The Home Secretary Dr John Reid has replaced Tony Blair as the prime target for negative political stories of someone who is egregiously bungling his duties. Is John Reid really so incompetent? Are we fortunate to be part of a democracy in which there can be such robust criticism of our leaders? Or are we seeing the emergence of a culture in which apparent increased freedom of expression blanks out access to more thoughtful analysis in a torrent of simplistic rhetoric?
In an earlier post it was suggested that John Reid’s political honeymoon had come to an end. Reflecting further has helped me become more aware of the mostly simplistic treatment within the flood of stories about John Reid and his personal competence.
This weekend, The Sun offered a cartoon-like representation of John Reid as the head of a Frankensteinian monster, which has a space where a brain should be. This follows an earlier representation in the same newspaper of an unpopular England football manager with a turnip for a head. No prizes for guessing what image was provided in more recent times, when the team had a Swedish manager.
It’s the Sun wot does it, innit?
The Sun has its own justification for the content and style of the paper. Unlike politicians, it can claim to win the popular vote every morning of the week. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco made much the same point recently when asked whether there would be a Tesco party for voters at the next election.
A case can be made that The Sun may influence the voting intentions of a considerable number of people at the general election, and that Rupert Murdock may have a further influence on the words and deeds of politicians. But should we buy their claim made after one election that it was ‘The Sun wot did it’ ?
The contrary view is that the overall effect of The Sun’s political messages on voters is rather weak. Possibly, although political leaders such as Tony Blair at very least will put some effort into wooing the Sun lest its opposition will cost them valuable votes at election time. I am inclined to believe that the popular press, including its largest circulation daily paper, has some political impact (perhaps not as much as they might wish or claim).
It’s the heavies wot don’t do it: tabloidification
Less obviously, the impact of the so-called free press (The popular press in Liberal Democracies) is in sustaining a cultural norm accepting the rhetoric of the banner headline and the cartoon images. We may reach differing conclusions over whether the popular press influences political opinions. It seems clear to me that there is little doubt over the way in which the daily diet reinforces cultural behaviours. There are reasoned arguments to be found – publications such as The Economist maintain an admirable level of analysis on a range of business and political issues. In general, however, what used to be called the heavies, or the broadsheets, (or even The Quality papers) have become closer in format (and arguably even in style and content) to what used to be called the tabloids. Tabloidification has won the day.
The Case against Charles Clarke
The Home Secretary took on the job after his predecessor, Charles Clarke, was encouraged to resign by Tony Blair. A succession of damaging stories had emerged about failures in the Home Office. The leader took the rap.
The strongest ‘quality’ case against Charles Clark might be expected to be found in a paper such as the staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph. Shortly before his resignation the paper identified ‘three strong reasons why he should go’. These were mismanagement of his department; failure to address the problem when it came to light; and refusal to accept responsibility for the problem.
The problem turns out to be that the Home Secretary has failed in his primary function of ‘maintaining public order by effective management of the systems under his control. Mr Clarke has allowed some hundreds of foreign nationals, sentenced to prison in this country, to go free without even a formal consideration of whether they should be deported’.
This all sounds reasonable at first reading, and suggests that there was a case to answer. Further reading leaves me unconvinced. I am reaching a conclusion that we have here an illustration of The Nimzowitch effect.
This, simply put, is a state of general anxiety about what might happen, so that the threat appears more important than its execution. (See the earlier post on chess cheating for more on the Nimzowitch effect).
The Case Against John Reid
John Reid bought himself a honeymoon period by announcing energetic measures to put things right, and was equally energetic in indicating what a shambles he had inherited which would require quite a lot of fixing.
The combination worked for a while, but another series of stories (‘scandals’) emerged from the Home Office. The specific details now blur in the memory, but were often concerned with poor record-keeping, and the potential implications of such bureaucratic failings – ‘disappearances’ of various kinds.
The BBC has followed the stories diligently. Individually they are in varying degrees illustrative of our old friend The Nimzsowich effect. From just this week, for example, the time-line of crises includes
27 January…The News of the World claims 322 convicted sex offenders are missing across the UK
26 January….Home Secretary John Reid denies telling judges to give softer sentences to ease prison overcrowding
26 January….England and Wales Youth Justice Board head Rod Morgan quits over youth prisons’ overcrowding
25 January….Risk of being a victim of crime in England and Wales rises for the first time since 1995, figures suggest
14 January Senior civil servant suspended over failure to update police records of Britons convicted abroad
I leave others to decide the evidence of actual rather than threatened harm to the public.
So is John Reid really incompetent?
We are sometimes reminded that you may be paranoid, but you could still be persecuted. I believe that the various stories will have within them evidence that there continue to be problems that need fixing at The Home Office. But on balance, I see the evidence as demonstrating powerlessness of a political leader grappling with ‘events’. Powerless yes. Incompetent? I remain open to a reasoned argument. The view would be the stronger if it offered specific actions that could have improved things. Until then I will hold to the view arguments (stripped of political purposes) are based on a peculiar belief that a leader ‘ought to be able’ to fix everything going wrong in connection with his organization or department. It is the belief that grants the charismatic leader the high road to power, and the low road to eventual defeat.