MacCarthy’s World | Process over content
True to its tabloid spirit, Ekstra Bladet pulled no punches when it delivered judgement on the taxation reform package that Denmark’s government agreed with the centre-right opposition late last Friday evening.
“Fools” ran the one-word banner headline above photographs of an unhappy looking prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and her foreign minister, Villy Søvndahl. While the newspaper, like most others, habitually claims to give equal treatment to politicians of all hue, it also takes particular delight in skewering Denmark’s first social democratic-led government in a decade.
Fair enough, it’s a free press – Ekstra Bladet is absolutely entitled to take any position it fancies on the unexpected deal. And it’s a valid point to suggest that Thorning-Schmidt’s eleventh-hour decision to ditch her leftist allies, in favour of a deal with the right, bodes ill for her government’s sustainability.
Still, even the most devoted aficionados of the political theatre must be feeling somewhat battle-wearied after day upon day of breathless speculation by pundits and commentators on the prospective fallout of the deal. The airwaves, the web and the newspapers were awash with the stuff. (But only the Danish-language media, the rest of the world scarcely noticed.)
Coverage of the lead-up to the deal was as extensive as the aftermath. Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s transatlantic voyage, after he walked out of the tax negotiations “to attend climate change talks in Rio de Janeiro” but instead went on holiday in the US, was widely reported.
What seemed like acres of column-inches were devoted to the potential implications of this humongous PR blunder. Would the former prime minister’s duplicitous exit from the tax talks damage his chances of a comeback? Would Thorning-Schmidt secure a deal with her leftist support choir and begin clawing her way back from the popularity doldrums? And would Konservative break ranks with Venstre and try and get a piece of the action for themselves?
Much of this was fascinating to those of us who make a living from watching politics unfold. Myself included. But that’s hardly the point. The salient feature of all this speculation was the sheer volume of the stuff. There was just too much of it. And it was printed and broadcast at the expense of substance.
Ploughing through the Danish newspapers last weekend, I searched in vain for some strong facts to convey to my London editors. For the international media a ‘troubl’ at th’ mill’ pitch has to be substantiated by facts and figures. From a macroeconomic perspective was the deal expansionary or the reverse? What would be the impact on GDP? How was it being financed? How did it fit into the broader European economic situation?
The newspapers didn’t provide the necessary leads and the Finance Ministry was equally unhelpful. On the night the deal was announced, it issued a terse statement of bullet points that came nowhere near the sort of detail required for any half-decent analysis. Acting almost as if they had gone off on holiday early, the Finance Ministry staffers waited several days before publishing a satisfactory exegesis complete with charts and tables.
In the interim, the newspapers filled their pages with tedious commentary.
Little wonder that the newspaper industry is in a state of deepening crisis. Once upon a time, we handed over our shillings for our daily newspaper and got a shot of news in return. We got facts and we got figures. We got the components we needed to make up our own minds and draw our own conclusions about developments in the world around us.
Nowadays, we get other people’s opinions ad nauseam. Commentary does have its place and there’s nothing like a well-crafted editorial to get you thinking. But the accelerating flood of views and personal perspectives that’s spilling out of the blogosphere and washing away the facts is getting out of hand. And if those of us who work in newspapers think we’re going to win the showdown between old and new media by taking on the bloggers at their own game, then we are only shooting ourselves in the foot. Nobody ever won a battle by copying their rivals to the letter.
Which brings us back to the tax package and Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s little stateside vacation. It’s not often that I have sympathy for a politician who becomes entangled in his own semi-truths, but this time the ferocity of the media dissection of his faux pas gave me pause for thought. It also reminded me of an interview that he gave shortly after becoming prime minister in the spring of 2009. Like many other journalists, at the time I was irked by his criticism that commentators were focusing on process instead of political substance. Now, at the tail end of a hysterical media overdrive, I reckon he had a point.