Twenty years ago I used to buy newspapers quite a lot. Now I may buy a Sunday newspaper once a month or so. Sometimes the newspaper publishers run surveys to find out why people buy or don’t buy their newspapers, but they usually ask all the wrong questions.
I suppose the main reason I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to is that since I retired I don’t get out much. Going out usually costs money. We do go out to church on Sundays, and on the way home stop at shops, and so for a while bought the Sunday newspapers most Sundays, but even that has dropped off, partly because of financial constraints, but also because of this — What is the Labour Party for? On the mystery of Jeremy Corbyn:
There is a preference in the media’s political coverage – and in political campaigning altogether – for symbol and personality over policy and fact. The media coverage of Corbyn, who despite being an MP and unusually active campaigner for over thirty years had not much figured in the press until the leadership contest, has been by any measure persistently negative.
Of course South African Sunday newspapers only rarely refer to Jeremy Corbyn, but in their coverage of South African politicians, the same general principle applies: The emphasis is on image rather than substance, personality rather than policy.
Almost every Sunday there will be a full-page article on some politician, and the article will usually be about some political rival threatening to take over their position. I rarely read beyond the first paragraph, because I know from experience that if there are no facts in the first paragraph there will be none on the rest of the page. The policies of the politician in question are not important. What’s important is that there is conflict, and that increases circulation, or so they say.
The problem with Jeremy Corbyn is that he has no ambition, and it ambition that fuels the conflict that journalists like to write about. Corbyn talks too much about principles and policies, and not enough about his rivals or their voters. If he started calling Tory voters “a basket of deplorables” he’d probably get a better press, though whether it would get him more votes from Labour supporters is a moot point.
So where do we get our news nowadays?
A few days ago our TV was on all day on the channel showing the Constitutional Court hearings about the crisis in social grants payments. When it comes to the judges of the Constitutional Court, they are not interested in the fluff about personalities, they want the facts. And if they don’t get the facts, they ask. They don’t concern themselves with speculations about who might get Bathabile Dlamini’s job because she messed up, or how much sushi was consumed at her last birthday party. They want to know what she has done and what she hasn’t done about the payments of pensions and other social grants.
Even the Daily Maverick, which is usually better an more insightful than most, writes, Sassa grant crisis: In this game of thrones, can Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini survive? | Daily Maverick. The important question, you see, is not whether 17 million social grant recipients will get paid. The important question is the personality-cult one: the political survival of one celebrity politician, rather than 17 million people who might have no food on the table in April.
When it comes to the media and their predilection for personality cults, one wonders which came first, the chicken or the egg. The scramble for power of ambitious politicians makes great copy, at least in the opinion of journalists, and so if politicians want the publicity they crave, they must spend more time on polishing their images than on fine-tuning their policies. It’s a vicious cycle, the one feeds off the other.
And politicians like Jeremy Corbyn break that mould. That’s why the media hate him, and why I rather like him.