Some time ago, the inestimable David Hepworth came along and spoke to a bunch of Guardianistas (as I was then) about the business of magazine journalism and other stuff. In the course of this excellent hour, he said something (in reference to an old magazine cover from the 1970s, I think) which has always stuck with me: “Cool won. Just look at Gap.”
His point being, of course, that there was a time when it was possible to say cool hadn’t won: that it was still battling with other things, like perhaps enthusiasm, or learning, or success, or something.
I didn’t manage to the end of the opening Newsnight report on MPs’ expenses before deciding that bed was a better place to be (via this quick blog), but I couldn’t help but be struck by a formidable contrast tonight … between the basic pro-football stance of Sky Sports coverage of football – admittedly easier when you have a match like tonight’s 4-4 draw between Liverpool and Arsenal – and Newsnight’s basic anti-politics coverage of politics.
And now this morning we see the predictable acres of newsprint about the new 50% tax band, which was effectively skewered on Twitter by @toppage: “Only 10% of UK population earn over Â£40k, and only 1.5% over Â£100k, yet acres of newsprint on the 50% tax band.”
But this was always going to happen, because Nick Robinson on the BBC yesterday said it would happen. Effortlessly, he set the narrative for the new tax band by saying this:
UPDATE, 13:06: The new 50% top tax rate for those earning over Â£150,000 is designed to put the Tories on the spot – do they back it or pledge to reverse it? Since it will be introduced before the next election, they will have to say.
If they attempt to swerve this political trap they will face criticism from some in their own party and in the Tory press who will demand that they protect “our people”.
Note how this is not about the policy itself. It’s about the policy behind the policy. It’s meta-analysis. It’s post-modernism. It’s very, very cool.
This has always disturbed me about British political coverage when compared with what happens in America. When I read Matt Yglesias or Joe Klein or the Atlantic or the New Yorker, I see coverage and analysis which is unashamedly geeky, obsessive, stats-hungry and engaged. It relentlessly pores over the output of the political machine, munching up every statement from even minor politicians into its vociferous maw, however banal. It starts from the presumption that this stuff is interesting, and that we’re reading about it because, like the people doing the analysing, we’re (perhaps overly) obsessed with it. In other words, it’s like British football coverage.
British political coverage, with some exceptions, isn’t like that. For one thing, it assumes that the lying bastards are just lying to us. As Campbell says:
What has for years been developing as a culture of media negativity is now getting closer to nihilism. I think that most journalists have stopped even thinking whether they have any responsibility for what they now routinely describe as a breakdown in trust between politicians and public, or any reason to care.
Given that assumption, it goes straight for the meta-analysis: for the big story behind the headlines, the connective thread which, the writer assumes, is being hidden from us. The coverage is sceptical and, by definition, defiantly un-engaged with the material.
If this was a British school, the American political journalist would be the geeky fellow at the front with a voracious appetite and a competitive streak. The British political journalist would be the hugely sophisticated gentleman at the back who scores well without any distinctive effort, has a wide circle of friends and always has something to do on a Friday night, despite his apparent lack of interest in anything. In other words, the cool one. The worldly one. Steerforth, not David Copperfield.
So here’s a geeky thought. What if the 50% tax rate isn’t just about politics? What if it’s about fairness? What if it’s about being seen to ensure that the rich contribute fairly to the coming debt apocalypse? What if, like Obama, Brown and Darling are seeking to recalibrate a few things in the light of a fiscal reset? Isn’t that at least worth analysing?
On the other hand, people who think like that never get invited to parties. So, OK, it’s all about plotting and deceit and exciting chatter in panelled rooms. And this is excellent wine, isn’t it?
Photo by IAR (EseLoKo), via Flickr. Some rights reserved.