Media and FPTP

The mainstream media community, to use a term we hope it can identify with, gives the impression that the attitudes, manners, values and beliefs of the people you tune in to watch or listen to are the same as yours. We are meant to think these personalities – the Faces of the Media – are just like us.

Clarkson Punch

Join the team, Jeremy. We need big hitters in the electoral reform movement.

Yet most of the stream of media presenters and entertainers broadcasting to you are different in one very important respect. Compared to us Average Joes, they are high earners. It might knock you back a bit if you didn’t know the figure Jeremy Clarkson is said to be worth annually is £14m! (in his pre-punch career, anyway; it’s probably more now).

But what about the everyday presenters, reporters, commentators, pundits, soap actors, TV chefs and so on…? We talk about the 1% in this country as holding extraordinary personal wealth. A decent number of high-profile Face of the Media personalities, including Clarkson of course, will fall comfortably into the 1% bracket. And those who don’t are still going to be well up there near the top and probably in the 2-5% wealthiest people in the country.

We are only stating facts. If that’s the rate for a media job and you can land one, whether on merit or, as often seems to be the case, through being a well connected name who’s developed an interest in something, so be it. So what should this matter to a site like 5.5.5 & Counting which wants electoral reform?

Well, day by day, we get our dose of media personalities who are trained well and paid well to do jobs that put over news, entertainment and information in an organised, prepared and choreographed way. They work to production agendas. And when it comes round every five years, there is a well tried and tested production agenda for the general election too.

Before looking at their election coverage methods, let’s consider how they operate in general. Routinely they give platforms to specialists, experts or celebrity guests by invitation. Some of these have been on standby, awaiting breaking news or features on their specialist subjects. You may have noticed, for example, that especially at times of international conflict theretofore unknown figures come out of the woodwork, as it were, to deliver monologues of stuff that could never all be ‘of the moment’. They’ve been waiting in the wings. Now, they get their chance to walk out on a stage welcomingly opened up for them and their well-scripted messages.

This paragraph is being written in late June 2015 just after terrorist attacks occurred in Tunisia, Kuwait and France, killing and injuring scores of people. True to pattern, previously unheard of people often referred to as ‘defence’ or ‘security’ analysts are everywhere to be seen or heard with what seems like insider wisdom. But if these people know what’s going on as much as they purport too – and they seem to exist in numbers, presumably in all countries that see themselves as possible targets – you’d think international terrorism would have been outwitted long ago. Is their prime purpose really to suggest and find solutions or is it to lend weight to particular messages? You the reader must decide about that for yourself.

Nobody in their right minds condones brutal acts of terrorism. At the same time your head is firmly in the sand if you deny that the media have run for years an ongoing, prepared and choreographed agenda on terrorism and a family of related issues. At times of atrocity the agenda spikes sharply as it naturally should. Nonetheless, running underneath is this constant beating of the drum, presumably to conform with a government wish that the public keep receiving a message loud and clear.

The ‘off-the-shelf’ technique is very often seen when there’s an immediate launch of detailed obituaries after famous people die. It’s all about preparation. What you and I get to absorb are the front-of-house displays of well planned production systems working to tight schedules that hit the key targets, outputs and outcomes the producers want to put over. In the same vein, you might ask why every Hollywood action movie seems to feature a car chase. Because they’re exciting? Well, occasionally you see a gripping one but we have seen rather a lot that are formulaic and predictable. Because they develop the plot? Hardly, they often seem to intrude into the storyline in a contrived way. Because there’s a reliable team in the background with highly experienced staff with several truckloads of the right equipment who know exactly how to produce ’em to order and can be contracted in at an economic rate? That’s more like it!

jon snow with CGI swingometer 2

Sometimes it boils down to a few thousand votes in a handful of marginal seats giving Blue or Red all the power for 5 years.

Taking all that into account,this is where we at 5.5.5 & Counting start to get a little concerned. The media has invested heavily in coverage of UK general elections and each time they come around, they have a tried and tested broadcasting formula. They deploy staff to key locations across the country; they get out their kit – and more recently increasing amounts of state-of-the-art computer generated graphics and statistics – all geared to studio explanations and analysis of the oddball system we have of electing our national government called FPTP (first-past-the-post – almost unique in Europe). What we see could actually be called the ‘swingometer industry’ in deference to the gadget famously manipulated by the former presenter Peter Snow to indicate how a small percentage of the vote swinging from one party to the other in marginal constituencies all across the country might determine the eventual allocation of power in the House of Commons. Swingometer segments come with much arm-waving, superlative-spouting and noun-trouncing, all to build up a narrative tension. God forbid that our broadcasters should have to cover anything as mundane and boring as a party getting 30% of the votes getting 30% of the seats! Where’s the hook in that?

Because, let’s not forget that while the media exert strong advance planning control over their production agendas, they don’t want to exclude opportunities for high drama. FPTP provides it in buckets.

Uncertainty keeps us on tenterhooks because it’s quite rare to ever be sure how the votes cast are going to translate into parliamentary seats. So, whatever the opinion polls might say, highly-charged political hopes ride on the prospect of gaining power right up to the day itself and even overnight, well into the count. No better example has been seen of this than the 2015 election. It’s great for the media when they can report stunning, unexpected victories alongside crushing defeats, the glorious triumph of one moderately competent politician and the tragic ending of the careers of others. Because that’s what FPTP is designed to do; it was created to generate an adversarial, winner-takes-all contest. In 2015 it produced exactly that, confounding all the expectations set up by the opinion polls. So much so that there’s going to be an official enquiry into how the pollsters got it so wrong and ‘duped’ the media, the politicians themselves and the voters into believing no party was going to win enough seats to form a government by itself (well, they said there would be one but we’re not sure it’s happened yet).

FPTP had some merit and credibility in the days when a large majority of the election voted for the two largest parties then distinctly different in their policies. The challenger vied with the incumbent to persuade supporters to switch loyalties and swing the overall result their way. Neither of them would ever have dreamt of working together in any sort of peacetime coalition or alliance so a clear, decisive outcome between them was, by the logic of the day, desirable. You could argue that the very polarised two-party politics of the USA still justifies their having an FPTP presidential election system (but the argument about whether the two parties’ policies are very different would be a more difficult one).

But in the UK, the political landscape is much different. It’s important to get a grip on the following breakdown. Between 2001 and 2015, neither of the two large parties gained more than 25% of the electorate’s support. Even in total together they never gained more than 45%. And of the people who voted, one third did so for other parties, up 38% since 2001. So, very simply, the two largest parties were becoming ‘large minority’ parties. The pattern has changed in 2017 in the unusual circumstances of the snap ‘Brexit’ election. Both parties have polled a lot more votes and support for smaller parties drifted. It is obviously too soon to say if this is a blip or indicates some sort of return to two-party politics.

So what might a roughly proportional election system have meant for seats in the 2015 parliament? Instead of getting 331 seats, just a fraction over the 325 needed to shade an outright majority to govern for five years, the Tories would have got about 240, far short of a stunning victory. Labour, instead of being ‘crushed’ to use the dramatic media terminology, would have been not all that far behind with 200. The other parties, instead of suffering the sardonic, ignominious exclusion from power our weird system meted out, might have gained as many as 210 seats. Yes, that would have been more than Labour and only 30 behind the Tories.

Look carefully at those figures. Where now the highs and lows of glory and banishment? Now we would have a parliament with power much more evenly distributed. If either of the two biggest minority parties want to govern, they will have to form a coalition with smaller parties.

It makes the situation much less emotionally charged. The undistorted message parliament should have received from the electorate would have become the reality. No single party earned a right to govern the country. No party has won the heart and soul of the people. No party of reasonable political views has been ignominiously cut down and marginalised  at the expense of another.

Catalonia upload version of result

The 2015 Catalonian election resulted in seats allocated in almost exact proportion to the percentage of the vote cast for each party. There was a slight weighting towards the largest party which got nearly 46% of the seats with nearly 40% of the votes but that still fell short of an outright majority. The government has been formed in coalition with CUP who share the same pro-independence policy.

With a result like that or the real-life example just above of the 2015 Catalonian election result, how is the media going to make anything very dramatic? With difficulty, we would think. But for most people a calming down and flattening off of political hype might come as a blessed relief. Virtually everyone we spoke to during the lead up to the election said they were thoroughly fed up with politics dominating every broadcast. The day it was all over couldn’t come quick enough for them.

Sadly, the politicians themselves are beguiled by the media into misinterpreting the message of the electorate. The Labour and Tory candidates wanted to see themselves locked in some titanic struggle with each other, fighting for the hearts and minds of the British public. Despite the polls, they kept saying ‘We’re not discussing coalitions and agreements with other parties because we’re going for an outright majority.’ To them, the absolute numbers of voters isn’t a big issue. It’s all about being able to tweak our oddball FPTP electoral system just enough to gain them their marginal advantage. If they fail, they go into parliament unable to represent the support they did get (other than on the tenuous grounds that they will be there to give an opposition voice). Ironically, despite the claimed return to two-party politics, neither party got an outright majority in 2017 and the Tories are having to try and negotiate a PR-style working arrangement if they are to deliver their much mangled and altered manifesto.

Yet if it all falls into place as it happened to do for the Tories in 2015, they feel secure in a belief that they have been mandated to run the country like they are the chosen ones. It is truly ridiculous but they’re so deeply immersed in the system they don’t want to look at it from any other perspective.

Nor does the media. The FPTP narrative with its struggle of the Titans, its Punch and Judy knockabout, its winner-take-all glory, its humiliation of defeated contenders and MPs, its cruel unfairness to minority parties – provides them with all the drama they could possibly want to broadcast.

So here’s a daft question to finish with. Do you think we are likely to see the broadcasters – their ranks being populated with many sharp, intelligent brains easily capable of differentiating between what’s fair and what isn’t, between right and wrong, between reality and hype – pushing for electoral reform? Or do you expect to see them hanging onto the system they know and love?

If you’re tuned in to the way we see it at 5.5.5 & Counting, you already know the answer and now you also know why.

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