Friday, 21 September 2012

Errant husband apologises for "foresaking all others" vow (also: astroturf video)

So Nick Clegg has made a public apology for breaking his very public election pledge to oppose increased financial barriers to education, or 'tuition fees' (though few of those paying them will actually receive any tutorials).

Only that is not what Clegg has apologised for. The mainstream media have somehow managed almost entirely to skirt around the crashingly, painfully obvious fact that Clegg's strategy team has chosen to apologise not for breaking an election promise but only for making the pledge in the first place. Picture an unfaithful husband, caught in flagrante delicto, grovelling to his wife, begging for forgiveness. "I'm sorry darling - it was a terrible mistake. I should never have said 'forsaking all others'".
The closest Clegg gets to apologising (as if that is of any use to anyone but himself anyway) for breaking his promise is "we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it - and for that I am sorry": that is, he apologises for making-and-breaking the promise. But the context makes it absolutely clear that it's the making and not the breaking that he's apologising for.

This is not an apology for making a dishonest or empty promise, either: the wriggling Clegg claims the pledge was 'in good faith', and surrounding commentary (for example in this video from the BBC's politician-friendly Nick Robinson) clarifies and endorses the chosen narrative: had Clegg thought about it, he would have realised the pledge was impossible to keep.

It wasn't really impossible, of course, just inconvenient. But the grand myth of the Economic State of Emergency has by now become such an article of faith among the political and media classes that any cut - no matter how ideological or counterproductive, and the more brutal the better - can be presented, and accepted, as a fact of nature.

In one or two places the MSM does at least explain that Clegg is apologising for the vow rather than for the cheating, but only in rather obscure places, and never - of course! - spelling out just how disingenuous this actually is, nor examining in much detail the implied claim - largely left unstated - that it was 'impossible' for the Lib Dems to keep their word and oppose the massive fee hikes. Not that it would bear much examination. The news bulletins, the headlines, the stories in main current affairs programming: all lap up this obvious spin uncritically. (Even the Graun leaves it to the bloggers of their aptly named Comment is Free section to make these obvious points.)

But as far as showing contempt for the public is concerned, this carefully crafted non-apology, accepted almost without question by the MSM, is just a warm up. There's also the 'spoof' video.

As spoofs go, the 'viral' video (the press are willing to report it as viral on the basis of 'thousands' of views, it seems) is a real turkey. It doesn't even manage to attain the status of 'topical comedy', a genre familiar from such TV programmes as Mock the Week, in which general-purpose gags are hastily adapted to the weeks headlines without regard for truth or meaning let alone satire. There is nothing funny about the video at all. It is certainly not a 'spoof' - the speech is rendered faithfully and without any criticism, and Clegg is not made to look any more ridiculous than he already does. Yet for some reason the MSM have picked up on this utterly inoffensive, not particularly 'viral' and entirely unfunny piece of - frankly, excuse my French madam - shit, and run with it.

Rumours of the death of satire have been underplayed

The only effect of the 'spoof'' is to publicise the apology, while blurring and distracting from the detail: detail which, as I've pointed out above, is something the Lib Dems have every reason to want blurred and distracted from as much as possible. In fact, the lack of any discernible humorous content makes it a bit of a mystery what motive anyone would have to create this tedious little production, other than to assist the Lib Dems. We are told that Clegg has given 'permission' for the wretched ditty to be turned into a charity single; who on earth other than the Lib Dem strategy unit might actually have proposed such a thing is left unclear, of course.

Well, so far so circumstantial: as Surely Some Mistake acknowledges, the 'cui bono?' approach is heuristic, and cannot on its own establish conspiracy. But there are a couple of other features of the case which might be thought relevant to the question of just how contrived the whole affair is.

For one thing, the video, which - as the media put it - 'emerged' on an anodyne sub-humorous website called 'the Poke', is credited to "Alex Ross and James Herring". Alex Ross, the link divulges, is a professional-looking music producer, while James Herring - who does not provide a link - is a PR man who specialises in...publicity stunts!

And there's more. One of the few (relatively) in-depth analyses of the affair occurred on the BBC's Daily Politics show, on which Lib Dem minister Steve Webb is interviewed. His script contains a couple of intriguing comments. First he avers that Clegg 'knew it would be on YouTube' - leaving it rather ambiguous as to whether he is talking about the official spoken video or the musical version. Second, he quips that "We're going to hire those creatives for our next party political" - 'creatives' being a term used in the grubby world of PR/marketing/advertising to mean the kind of failed artist who comes up with this kind of crud in order to put one over on the likes of you and me.

Now you might think that these comments, which almost seem to be hinting that the whole thing was a manufactured PR stunt from the start, are not the kind of thing Webb would come out with if that were really the case. Wrong! The learnt naïvety of the media and the general public, bolstered by such tactics as the use of 'conspiracy theorist' labels at the slightest provocation, should not blind us to the fact that this apology is the Lib Dems' single biggest PR tactic of the year, possibly of the entire coalition period. This mid-term party conference is the moment chosen for some rather gentle ritual humiliation: long enough after the event to make it plausible that some real soul-searching has gone on and issued in a change of mind; long enough before the next election for the damage caused by such self-abasement to have worn off (so they hope).

A huge amount of work will have gone into it; consultants and advisers will have agonised over every angle, every nuance; hundreds of hours will have been spent discussing and choreographing it. Like a magic trick, much of the effect is due to the massive disparity in effort and deviousness between producer and consumer. The audience doesn't have much time, nor the training, temperament or insider knowledge, to analyse the trick - and to do so would in any case spoil the entertainment (I find it hard to believe that anyone finds it entertaining, but then the same applies to most prime time TV). So some effort is required to take off the rose-tinted specs and the dunce's cap, and put on the old tinfoil helmet for a minute.

In fact I strongly suspect these comments have three aspects: bluff, spoiler, and insurance.

First, bluff: the idea that only an innocent person would make remarks that draw attention to the possibility of guilt is exactly the idea a manipulator of the kind under discussion would expect and want the audience to have (or rather the particular tiny section of the audience that even notices any of this).

Second, spoiler: by raising the issues in this rather obvious way, Webb spikes the guns of any journo who might be tempted to actually run a realistic analysis of the kind I'm bothering to do. The 'concocted publicity stunt' angle has lost its originality, its off-the-wall contrarian charm, and instead is made, ironically, too obvious to comment on.

Third, insurance: in the unlikely event that anyone in the MSM might be even vaguely - and belatedly - interested in looking into the degree of complicity involved in the 'emergence' of the 'spoof' - the public have become inured to being manipulated, while the story will be dead in a few days with the only lingering effect, so the LDs hope, being a diffuse sense that Clegg is actually rather a decent sort of chap -  in that unlikely event, Webb's slightly cryptic comments can be cited to show that actually, the Lib Dems were quite open about the fact that this was a publicity stunt. So that's OK then.

And of course in that case, the press would be full of admiration for the brilliance of the Lib Dems' media manipulation, and suffer no embarrassment at all over the fact that it was they who allowed themselves to be manipulated. Of course some in the press will have their suspicions, and probably knowledge, about the astroturf nature of the viral phenomenon, but won't want to report it; it's too hard to explain; they'll be called conspiracy theorists; there's a convention that this kind of spin doctoring is to remain behind the scenes; for journalists who prosper so well on a diet of predigested press releases and ready-made stunts, this is the kind of dirty laundry that's not to be washed in public.

And shining through all of this, the total contempt these people, press, politicians, and obviously PR 'creatives', have for the general public.


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