to the Spending Review on a departmental basis is an important test of ideas about strengthening Parliamentary scrutiny, particularly around Select Committees - and for civic society outlets, including charities, academics, think-tanks, bloggers and others. Again, there will be an enormous frenzy of activity in every sector. What are the challenges not just of putting the overall picture together, but ensuring that significant developments get the debate and scrutiny they merit.

As the plan for media management emerges, shouldn't we all be working out how democratic scrutiny gets ready to respond?


UPDATE: Alex Barker has more on the FT Westminster blog, suggesting that much of the detail of the agreed cuts may be withheld.

He also sums up the current state-of-play on Coalition narrative rather pithily:

Everyone is busy in No 10 attempting to find some happy reform narrative that counters the impression that the government is obsessed with cuts (which it is).

1 comment:

Ian & Nina Graham said...

It promises to give a whole new dimension to "a good day to bury bad news".

Jo Moore had to go.....