Yesterday in Parlliament the Leader of the Opposition could hardly wait to get through a couple of questions on the economy, to get on to the issue that fascinates the political and media classes – themselves. The latest revelations about the relationships between the Murdoch media and the present government caused the downfall of a Special Adviser. They leave the Culture Secretary making the rogue adviser defence, saying that his Adviser said and did things he should not have done, but they were unauthorised by his boss. The Leveson Enquiry is likely to find that the relationships between politicians of both main parties and the Murdoch press have been close, with both parties competing for favourable coverage and backing. As far as the public is concerned, they want an economic recovery and want more attention on jobs, savings, and prices.
The age of spin has encouraged the strange idea that a party or an individual can maintain a good press whatever the reality of their actions and their consequences. To hear that politicians rang up leading journalists to ask how obviously bad events might be covered shows a curious naivety about the way the world works. It does not matter how many spin doctors a government employs, how much it has courted leading commentators: if it does not deliver a reasonable outcome for the public it will be the object of criticism or abuse. It makes more sense to me to spend more time trying to get the policy right, and less time worrying about the headlines. If a party holds public support because it is delivering a good result, it will find that the press is less hostile. Newspapers have to sell daily to the electorate. If the electorate think from their own experience that the government is doing a good job that will tone down the daily abuse Ministers can expect from a sceptical public and a free media.
The Coalition government will find its press improves as and when recovery picks up, as people find there are more jobs, as real incomes start to rise. Low poll ratings and a poor press are the result of a continuing squeeze on living standards brought on by the tax rises needed to pay for all the extra public spending of the last few years. The government needs to show the value of that spending if it is to justify the tax rises, or get better value from spending so it can get the tax rises down a bit.
There needs to be a credible message of hope – we want to know the sacrifice of the tax rises is worthwhile and will deliver higher standards of living and quality of public service. I was pleased to see a few articles picked up the obvious but neglected point that current public spending continues to rise in real terms. My main contribution to the public debate seems to be to read the government’s numbers, which so many commentators decline to do so they can make up stories not based on the reality of the public spending patterns. Many of them continue to talk about austerity as if it was a phenomenon confined to public spending, when it is primarily a reduction in living standards for the many, a reduction which started under the past government thanks to a big recession and has continued under the Coalition thanks to tax rises and inflation.