Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The rise of distraction politics

We are heading into a new and alarming era of politics - the era of 'distraction politics'. It is a tactic that Labour, with all of their skill in handling the media, is increasingly using.

The Labour Party knows that it is sometimes impossible to keep a story out of the news. Indeed, any attempt to get a story out of the news will probably just backfire on them, especially after the "A good day to bury bad news" debacle.

Therefore when a negative story breaks, they give the media another, connected story, something that will play well with their core constituency and remove some of the fire away from them. If some embarrassing statistics are coming out, they look for someone else to blame or divert attention to. It is an old trick, but has been taken to a new level by this Government.

Some examples:

1) The Dominic Grieve affair. At the end of last year, the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve was arrested over leaks of Government documents from the Home Office. Firstly, the Government actions were massively hypocritical, considering they (and especially the Prime Minister) used leaks extensively before they came to power. Secondly, all of the information that made it into the papers was of public interest, and was (to a certain extent) being covered up by the Government.

The investigation was mishandled by the Government, the police and the Commons authorities. An search was made of Dominic Grieve's office in the Commons (against protocol, and with the Speaker, Michael Martin, rather spectacularly denying any prior knowledge).

All of this came about because the Government, embarrassed by the leaks, tried to divert attention away from the bad-news stories by initiating a mole hunt. This should have had a secondary effect of making them look like victims and pushing some of the blame on the most likely suspects, the Tories.

Unfortunately for the Labour Party, it misfired badly and they were made to look incompetent at best. Firstly, information control within the Home Office was so bad that the leaks were allowed to happen. Secondly, the Government overreacted to the leaks. Thirdly, the inquiry was ineptly handled. All in all, they made Dominic Grieve appear like a victim rather than a villain.


2) The bonuses scandal and Sir Fred Goodwin. This is a classic case; RBS did fail, and few can argue that Sir Fred Goodwin's pension is far too generous given the circumstances. However, there is no doubt that his pension was, and is, legal. Additionally, it appears that every decision Goodwin made when he was Chief Executive of RBS was within the law. The company appears to have followed the Government's rules and regulations at all times.

The failure of RBS has been a massive embarrassment, not just for the bank, but for the whole country, and especially Scotland. It highlights the Government's inaction in controlling the banks via the Financial Standards Authority during the good times.

In order to push the attention away from their role in the failure of the bank, the Government have tried to focus attention on Goodwin's pension. In the larger scale of things, it is insignificant. Yet several Government ministers have made increasingly dark warnings about the pension - Harriet Harman even came out with this incomprehensible statement (from the Telegraph):
“The Prime Minister has said it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted. It might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that’s where the Government steps in.”
This was seen as an attempt to change the law to try and claw back some of the money. Unfortunately, this is even more immoral than the original pension. An attempt to create a quick retrospective law, directed in solely at and in reaction to one person, is a very worrying thing and should not be allowed.

Then the embarrassment for the Government deepened when it was alleged that Lord Myners, who signed the pension deal for the Government, knew all about the details. It must be stressed that he denies this allegation. This story is still running in the background and refuses to die, with claim and counter-claim being made. The simple fact is; if Lord Myners was not aware of the details of the pension, then why wasn't he? He was in charge of signing it off, after all.

Another attempt at diverting the media away from the real story (in this case the Government's incompetent handling of the economy) had failed. Unfortunately, it has had rather negative side-effects, with Fred Goodwin's house in Edinburgh being attacked.


3) Then there is the latest scandal. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has just been involved with a personally embarrassing story about her husband watching two pornographic movies. In many ways this is a total non-story; the amount of money involved is trivial, and it has the appearance of being a genuine mistake.

There is a political aspect to the story. Jacqui Smith is the Home Secretary, and she many now find it harder to do her job. For one thing, it may be harder for her to create rules for the sex industry (whenever she tries to do anything, she will have this spectre hanging over her head).

It has been very embarrassing, not just for Jacqui Smith and her husband, but also for the Labour Party and all the MPs.

Then came the 'distraction politics'. The day after the story broke, there was a headline story on the BBC news website. A Labour MP has made an accusation that someone within parliament is leaking information to the newspapers on MP's expenses. The very timely story diverts the attention away from Jacqui Smith, who would probably have still been headline news the next morning after more information came out about her second home expenses.

Therefore the story has been skilfully turned away from Jacqui Smith towards a 'mole' who is selling information for up to £300,000. Now, this may be the case, but the only evidence is from a Labour MP, Sir Stuart Bell. It is still essentially the same story, but it has been diverted away from the real target. I am also dubious that the person who 'leaks' this information about a leak, Sir Stuart Bell, is also in charge of the 'Speaker's Commons Estimates Committee', which will investigate the leak. Can we expect him to do a thorough job when he has already been making partisan statements to the press?

Note that I am not saying that a mole should not be investigated and, perhaps, punished; just that the media should take the claims of an MP with a pinch of salt when there is no backing evidence. After all, it is very convenient, isn't it?


In all of these cases, the Labour Party has attempted to turn the fire of the media away from themselves to a certain extent. It is skillful media manipulation, even if in two of the cases it failed.

There will be more of this as the election draws near; whenever an embarrassing story comes out, the Labour Party will attempt to divert the media's attention to a related side-issue. It is a sign of how some of the media and the Labour Party are in each others' hands.

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