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The Front-Page Flop

For years, the Tories have relied on slavish support in the press to sell their austerity politics. But in the age of social media, this strategy has diminishing returns.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on October 3, 2018 in Birmingham, England. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

News that the leader of a political party wants supporters of another party to vote for her shocked the editors of the Observer so much that they put it on the front page this Sunday, describing it as “extraordinary.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s article had little news value, merely repeating the attacks of her Conservative conference speech a few days earlier. Beyond bland appeals to “patriotic moderates,” there was nothing to appeal to Labour voters: no new policies, no analysis of why the system was failing, and no inspiring vision of the future she wants to create. Just a plea for Labour voters to “look again” at her party.

After eight years of a Conservative government, and two years of Theresa May as prime minister, this kind of hollow rhetoric is telling. It reflects an idea of politics as a parlor game played out in the media, rather than a means to enact policies to improve people’s lives. The Conservatives have considerable faith in this approach. For years, they have relied on slavish support in the press to sell their austerity politics.

Without this, they could never have built a narrative that blamed a crisis caused by out-of-control financial interests on the public sector and the people who rely on its services. It has been a lesson in how a disciplined message recycled through a favorable media can shape public opinion — even when it deviates substantially from both the popular interest and the economic reality.

But the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government came at the end of an era. It was a period where parties could control the narrative relating to complex events to suit their political ends because the channels of communication with the public were limited and easier to manipulate. However, as established parties which were masters of these old networks of communication decline across the world, it is clear that something fundamental has changed.

The intervention from Theresa May in the Observer this weekend felt like analog political communications in the digital age we now inhabit. Politicians can no longer so easily win over public opinion by means of vague platitudes in servile newspapers. The cost for this kind of insincerity is mockery on social media — for both. And social media is increasingly influential, with 25 percent of all UK Facebook users seeing a Momentum video during the last general election campaign.

This has created a tension between new media and the more established outlets. For the latter a prime minister writing for a newspaper has news value regardless of the specific content of her article. This, I’m sure, is the justification the Observer would use for placing Theresa May on its front page. But in an age where ordinary people can challenge politicians online on a daily basis their front-page repetition of Conservative Party talking points will appear hollow.

The frustration with the Observer’s approach, and those like it, among new media types does not emanate from a prime minister being allowed to write for a newspaper, or even from a news story accompanying that. Instead, it’s a feeling that the way the established press determines what is and isn’t newsworthy lends itself to a deference to authority that runs contrary to the primary purpose of journalism, which is to speak truth to power.

Political parties should be coming up with coherent solutions to the many problems our country is facing, and only those that do will succeed in an era where social media places their messaging under increased scrutiny. The days when uncritical coverage in sycophantic newspapers might win elections are on the wane.