On the political relevance of Newton’s Third Law of Motion and fighting the last war

This morning I was contemplating the evidence of Alastair Campbell to yesterday’s Leveson Inquiry when I was struck about the relevance of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. For those whose scientific study did not extend to these important rules of physics or in case you have forgotten it the law states:

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The written evidence submitted to the Inquiry by Alastair Campbell sets out here what happened in more detail but in brief; in the 1980’s Labour got slaughtered by a largely right-wing press. We didn’t help ourselves by having open rows and letting the latest piece of loony nonsense set the agenda. After 1992 when  a close election was lost, and one part of the print media was able to claim they had won the election for the Tories, lessons were learnt and a more professional approach was taken to dealing with the media, particularly after the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party. This involved the genesis of spin-doctors.

The perception was that the print media was important, for their own impact and for that they have on the rest of the media from the point of setting the news agenda, in terms of mediating between people involved in politics and the public. It determined what a lot of people thought was going on. As a result the politicians became a lot more disciplined in the way they dealt with the media. To go back to Newton. Having got slaughtered in the past Labour learnt to manage the way they were perceived as a reaction. Journalists did not like it because as a result of it became harder for them to get stories which were different from the one politicians wanted. The Newtonian reaction by politicians in the 1990’s happened as a result of the actions of the media in the 1980’s. The media became very interested in the attempt to manage them, some even got obsessed about it to the lengths of writing a number of books about it. I read a couple of these books and the only thing that seemed to come out of them to me was how unhappy the journalists were at now having to do more work to find the more interesting stories. They don’t like Alastair because he was effective at the job he did. As someone who was a politician I am pleased to see that as I think it evened things up. So that’s Newton dealt with.

What I found interesting in the evidence from Alastair Campbell yesterday was that he said it is no longer necessary for a politician to worry so much about managing the media. It takes up too much of their time. The reason he gave was that the development of blogs and social media means that it is even more difficult for the print and broadcast media to mediate between politicians and the public. It is much easier for politicians to have a direct relationship with people. I have also seen how it is now easier to get mistakes in articles, especially online articles, corrected through the use of twitter. So I think he was right in what he said. It is quite common to talk about people ‘fighting the last war’ and politicians spending all their time trying to manage the media is an example of that.

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