I’ve always been wary of the “propaganda model” of journalism. It seems to me more of an excuse for losers than an argument – and a patronising excuse at that, which takes people for fools and dupes. On the Left, disappointed men from Engels through to Chomsky have tried to pretend that their ideas failed not because they were foolish or dangerous but because the ruling class brainwashed the masses by “manufacturing consent” for the established order. The lies of the “Tory press” were behind the failure of their politics, leftists cried. If evil capitalists did not control the media, we would have socialism, peace and justice by teatime. The BBC fills a similar role on the Right. If it weren’t for its bias, Tories imply, the British would have long ago shaken off their false consciousness and embraced euro-scepticism, social conservatism and the minimal state.
After the beating he’s had in right-wing papers this past fortnight, Nick Clegg might tell me that I am mad to think that constant denunciations of him and his party will not have an effect tomorrow. Similarly, a Tory could point out that anyone who had relied on the BBC news would be astonished to learn of the crisis in the Eurozone. “How can this be happening,” its listeners could ask, “when for a decade the BBC had been assuring us that all right-thinking people agreed that joining the Euro was the route to prosperity?”
In an interesting piece, which is worth reading in full, Roy Greenslade of the Guardian tries to strike a balance argues that although press campaigns – against Clegg in this instance – have an effect, newspaper readers are quite capable of ignoring the advice newspapers editors give them, particularly now that the press’s influence is so self-evidently declining. He concludes
It has long been assumed that papers played the leading role by setting the daily agenda. The advent of the leaders’ televised debates, and the resulting instantaneous polling, has undermined that assumption. The press is not, and probably never has been, as powerful an agent as politicians seem to believe. On the other hand, it is certainly not as neutral and lacking in influence as proprietors and editors tend to say.
Maybe I am being romantic, but I don’t accept even Greenslade’s modest account of media influence. Minds are changed not by corporate propaganda but by individuals making an argument brilliantly. Only two pieces from this campaign have made me pace the room, and with admiration and envy muter that the author had said what I knew to be true but could never express myself.
If I were trying to persuade a voter not to back the Conservatives, I would hand them a copy of the former single mother JK Rowling’s devastating piece on Conservative plans to subsidise marriage.
Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it. Even Mr Cameron seems to admit that he is offering nothing more than a token gesture when he tells us “it’s not the money, it’s the message”.
Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money. If Mr Cameron’s only practical advice to women living in poverty, the sole carers of their children, is “get married, and we’ll give you £150”, he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of their true situation.
How many prospective husbands did I ever meet, when I was the single mother of a baby, unable to work, stuck inside my flat, night after night, with barely enough money for life’s necessities? Should I have proposed to the youth who broke in through my kitchen window at 3am? Half a billion pounds, to send a message – would it not be more cost-effective, more personal, to send all the lower-income married people flowers?
And if I were trying to persuade someone that on no account should Gordon Brown be allowed to return to office, I would give them this column from the underrated Janice Turner of the Times. Wonderfully evoking the old culture of the north, she showed how Brown’s confrontation with Mrs Duffy revealed that he no longer understood the Labour movement he purported to lead.
Mrs Duffy, 66, is a remnant of a once formidable female army: women who didn’t worry that they were disappearing as their sexual allure faded because they knew that in their families and communities they wielded real clout. Vanity flowered briefly and ended after courtship, youth wasn’t chased in vain through the Pilates studios and magazine pages. Instead of diminishing with age they grew both in social stature and girth: a dress size with every decade yet compressed into rock hardness by the pantygirdle, a garment that would snort with derision at its flimsy modern rival, Spanx.
They relished how the decline of oestrogen excused them from the hurly-burly of sexual congress. They weren’t cougars, but battle-scarred lionesses. They’d sniff at the news that sexed-up fiftysomething women are boosting the lingerie business as they pulled on a pair of drawers. Their lives were all elbow grease and varicose veins, but with menopause came an entitlement to speak, a magnificent, life-changing unembarrassability: the right to admonish complete strangers in the street.
Seeing Mrs Duffy’s irreproachable front step, watching her toddle off to the shops for a loaf in her indestructible coat, with her shampoo and set – more a lifestyle than a hairstyle – I was reminded of my Auntie Edie who died in the no-nonsense manner in which she’d lived – in her sleep after finishing her batch of summer jam, a meal for my uncle under a plate in the fridge.
Tolerating flakey husbands, picking up the emotional detritus of flakier children, enduring without rancour widowhood as long as marriage itself, they earned respect for their frankness. The novelist Hilary Mantel said of the women from her Derbyshire childhood: “They’d been nowhere, but they’d seen everything.”
And these ladies built the Labour movement, although they got no credit for their tea-making and bap-buttering, sitting with Thermos flasks “telling” outside polling stations all election day long. They didn’t expect to run for office but they did relish the right to sound off. Which is why Gillian Duffy felt entitled – with respect, but not undue deference – to call her Prime Minister to account.