Understanding the relevance of media irrelevances

An off-the-cuff remark about the media, made by the Prime Minister while addressing a political gathering last Sunday, was – interestingly enough – reported by only one journalist and ignored by the rest of the media.

The Prime Minister was reported to have said that he is ‘concerned’ over how the local media is focusing on frivolous subjects and rather than highlighting the growth that the country is experiencing, it continues to give prominence to secondary issues which are almost irrelevant.

There are many aspects of the relationship between this administration and the media. The first one that comes to mind is whether the administration itself is handling the media in the best way possible so that the positive aspect of the administration’s work is given the right exposure.

Sometimes it does seem to me that the media handlers of the administration – both those who are publicly responsible for this job and those who work behind the scenes – are more intent on manipulation to put others in a bad light than on anything else.

This is evident when there is some official gaffe that should have been avoided in the first place if those in the administration continually keep in mind the public’s perception of their acts. In other words, the government first puts its foot in it and then the media boys use manipulation techniques in order to attempt a damage limitation exercise.

The recent shenanigan about the proposed discussion on the infamous power station extension contract could have well been caused by some pious wish that the House and its committees observe their own procedural rules.

However, what came across to the general public was that the government side was attempting to stall the discussion by nipping it in the bud. In other words, the government was perceived to be acting as if it still has something to hide or that there are even more embarrassing hitherto unrevealed facts about the case.

What this means is that certain decisions are being taken without due regard for their public relations implications. In these instances the Prime Minister can hardly accuse the media on focusing on irrelevant issues.

I understand that the Prime Minister feels disappointed that the positive results being attained by his administrations in a number of specific areas are being ignored by most of the media that seem to relish only in negative news. But this attitude is in the media’s nature all over the world where there is a truly free press.

This attitude is even accentuated in circumstances such as those this government finds itself in; with people getting bored with the same old faces in government, however irrational this sentiment might be.

If what counts in the mind of the electorate is simply the positive results attained by the government of the day, the Nationalist Party would not have lost the 1971 and the 1996 elections.

The problem with the media this administration is facing cannot be just dismissed as the media’s irrational focussing on frivolous issues. If the public mood about the administration is a negative one,the media and the public mood begin to feed on each other’s hunger for bad news and they enter into asymbiotic relationship that can only spell disaster for the government of the day – whatever it does. This fusion eventually leads to aself-fulfilling prophecy.

In his recently published autobiography, Tony Blair recalls how this happened in the last months of the Conservative administration led by John Major whom he soundly beat in May 1997.

It was a circumstance that Blair viewed with much trepidation: “I was afraid because, intent as I was on destroying the government, I could see over time that, even when it was right, once public opinion had gone sour it didn’t seem to matter whether what it did was right or wrong; and once the mood had turned from the government and embraced us, the mood was merciless in its pursuit, indifferent to anything other than satisfying itself.”

Ironically this also happened to Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor, in this year’s election campaign. The media savaged him in the most unfair way: the prime example being the way it pounced on a remark he made about a stupid woman he met during the electoral campaign without any respect to the fact that the media got to know of the remark only because a microphone that should have been switched off was not and Brown thought he was talking privately to an aide.

Just doing what the Prime Minister feels is right and complaining that the media focuses on irrelevant detail will never change the public mood. If it wants to avoid what already seems inevitable to many, this administration must completely change its attitude and tactics towards the media.

It has to take the media on board in a frank and open way and influence it positively about its sense of direction and achievements rather than use it – or segments of it – to manipulate public opinion negatively about its real and imagined adversaries.

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