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Brown and out? The role of the Press in the British PM's woes
by Newropeans-Magazine
2008-09-03 08:54:09
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Those in mainland Europe who follow the British newspapers find a Labour government in sharp decline. Last year, in October 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s honeymoon ended abruptly when his media portrayal became suddenly and devastatingly negative.

Since then, it has not improved one iota. Indeed, one year on, the Press relates feverish manoeuvres within Labour’s own ranks to oust a man who has become an albatross around the Party’s neck.

In the media’s assessment, those Labour politicians with good long-term prospects—Foreign Secretary David Miliband or Schools Secretary Ed Balls—are unwilling to replace Brown: to front this increasingly unpopular government would be too much of a poisoned chalice. The media spotlight has instead fallen on ‘greybeards’ like Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Straw is judged relatively free of long-term ambitions and is thus in a good position to act as ‘caretaker leader’. He could take the Labour Party into a likely general election defeat in 2009 before handing the party on to a younger politician like Miliband for regeneration in Opposition.

Like the other politicians being measured up to displace Brown, Straw’s position on Europe is largely unknown. Yet, for European governments, this unknown is comparatively unimportant. The advent of a new Labour leader would likely occasion early general elections and, with victory by the Conservatives increasingly talked of as an inevitability, any Labour politician who ousted Brown would not be in power long enough to leave much of an impression.


It is not, admittedly, as if Brown’s European policy has been much to write home about. His Global Europe pamphlet which caused a brief flutter in hearts around Europe last year has been allowed to languish. If anything, Brown has used European policy as a means to bolster his domestic position rather than investing it with any importance of its own: after years spent thinking about how to gain the Premiership rather than about what to do with it once there, critics suggest that he has moulded policy-goals around the imperative of securing power even after attaining the top job. Global Europe thus turned out to be less an expression of political intent than a symbolic effort by Brown to trounce the political opponents who sought to undermine him as a ‘Euro-incompetent’.

Whatever the Brown government’s foibles though, the British Conservatives are treated as an altogether less appealing prospect by many of the UK’s European partners: Even in the absence of a settled Tory European policy, the Conservatives are dismissed abroad by pro-Europeans as aggressively eurosceptic and by eurosceptics as unreliable.

In short, the looming prospect of a Conservative victory makes European governments look at Brown with something approaching sympathy. Some little attention is therefore being lavished on the comeback the Prime Minister is currently mounting. Ears have pricked up at the talk of a cabinet reshuffle early in September—a move designed to send a strong public signal to the Prime Minister’s doubters. A cabinet meeting apparently being planned is also an object of scrutiny. There, new and appealing policy ideas are due to be thrashed out.

And yet, even if these moves were to trounce Brown’s opponents within the Labour Party, European governments need to be aware that this is unlikely to secure Brown the Press-support so key to a stable Premiership. Perspicacious observers in the UK increasingly accuse the British Press of responding to an unfathomable logic of its own when reporting political events of this kind—a logic far removed from political reality. Even if the Prime Minister did manage to re-establish his authority within his Party, it is doubtful whether this would be faithfully conveyed by the Press. His days would still be numbered.


It was the alacrity with which Brown’s media portrayal nose-dived that first left observers flummoxed. After all, until October 2007, it was not Gordon Brown but rather Conservative leader David Cameron whom the media deemed in danger of losing his job. Indeed, the media’s Brown of mid-2007 cut a highly competent figure. And it was a relatively minor failing—the Prime Minister’s indecision over the possibility of bringing the general election forward to early 2008 or even late 2007—that precipitated a descent in his media portrayal which was both terrifying and disproportionate.

Of course, the notion that the British newspapers are not responding entirely objectively to events should scarcely be occasion for comment: Most sections of the UK’s print-media display clear political sympathies and this has typically determined their take on events. By this logic, though, the current picture of Brown as an incompetent ditherer ought to be considered highly accurate. After all, it is reproduced relatively uniformly across almost all sections of the British print-media regardless of political persuasion.

And nevertheless the doubts about the accuracy of this picture remain.

The explanation for the curious alteration in Brown’s media portrayal appears to lie in the way that the Press has attuned itself to the new political landscape in the UK. Since both the voting behaviour of the electorate and the policy substance of British political parties have become more changeable, newspapers today can hardly hope for a constant readership merely by mining political affiliation. Instead, British newspapers have responded increasingly to a narrative logic: Against a background of declining sales, they attempt to retain their readership thanks less to their political slant than to their telling of a good story. Relatively predictable sets of political events within a given timeframe are ordered and relayed by media commentators according to the established laws of story-telling. The ‘soft’ analytical tools of literary criticism are more use today in deciphering media content than are the ‘hard’ tools of political science.

The vertiginous downturn in Brown’s media portrayal is a case in point. The Prime Minister’s toying with the idea of early polls threatened to compress the parameters of the ‘story arc’ of this electoral cycle to an alarming degree. The climax of this particular story suddenly loomed into view, and media commentators did not have much of a tale to tell about what ought to have been the highlight of the political calendar. The Opposition Conservatives appeared woefully unprepared as regards their political programme and seemed unlikely to pose a serious hindrance to the government’s electoral aims. Little appeared to stand in the way of Labour’s electoral ambitions.

For commentators, this was hardly the stuff of good narrative. They therefore began to cast around for obstacles to the Prime Minister’s electoral ambitions in order to make a story of it. One result was a sudden and surprising rehabilitation of the character and leadership qualities of David Cameron—a man who even a week previously had been roundly derided as a “flip-flop”. Another was the re-discovery of Brown’s own “internal” obstacles—his cautious, dithering character. The situation unleashed one of the most surprising reversals of fortune in recent British political history.


It is this same story arc that defines the media-portrayal of the hapless Brown today. He remains the indecisive, flawed figure ‘discovered’ in those few weeks in October 2007. Cabinet reshuffles and new policy ideas are unlikely to alter this picture. And, so long as this arc continues to inform media coverage, EU governments should increasingly reckon with a Conservative victory at the next elections.

And yet, if there is one issue capable of providing better narrative fuel than the current story arc it is the question of Tory European policy. In the past, the Conservatives’ internecine wars over Europe have been the stuff of good narrative. The prospect of the ambitious, eurosceptic Conservative leader, Cameron, being thwarted by a cabal of older pro-European ideologues is met with relish by media commentators.

And the Press has much to look forward to in this vein. The Conservatives’ efforts to withdraw from the European People’s Party-European Democrats in the European Parliament were more a pragmatic response to a set of political challenges than an expression of ideological unity on European policy. Indeed, they indicated the existence of internal splits that many thought were dead and buried. Moreover, this question of the Tories’ affiliation within the European Parliament has been left unresolved—put off until the next European parliamentary period. If the Labour government manages to hang on until after the next European elections, the Conservatives will have to grapple with an issue provoking considerable internal dissent prior to general elections.

Roderick Parkes
Berlin - Germany

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Clint2008-09-03 19:19:44
If the Labour government manages to hang on till the European elections they will be wiped out by the English and elsewhere by the Nationalists. Having been trounced in the local elections and by-elections including losing a 10,000 majority in one of their strongholds Glasgow the mention of Europe will get us English foaming at the mouth again.

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