Curious incident on the Damascus road. Former chief-of-staff to Iain Duncan-Smith, former editor of the ConservativeHome website, former comment supremo and columnist at the Times starts Unherd.com – which believes, among other things, that there’s too much media focus on “politics, politics, politics rather than a rounded view of the other upstream and sometimes greater influences on our lives”.
Because Tim Montgomerie is an adroit self-publicist, he’s contrived a modest buzz of interest over the past few days. But most of that examines his ambitions for the site – “to spend more time [exploring] the important things rather than the latest things” – and rather brushes aside the disillusionment that set him (via a very rich hedge fund wizard, Paul Marshall) on this quest for some deeper enlightenment.
But let’s start where super-political Tim switched off, because that’s a decision with resonance.
He knew – or thought he knew – that a “24/7, politics-focused, controversy-chasing-and-sparking and overwhelmingly negative (and therefore pro-interventionist) news industry had simultaneously become too unbalanced and powerful in advanced-stage democracies”.
He believed that “the huge upsets of 2016 weren’t just signs of a broken politics and a broken economic model – although they most certainly were. They were signs of a broken media, too. Broadcasters and publications that were routinely so out of touch with large parts of the nations they covered that they didn’t even begin to understand why so many people had voted in the way they had.”
He concluded that “newsrooms, rightly so careful to seek more gender and ethnic balance within their teams, had not noticed that ideologically, socially and in other vital ways, they had become monochrome”.
These are charges worth pausing over, whether or not you click to Unherd.com.
Almost two decades ago, in the Downing Street press room, Alastair Campbell discovered that 24-hour TV news channels had changed the whole nature of his job. None of the old stately routines, the routine briefings for evening paper correspondents, for morning daily folk, for broadcasters thinking about 6pm and 10pm: days of known deadlines. Now the pressure seemed constant, the phone lines were always busy. And think, today, what a difference the full blast of social media has wrought – for two prime examples are in full swing this summer.
One, of course, is the continuing saga of Trump, perhaps now building to some kind of frenetic conclusion. He wants to sack Jeff Sessions and derides the attorney general openly. He wants to get rid of Sean Spicer and appoints Anthony Scaramucci as communications overlord, whereupon the beleaguered press secretary quits. He wants to get rid of his chief of staff, and does. His new chief of staff wants Scaramucci gone, and Scaramucci goes.
All of which encompasses little more than two weeks in DC, weeks also marked by the collapse of Obamacare repeal, growing tension over North Korea and direly worsening relations with Moscow. You cannot be serious? Perhaps not: for the comings and goings inside the White House – and, most significantly, its press room – seem more hilarious than serious as The Mooch plays Damon Runyon meets Goodfellas.
The president tweets and tweets again. One day of crisis is supplanted by 24 hours of something different – say a ban on transgender soldiers in the military – and the agenda changes as constantly, restlessly, as a Twitter feed. Is this news of any significance? Or some manic game of Oval Office thrones? Supporting characters come and go, but their relationship to anything profound happening – indeed to any legislative accomplishment – is vestigial. They are entertaining fall guys. Their chosen stage is a press briefing room. They don’t, in any true sense, matter.
Meanwhile in Britain, this penultimate EU summer, we hear an eerie Little Sir Echo of the Trump shenanigans: new confusion and excitement every time Philip Hammond/Liam Fox/Amber Rudd/Jeremy Hunt et al offer some revised “clarification”, but nothing by way of understanding. Politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt has a clarification of his own.
“There is a real risk here that we spend hours analysing the comments from Downing Street and ministers for clues as to policy, when they have consistently shown an inability to grasp the systems and dynamics under which they are operating … [The latest] announcement means either that free movement will end, or that it won’t end, or that it might end after a while, or that it won’t end after a while, or that if it does end the system which replaces it might be completely different or that it might be identical.”
Journalism is supposed to be the “first rough draft of history”. Try to imagine a 12th-grade American history student writing an essay on “White House communications policy, 20 June to 2 August 2017” – or a British history sixth former tackling “The evolution of Brexit policy while Theresa May was on holiday”.
Montgomerie thinks that politics – its promises and posturing – has gained far too much prominence and caused too much cynicism and disappointment in the process; the business of government chained to a spinning wheel of misfortune. Of course there are deeper, more stable topics to think about: religion and economic cycles from Unherd.com’s list, for instance.
But what price politics itself, the supposedly serious business of democratic governance? You may reckon, like Montgomerie, that Trump and Brexit aren’t flukes. You may reckon that they reflect something deeper, something newsrooms didn’t spot and still can’t comprehend. Then wonder – maybe the deepest question of all – how on earth to get our balance back as the next tweetstorm starts.