David Cameron believes that Jeremy Hunt was vindicated by his performance at the Leveson enquiry, but I can only say his “performance” was neither here nor there. What matters is that Hunt has happily admitted he was predisposed to accept the Murdoch bid for full control of BSkyB (he could hardly deny this), but was trusted to exercise his quasi-judicial function as if he could set that predisposition to one side.
It would be unrealistic to expect judges even within the official judicial system to approach their verdicts without predisposition, but if Hunt could be trusted to be impartial despite his evident views you have to ask why Vince Cable was instantly removed from such a role for having the opposite (and equivalent) predisposition.
Clearly he had the wrong kind of predisposition.
It seems that to this generation of politicians ideas of truth and honour are quaint and naive. This isn’t a party political issue: both Blair and the coalition promised a new kind of politics, smelling the rancid state of the body, but once in power their administrations have plumbed new depths of cynicism.
Jeremy Hunt had to be vindicated because anything else would have exposed the craven shabbiness of his leader’s behaviour. Replacing Cable with Hunt was a terrible misjudgement, though perhaps a forgivable one and the fallout could have been managed by a bit of honesty. Instead Cameron has chosen to brazen it out.
There are no surprises here: Blair himself showed both the self-belief and the self-critical abilities of his adopted religion. Cameron and his party colleagues in the Cabinet behave with all the insouciance of boys used to smashing up restaurants and then paying for the damage.
Well, such arrogance might be a necessary personality trait in a modern politician, but there is a more sinister undercurrent in this assumption that uncomfortable realities can be discarded if you just hold your nerve (and storyline).
Politics have become surreal. Although in the US the recession could be entirely laid at the feet of Republican policies and actions, those same Republicans have through much of Obama’s administration maintained the fiction that it was somehow the current president’s fault, while continuing to advocate the policies that caused so much damage in the first place.
We’ve seen a parallel set of lies maintained as political truth here in the UK. Last year the governor of the Bank of England was unambiguous in attributing the huge scale of the UK deficit to the cost of bailing out the banks. While the Labour government was to blame for inadequate oversight of their conduct, it’s clear a Conservative government would have done nothing different. And yet from the outset coalition representatives repeated the spin doctors’ mantra of the “Labour deficit”.
There is a belief among professional communicators that if you can define a message that’s simple and clear, and repeat it often enough, it will come to be accepted as the truth (or even that it is the truth). Cameron’s defence of Jeremy Hunt is consistent with this belief (Cameron was after all a professional PR practitioner), and in a slightly earlier age, where a compliant traditional media could be relied on to echo that message, it might have been occasionally effective.
We live in a different age, with the influence of traditional media fading rapidly. It’s a complex moment: the internet has enfranchised individual opinion, and you could say that this shift has reinforced the sense that the truth is “what I make it”. This may be part of what’s going on, but the ease of contradiction should give us pause for thought.
What’s puzzling and potentially dangerous is that dialogue among politicians has retreated into a bubble, insulated from these tides of change in the wider world. Within this bubble it seems politicians still believe they can manipulate reality to their own ends, hence the increasingly surreal quality of political discourse. The situation remains uncertain enough for these illusions to seem tenable (let’s not ignore the irony that the Leveson enquiry is all about the relationship between politicians and media), but this apparent detachment of our ruling elites from increasingly connected and articulate mass cultures is also very dangerous: consider the fact that the managerial elite whose greed has brought the world’s economies to their knees continues in charge of putting things right, preaching austerity to everyone but itself. The inherent contradictions and tensions of this situation will demand expression.
This confusion of communication with potency has also been rampant in the corporate world, encouraged by the delusions of brand management. I’ll have more to say about these problems in my next few entries.