James Millar: Treatment of Philip Hammond is like something from Blue Planet
Coverage of the Budget often amounted to a feeding frenzy around the chancellor.
It was appropriate that Philip Hammond made reference to the BBC’s Blue Planet nature programme in his Budget. Viewers of that series were treated to rare footage of a ‘boiling sea’ last weekend – lots of species of fish involved in a feeding frenzy so violent that it makes the water bubble and froth.
Westminster increasingly resembles a boiling sea. Politicians, journalists and pundits flop around with increasing intensity yet it is only their tiny patch that shakes. The rest of the nation is like the vast majority of the ocean – flat and calm.
The Budget showed this up. Westminster frothed with talk of Hammond facing the sack before the big speech and set about its now traditional task of picking holes in the statement afterwards. And then declaring the thing has unravelled no matter the scale of the surprises uncovered. (My jumper has a rather embarrassing moth eaten hole on the back, but it’s not unravelling.)
Out in the ocean of UK public opinion folk just wanted to know the price of booze, fags and petrol. And with two out of three broadly frozen – cigarettes just get more pricey, watch out for the time when smokers need a mortgage to buy 20 Benson and Hedges – they are going to be content.
The wonks of Westminster scratch their heads at opinion polls that show Labour and Conservatives neck and neck. But if the commentators were to be believed both sides would currently be ailing on zero support given conventional wisdom says they are currently both entirely pants.
And yet Labour and the Tories are in fact riding high in the polls. This could be because polls are rubbish. A statement proved incontrovertibly true by every recent electoral event and yet newspaper publishers cannot kick their habit to get a cheap page lead. Polls ain’t cheap but neither do they need pension contributions, maternity leave or an HR department. But it’s also because most people are not paying much attention.
Another BBC programme, The Summer That Changed Everything, proved that yet again on Monday. It showed four moderate Labour MPs wrangling with an election that saw them start the campaign fearing for their jobs and end it with gigantic majorities courtesy of a leader they all regarded as a nincompoop. But Corbyn offered a simple message. Just as the Leave campaign did the previous summer. And most folk find a straightforward appeal more appealing than the nuance of real life.
The figures in Hammond’s budget showed that with the economy on its uppers most people are inevitably more interested in just getting by than digesting the minutiae of manifestos. And the £3 billion he’s had to put aside for Brexit contingencies also demonstrates that when simple appeals meet real life the latter inevitably crushes the former.
So Westminster is a bit detached. It’s not a new phenomenon but the advent of social media means increasingly journalists and commentators talk to each other engendering a hive mind that is closed off to anyone outside the Westminster press gallery, never mind outwith SW1 or even London. And the focussed pursuit of profit by news organisations means there’s no money for sending journalists out into the community they serve. Cheaper to commission a poll and rip off some tweets.
And does it matter? Well as long as leading commentators declare Brexit is boring it gives folk a free pass to disengage from the topic. And if and when it all goes belly up they can simply blame the politicians.
Similarly to treat politics as a soap opera is to diminish its importance. Turn it into a melodrama with a convoluted plot and the people who need to understand it to make an informed choice at elections will lose the thread and plump for a fairytale instead.
Some of the more pompous voices in the media will tell you they are performing a vital democratic function. If that is so then they might want to take it a bit more seriously and serve up the coverage that voters need and deserve rather than the lines that they’ve agreed on their own private WhatsApp chat.
The boiling sea is quite a phenomenon but it’s short lived and what’s left at the end is just a confetti of fish scales with no nutritional value. For those involved in may be tremendous fun while it lasts, but as viewers of Blue Planet have seen it only takes one bit of the sea to get out of kilter for the whole eco-system to be endangered.
Picture: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment.