I haven’t seen Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop but it seems an Act of God that it should appeared on our screens at the dawn of the MP expenses row. The film (like the TV series it sprang from) excoriates the culture of spin that has so dominated these Labour governments, obscuring their many real achievements. The expense row could well be the end of that culture. It’s about time.
It’s important to note that the spin culture did not come out of nowhere. It was the media themselves who transformed and trivialised political discourse in this country. It was media hunger for big stories that left public figures unable to speak straightforwardly and honestly for fear of distortion. This is not confined to politics but part of a general malaise where a problem had to be described as a “challenge” and the word translated back by its readers. If someone had dared say “problem” people would not have thought “at least he’s being honest”. They would have thought “it must be really really bad then.”
Enlightened thought in business communication has for several years been arguing that the deep impact of the internet is the pressure it creates for a new transparency in all of our affairs. If there’s a fault in your product, it will come out. If you’ve been treating people badly, the internet will spread the word. You could not afford to treat CSR as a PR tool. You had to mean it. Many businesses were only just beginning to understand the implications when the tsunami of the credit crunch overwhelmed us. With senior management reputations in tatters it won’t be the same when the flood subsides.
Secrecy runs like a jugular vein through political life, and always has done. It’s part of the culture of power. So it’s probably not surprising that politicians have been even slower than business people to grasp the nettle of transparency. Now they have been stung all the same. We have a Freedom of Information Act because of this government, albeit one hobbled from the beginning by the kicking and screaming of the civil service, and the civil servants were right that the Act we have would prove the thin end of the wedge.
The Act might accelerate change, but it is not driving it. There’s a cultural shift in our expectations. In the past power partly relied on your ability to hide things, to control perceptions. Now you can expect to get away with nothing. That’s going to be a hard lesson for the current generation of politicians, but there’s a reasonable hope in the air that if they don’t learnt it they will be finished.
It’s very uncertain where traditional media will fit in this new reality. The justification for traditional media has usually been the need to hold our leaders to account, but with the journalists themselves accountable for whatever they put forward. Somehow we’ll need to ensure that scrutiny still works in the blogosphere, or indeed works better (the cost of litigation has meant that it was largely a tool for the rich).
But the confluence of catastrophes in the last 12 months means that the age of spin may decisively be over. Political and business leaders are going to have to learn a new language, as part of a real shift in their behaviour. It will be a refreshing change.