Why Cleggmania could be bad for democracy

The Nick Clegg phenomenon is not a product of public enthusiasm, but of the media’s disproportionate influence in politics today.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

The media are frequently blamed for things that they aren’t responsible for: winning elections for the Tories, making men view all women as Page 3 stunnas, turning the populace against swan-eating immigrants. The nonsense idea of ‘media effects’ is based on an exaggerated view of the media’s power, and a degraded view of ordinary people as empty vessels waiting to be filled by whatever idea is rattling around in Rupert Murdoch’s head. However, one thing the media are responsible for – and it should be of great concern to anyone who considers himself a democrat – is the elevation of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, from bland politician into a potential Obama-style saviour of the nation.

Cleggmania, as the media (who else?) have dubbed it, is an extraordinary phenomenon. Not because recent opinion polls seem to indicate that the Lib Dems are benefiting from Labour’s and the Tories’ disarray – the Lib Dems have long been a dustbin-style repository for the electorate’s disgruntlement with the two main parties. And not because some newspapers are getting overexcited about a young(ish) and allegedly handsome politician – from Blair to Cameron, hacks have always had a soft spot for soundbites combined with cheesy grins. No, Cleggmania is extraordinary because it indicates that the media are now becoming more and more politically influential, to the extent that they can almost singlehandedly frame the way that politics is understood and even how the political leaders conceive of themselves and their campaigns.

Following last week’s first televised leaders’ debate, Clegg has effectively been turned into the High Representative of the media class, the Chosen One of that tiny but influential elite of opinion-formers who feel disillusioned with Labour and either disgusted by the Tories (the liberal broadsheet press) or uncertain about the Tories as refashioned by David Cameron (the right-wing broadsheet press). Liberal journalists in particular are pushing Clegg forward as a kind of monarch-in-waiting, the man they believe best represents their narrow interests and concerns – and what is most remarkable is how successful they have been: both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have internalised the media’s Cleggophilia, changing their campaigns and their focus in response to the media’s playing of the Clegg card, and opinion polls seem to indicate that the media’s self-serving promotion of Clegg has, temporarily at least, impacted on the way the public understands this election campaign. This is a new kind of court politics, where media intrigue, patronage and favour is currently pushing the princeling Nick to the forefront of a squabbling oligarchy.

For all the claims that Clegg could be a British Obama, there is no real, genuine public enthusiasm for him; there are no ‘Yes We Can’-style rallies with thousands of excited young people. Some polls might show the Lib Dems scoring highly, but this is likely to be a consequence of the fact that much of the public have had enough of Labour and distrust the Tories (which is entirely understandable of course) and see the Lib Dems as the Not-The-Other-Two Party, while also indicating that the media’s relentless promotion of Clegg has impacted on the public’s consciousness. The real enthusiasm for Clegg is in the media heart of London. This was best summed up by the glazed-eyed, Clegg-addled BBC reporter who went to Watford to see if the little people shared his enthusiasm, only to be encountered by members of the public saying: ‘Nick who?’ Some journalists are becoming defensive about their week-long, Kool Aid-drinking antics in relation to Clegg. One hack, protesting way too much, says ‘Cleggmania is not just media hype… Clegg is the public’s favourite too’.

The extent to which Cleggmania is a product of media-class intrigue is clear not only in the number of articles they are publishing about his alleged vision and prowess (the Guardian’s comment website appears to have discussed nothing else for the past five days), but also in the fact that the discussion of Clegg has become completely bound up with a discussion about the future of the media itself. David Yelland, former editor of the Sun, says the rise of Clegg could potentially ‘lock the Murdoch media out of British politics’. A more liberal-leaning journalist celebrates the idea that Clegg’s rise could lessen the influence of the Daily Mail’s ‘shrill moralising’ in public life. Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade says the reason much of the media is ‘gripped’ by this politician with an ‘unimpressive political track record’ is because they think that if Clegg wins lots of votes, and consequently there is no overall winner of the election, it will be ‘manna from heaven for political correspondents’: ‘Think about the fun and frolics of reporting on the endless dealmaking between parties.’

Behind the wild claims about a surge in popular support for Clegg, where media outlets dress up their own elevation of the Lib Dem leader as some kind of democratic uprising, what we really have here is a media class investing its narrow political hopes in Clegg and even explicitly analysing how his rise might impact on the standing and fortunes of the right-wing press, the liberal press and journalism itself. The media are jostling for power, guarding their patch, and selecting and crowning the man whom they believe not only best embodies their apparently superior, cosmopolitan, officially tolerant political outlook – one journalist gushes that Clegg is more ‘culturally European than any leading figure in British politics for many years’ – but who might also isolate their media opponents and renew political journalism. It is all alarmingly self-serving.

Partly, Cleggmania is history repeated as farce. It echoes the media’s celebration of Tony Blair as – quote, unquote – ‘a Messiah come to save us from Toryism’. Today, some hope that Christ Clegg can save us both from New Toryism and utterly knackered Labourism. Many of the things that were said about Blair are now being said about Clegg: that he can deliver a new ‘post-industrial politics’ and move us ‘beyond left and right’ (ie, the Third Way revisited) and can make Britain finally ‘culturally European’ (some in the media are impressed by the fact that Clegg spent years working in Brussels and has a Spanish wife and three children with Spanish first names). In short, the media class wants Clegg to do what they hoped Blair would do: end the ‘old politics’, make political debate more calm and sedate, forget such squalid matters as industry, and embrace Europe over little England – that is, elevate politics above the grubby concerns and outlook of the masses with their bizarre alleged attachment to Labourism or Conservatism. Fay Weldon captured the shift from Blair to Clegg well in an article headlined: ‘The New Labour myth lies in tatters. We feel stupid. Along comes Clegg.’

But Cleggmania is more than history repeated as farce. There is something very new – and dangerous – taking place here, too. The media are assuming a disproportionate and potentially undemocratic role in politics. The most extraordinary thing about the media’s post-TV debate celebration of Clegg was how quickly both Brown and Cameron accepted the media’s assessment. Brown gave numerous interviews in which he admitted he did badly in the televised debate and congratulated Clegg for doing well, and Cameron changed his party political broadcast to make it an argument against voting for Clegg. Yet if you cast your minds back to that TV debate last Thursday, was Clegg really the best, or any good at all? I actually think Brown was better, in terms of having his facts to hand and speaking fairly authoritatively. Yet the media seem remarkably free to write the political narrative today, to the extent that their judgement can sway politics and politicians themselves.

How has the media become so influential? It’s not because they have anything especially enlightening to say. Nor is it because the public is fickle and is lapping up everything the press tells them (as suggested by the absence of mass public support for Cleggmania). One journalist, after days of media hysteria about Clegg, had the gall to say that ‘once a craze takes hold, [the public] succumb to it without being able to explain why’. No, the media have become influential by default. At a time when there is a gaping disconnect between the parties and the public, the media have assumed the role of a new pseudo-public realm, where politicians aim their ideas and policy proposals. And at a time when the political parties feel isolated, unanchored and bereft of big ideas, they become incapable of writing the political narrative themselves, of meaningfully forming a political culture, and so become susceptible to a powerful external force’s instinctive framing of the political agenda. The rise of the media is built on the emptying out of the political parties and the increasing exclusion of the masses from public life.

In recent years, snobs accused politicians of ‘bowing to media pressure’ and ‘giving in to Daily Mail readers’. What they really meant was not that politicians should think independently and represent voters’ interests alone, but that they should not listen to the mob and its favoured gutter press and instead should pay attention to the better-judged arguments of the sensible media. So very few of the liberal journalists who so often fearmonger about the impact of the Daily Mail in British politics have any qualms about their current impact in British politics via the Clegg phenomenon. One of them even fantasises that Cleggmania is ‘a very British insurgency’ against the old elite. It smells to me more like an attempted coup d’état in which the public is playing no role at all.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics UK


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