Alex Massie

The New British Invasion: Or, Thoughts on the Duty of Opposition, the Responsibility of Newspapers and Why the Netroots are Just Like the London Tabloids

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Via the admirable Mr E, I find Matthew Parris offering some sound advice to the Tories. Parris, one of the most urbane journalists working in London, found himself making an argument he didn't, on reflection, quite believe:

Here was the wise argument: “David Cameron and his Conservative colleagues were entitled to their half-hour of fun at Prime Minister’s Questions, at Brown’s expense. They landed their punches. But they should not think this will serve as opposition policy for the next two years. ‘Hah-nah-nah’ does not add up to a manifesto, and the British electorate dislike knockabout.

“After a deserved week of crowing, the Tories should now return to fleshing out their own policy platform. Britain wants to hear a mature and constructive alternative to new Labour, put calmly and without personal abuse. Criticise Labour policy by all means; but criticise measures, not men.” Sage advice. And wrong. This Government is bereft of measures to criticise. Its centre is hollow. New Labour is not and never was “measures”: it is a marketing exercise; it is men or it is nothing. So go for the men, I say. Kick the living daylights out of them. Humiliate them. Knock them all over the shop. Puncture their fragile confidence.

Bring them down.

Quite so. In passing let one make one observation: with the exception of Michael Kinsley, can one imagine a columnist for the Washington Post coming to this sane conclusion, let alone doing so while admitting the sweetness and power of the sirens advising op-ed columnists to remember that their job is to be sage, to be wise, to be constructive and to avoid, at any cost, anything that might be considered intemperate? Parris, remember, is not writing in one of the London tabloids but in the old Thunderer itself, The Times. (I suppose one could argue that Frank Rich and Paul Krugman at The New York Times are happy to play the man, not the ball but of course that's why they can be a) quite entertaining and b) are so frequently criticised.)

On the merits of his argument, I believe Parris is correct. He subsequently suggests that the theory of "Triangulation" is itself barely, if at all, clad:

What, until recently, has been holding the Cameron Conservatives back? It is, I believe, their overestimate of the whole new Labour project. Triggered by the successes of Bill Clinton in US politics, a tremendous amount of balderdash has been spoken and written in Britain about “triangulation” – as though because the word was novel and contained five syllables it pointed to a brilliant new strategy, only recently discovered, in America.

Ever since I studied political science at Yale as a postgraduate, I have harboured a deepening suspicion of the American intelligentsia’s Teutonic passion for grand theories with whizz-bang names and a propensity rapidly to take leave of the common sense in which they may once have been rooted. If the theory of triangulation had been published first in German we should have met it with scepticism; but it had the good fortune to be born in America, where they think in German but speak in English, and became one of those words that, uttered by the wise, are repeated by the right-on without anyone asking its precise meaning.

Perhaps it is one of the advantages of a parliamentary system that the opposition need feel no obligation (much of the time at least) to be responsible or respectable. Looking back on the past five years in Washington, it is remarkable that the Democratic party has been so restrained in its response to a manifestly incompetent and (at least!) borderline crooked administration.

We hear a lot - from the Rush Limbaughs and the Fox Newsies and the rest of them - about how angry Democrats are, but really what is striking is how mild and meek they are. No, they are cowed by the need to appear responsible and respectable.

In this respect the netroots critique of the way Washington conducts its business is persuasive. Does it matter that John Murtha might not have had much of a plan for what to do in Iraq? Not really; that's not actually his job.

Now, as Parris observes, a scorched earth opposition cannot be employed in all circumstances. Presidential candidates might have to have some proposals, but there's no requirement for the Democratic Senate leadership to do likewise. There are moments and purposes for denunciation; there are times when good politics - and good leadership - may require one to play the man, not the ball.

So, yes, the netroot argument has some merit.

Parris's column also touches on something I've been meaning to write about for some time: the extent to which the blogosphere in the United States mimics the role of the press in the United Kingdom.

No-one, I think, could reasonably accuse the White House press corps and the television networks of being feral beasts. The television stations  - not even on their Sunday morning discussion programmes - hardly strike an oppositional attitude. Nor, whatever this White House says, does the mainstream press treat the administration terribly roughly. After all, no-one wants to lose their invitation to the Sunday chat shows.

(One example of the courtly nature of the White House press corps: when a British Prime Minister and the US President hold a press conference in Washington, the American reporters obediently stand when the politicians enter the room; the Brits remain seated, silent and sullen. This is said to infuriate President Bush. Perhaps the British hacks are rude and perhaps the American deference is due, in part, to the President's position as Head of State - I imagine British reporters would stand for Her Majesty for instance - but, still, the illustrative neatness of the contrast is appealling.)

So, anyway, the netroots have stepped into the breach. Thoroughly, even splendidly, partisan they're filling a vaccuum left by the mainstream media. (It scarcely needs saying that though the British blogosphere keeps growing and has an influence of its own, it doesn't fill quite the same role as its American counterpart because the media landscape is very different - not always better, mind you, just different.)

You cannot, I suspect, imagine any American newspaper editor calling the President (or the Secretary of State or the Majority Leader etc etc) to warn that, "I've got this big bucket of shit, and I'm going to tip it all over your head."

The editor was The Sun's Kelvin McKenzie, the Prime Minister John Major, and the cause Britain's retreat from the European Exchange Rate mechanism. Those details are inconsequential: at some point the British press turns on all Prime Ministers and treats them with ridicule and contempt. Here's  Max Hastings, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, writing about Tony Blair in the Daily Mail last year:

"Until yesterday, for all the stench emerging from Tony Blair's government, I did not think of the prime minister as financially corrupt.

"Listening to his speech in praise of the United States, however, and his assault on European critics of American policy as 'foolish, short-sighted and ultimately very dangerous', one heard tills ringing in the man's ears."

As I say, it's hard to imagine Len Downie being quite so intemperate. That may be a good thing, though of course like anything else it comes at a price. The point, however, is not to moan or marvel a t Fleet Street excess, but to suggest that though an American editor would not behave in this manner, an American blogger might well.

Atrios (Duncan Black) for instance, is a tabloid columnist manque. He has exactly the right combination of spite, sneering and bullying for the job. It's ferociously partisan and bracingly, gratuitously unfair, mean-spirited, sexist, wearisome, entertaining, etc etc. That's why his blog is gripping. In other words: it works. If you were to put a British tabloid in Washington, Atrios would be right at home on its op-ed pages (and his presence would add greatly to the gaiety of the nation). His "Wanker of the Day" feature is a stylistic flourish that would be right at home on the pages of Britain's best-selling newspapers. It's also easy to imagine the Firedoglake collective on the pages of a British mid-market tabloid.

Indeed, one might think of the Daily Mail's Lynda Lee Potter (among others) as proto-bloggers in as much as their columns would range over a dozen instances of official imbecility, venality and betrayal.

On that note, good grief, what wouldn't one give to have Henry Louis Mencken around to blog this  - and every other - administration? Sure, Maureen Dowd, bless her, is happy to be a gadfly (nipping Presidents from either party) but she's less effective than she would be if one didn't have the impression that writing sentences that sound good to Maureen Dowd weren't more important to her than making her point effectively.

Anyway, mentioning Mencken reminds one that the American press need not be so docile, so timorous, so keen to keep its knickers clean. Indeed, one reading of the national, elite media might be that it's been engaged upon an odd (and sadly successful) quest to remove America's natural cussing, rude, intemperate, iconoclastic nature from the pages of the nationally-important press. This seems a shame and, worse, a blunder.

Despite what they say and despite their occasional team-work, one rarely gets the sense that the White House press corps is a pack at all. (Or at least, not under this administration; a testament perhaps to the administration's ability to marginalise and even neuter the press - all this, despite some terrific journalism from the likes of Dana Priest etc as well as the dogged pursuit of the administration's approach to, say, torture...)

Still, important elements of the blogosphere do hunt together just as it's been known for tabloid football reporters to co-ordinate their campaigns against this or that manager by agreeing on a common line of attackwith their rivals from other red-tops. (Also, trivially, there's an old practice of huddling together after a post-match press conference to agree on the "line" to be taken. That way no-one gets bollocked by their boss for missing it... From time to time the suggestion is made that the liberal netroots operate in a similar fashion.)

It might also be said that one sees much the same tone of sneering superiority on the netroot blogs as one does from the British press pack. Blair complained that this had curdled oversight into cynicism - itself a breathtakingly cynical remark even from a Prime Minister whose governing style owed much to that particular quality. (Though, in fairness, Gordon Brown is showing signs of outdoing his predecessor here).

Of course what the netroots actually believe matters less than their attitude and their general suspicion that it's best to get your retaliation in first. As with the British press, everything else flows from that.

This approach has its weaknesses, but one shouldn't forget its strengths either. The American high-horse approach to journalism has its own strengths - and it can and does produce some wonderful journalism - but it too leads to group-think and the default assumption one finds at the NYT and WaPo that centrist respectability is preferable to vulgar disagreement. The best of the establishment journalism is only possible because of these newspapers' wealth; unfortunately so is the worst of their journalism.

(The same might be said of the network television news if it made any real pretense to covering the world; instead the networks have realised that their audience likes to be fed stories that flatters its seemingly insatiable appetite for scare-mongering and sentimentality.)

In the end this creates a culture in which too many of the wrong people are given too much of the benefit of the doubt too often. If you want to believe in the people elected, you're going to end up in trouble. Then again, that may be a risk inherent in the American desire to see the President as some kind of Priest-God. Even Senators are treated as though they were sage exemplars to us all, merely by dint of the colour of their togas.

There's another way in which the netroots mimics the role of the press in Britain. Prime Ministers complain that the press is absurdly hostile and negative, negative, negative. But that's not quite true. Each newspaper stands for something, just as the netroots in America (on the right and, more prominently, on the left), also stand for something. The individuals might be cynics, but the team is motivated by a desire for change or to advance a particular idea of what sort of place Britain or America should be. The Telegraph serves to keep the Tory party honest to its idea of conservatism; the Guardian or the Mirror to advance Labour's interests and agenda.

None of these papers are party shills (much to politicians' irritation) and they're quite capable of turning on their friends just as one imagines - or hopes - that the best of the netroots will be critical friends rather than lap-dogs to their political "team". (Tellingly, Rupert Murdoch's political support is always open to negotiation; he's a businessman first, a newspaperman second and an ideologue a long, long, long way third.)

That said, the British press, for all its partisanship, prefers to remain outside the tent pissing in. One obvious danger for the netroots is, to return to Mencken, that:

"The moment the present outsiders became public-spirited they would begin to seek public office, and the moment they began to seek public office they would face the necessity of exposing themselves to the mob, and of trying to dance to its taste. In brief, the moment they became public-spirited they would become precisely the same flatterers and mountebanks that the existing politicans are." (Baltimore Evening Sun, February 12, 1923.)

Will they too be corrupted by responsibility and respectability?

There are advantages to a rigorous separation of news and comment. But it's also true that in the age of spin - itself in part brought on by the felt need to control or manage the media - that wall is both more difficult to maintain and of more questionable worth. The government is in the propaganda business; so too - to one extent or another - are the media and the netroots.

Every so often there's some chuntering in the British press about the terrible consequences of letting folk sit at home and express their own political opinions. But my sense is that, in general, the British press is much less troubled by the rise of the blogosphere than is the case in the United States. And why should it be?  Fleet Street is a rambunctious place where a knuckleduster is always useful. That's true of the netroots' world too. And there's lots to be said for that.

A thousand viewpoints blossoming in the media world? Taken all in all, that has to be a good thing, right? Maybe it is grubby and dirty and liable to lead to all manner of silly or stupid things being said. But so what? If the centrist establis hment's ideas and principles stand scrutiny then they'll have every chance of prevailing. If they don't it's questionable they deserve to.

None of this is meant to suggest that I think the British media a wholly admirable beast. It may too often sacrifice rigour for colour or facts for wit. It's played a part - collectively at least - in the coarsening of British life and it's frequently absurd, foolish or downright hysterical. But it does have life and perhaps it has the merits of reflecting us as we are rather than as we might like to consider ourselves.

The same may perhaps be said of the netroots and the blogosphere.

In the mean-time this post has probably gone on long enough. If you made it this far, congratulations. I'd be interested, kind reader, in your thoughts and promise to respond to arguments made in the comments section.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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