When fake news is better than real

Observations on media

We know that American youth, like youth across the western world, switches off when the TV news comes on. So what are the sources of their news? Comedy programmes showing "fake news", according to a new study.

The Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press says that such programmes "are beginning to rival mainstream news outlets within this generation". On the Comedy Central cable TV channel, for example, The Daily Show has the stand-up comedian Jon Stewart manning the anchor desk and interspersing the day's headlines with satirical commentary. Stewart covered George Bush's State of the Union address last month by pointing to the promises - from billions for fighting Aids to hydrogen-powered cars - that were included in previous speeches by Bush but never mentioned again, let alone implemented.

Since becoming the face of The Daily Show in 1999, Stewart has tripled the programme's viewing figures, reaching more than a million mostly young people on an average night. Newsweek magazine calls it the "coolest pit stop on television". Everyone from Hillary Rodham Clin- ton to the Bush administration Svengali Richard Perle has spent time on Stewart's interview couch.

Senator John Edwards even announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination live on The Daily Show last autumn. Stewart, with deadpan gravity, interrupted Edwards to remind him that since this was a fake news show, the announcement "might not count". When another US senator, Joseph Biden, recently appeared, he confided that his daughter pays no heed when he appears on mainstream news programmes such as Meet the Press. But when he told her that he was to appear on Stewart's show, she implored him to "do well".

Indeed, The Daily Show is at its best when it is sending up mainstream news programmes, including the 24-hour cable channels. After the Democratic front-runner Howard Dean did badly in the Iowa caucuses, Stewart showed media clips of cable news pundits - none of whom came close to predicting Dean's fate - and lamented the "hours and hours of vital television time" given over to "idle and often contradictory speculation". CNN, Stewart suggests, would do better to concentrate on the Michael Jackson trial and car chases and leave political reporting to the comedy networks. Perhaps failing to get the joke, CNN broadcasts a special edition of The Daily Show on its international network.

The Democratic Party has invited The Daily Show's army of phoney correspondents to cover its presidential nominating convention in Boston this July. As a resident of Boston, I can confirm that it won't have much local competition. Last summer, my wife and I found ourselves at the centre of a local media swarm when four satellite trucks took up position on our suburban street for the better part of a week. The story? The cat-lady - a mentally unsound neighbour who kept more than 80 cats in her tiny apartment.

The Daily Show: global edition is broadcast at 11.30pm, Sundays and Mondays, on CNN in the UK

This article first appeared in the 23 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, End of the sex war

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide