Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Apparently the internet and the blogosphere still count for nothing.

For another blog I received a review copy of Steven Fielding's A State of Play - British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. An interesting subject and one that I have toyed with myself in my mind not least because of my perplexity why there should be so few good political novels these days.

It is very much an academic book, aimed at other academics, an attitude that has unfortunate effects on the book's style, not to mention the fact that the Introduction consists of a long list of references to and quotations from other academic studies without which no academic book can exist these days.

In between those references, though, there are some interesting nuggets. I was not fully aware, for instance, how many programmes for young children and teenagers have as their message that parliamentary democracy is a bad and corrupt system. This will have to be followed up for surely some of that subliminal propaganda stays with people though having met a number of people who have grown up with Dr Who, I would say that programme's opposition to Margaret Thatcher has not taken much hold among the fans.

Professor Fielding gives a very brief history of British parliamentary democracy, explaining as he does why it has never quite lived up to its promises though not really explaining what those were. In the process he does not mention that a number of political and social institutions existed prior to their submission to central authority, which might be Parliament or it might the the civil service or, and this is a singular omission since he lays some emphasis on the electorate's disillusionment, the role of the European Union and various other quangos in present-day governance. (He does, however, mention that in the 1970s Dr Who supported Britain's entry into the EEC. Really, I seem to have missed out on rather a lot by not watching that programme.)

The theme of the book is the image of politics as it is perceived by the general populace and the sources of that perception, a theme well worth analyzing and discussing.
The public is certainly conscious of the role played by the news media. When asked in 2004 what influenced their opinions about politics, the top two sources people mentioned were television news (eighty-two per cent) and newspapers and magazines (sixty-three per cent). So far as we can tell, nobody mentioned even one work of fiction. If its power is more subtle and harder to quantify than that of newspaper or television news, fiction does, however, play a role in shaping views of politics. Qualitative research suggests fiction can inform how people think about themselves politically and influences how they understand political issues. As fewer people read newspapers or watch television news it is likely fiction will become an even more important source of information about politics. Most students of British politics nevertheless continue to favour focusing on official forms and processes: for them, these are what really matter in a democracy. But as a result they only have a one-sided and superficial view of the subject, such that, as one expert conceded, political scientists do not yet know 'what politics means to citizens'.
You see what I mean about the style? Mind you, I have read worse.

First about people not mentioning fiction either on the page or on TV as a source of information. It is quite likely that they are not aware of it and do not want to be aware of it. Nobody really wants to admit that they get their notion of how MPs behave from some TV comedy show; nor do they want to start analyzing what might be reasonably accurate and what is not. (For example, I know enough about political processes to maintain that Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are completely accurate and in this I have the backing of people who have worked in the Cabinet Office. Other series I am not so sure of, entertaining though they might be.)

It is also possible that people do not always know the difference between news programmes and fiction. I am not sure I can blame them for that mistake.

What is so interesting in that paragraph is the complete absence of any mention of the internet or the blogosphere, both of which were already important in 2004. Nor is there any mention of the social media, especially Twitter, a great source of information, correct or otherwise. Does that mean people do not think about those sources or that they prefer not to mention them or, and this is rather a worrying thought, political scientists have not quite worked out their importance? As they used to say in examination papers: discuss.


  1. I assume LibLabCon party manifestos counted towards the unmentioned works of fiction.

  2. Is there any such thing as "political science", or is this yet another oxymoron? I have always thought of any science as being the gathering of data from experimentation, forming a hypothesis and then trying to prove or disprove it. Accuracy and transparency being essential. Most politicians would appear to master in fiction not reallity.

  3. Always thought that the New Statesman with Rik Mayall influenced a lot of people's voting.