"If you don't do politics, politics will do you." Photo: Getty
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Sketch: Ed Miliband meets young people

We re-run yesterday’s unremarkable debate between Ed Miliband and young people.

“The 2015 general election is just around the corner, and regardless of what you think about voting, if you don’t do politics… politics will do you.”

And we’re off at Leaders Live, an attempt to engage young people with politics run by a new organisation called “Bite the Ballot”.

We’re just here with the kids, just chatting, just talking to the Labour leader, just keeping it political #leaderslive #bitetheballot #youngpeople #engagement #newpolitics #2k15.

The presenter seems to be called Michael Sarnie. He turns to Ed. “Welcome Ed, how are you?”

Ed: “Great to be here, thank you.”

We’ll presume Ed’s fine.

Sarnie: “Our studio audience is made up of some influential people… collectively they have an online reach of millions…”

Cue picture of some slouched kids in t-shirts.

Ed: “Well first of all can I say it is great to be here…”

No Ed you can’t say that.

Ed: “I want to go back to 70 yaerrrrrs ago, when the government set the target of full employment: I want to go beyond that.”

The young people wonder why Ed says “yaerrrrs” like that. We all wonder what is morethan full employment.

Ed plows on. He’s doles out the trademark eyebrows up, head forward, slightly incredulous half-smile. The “Isn’t it so obvious we need good jobs guys I’m just trying to do good things!” one. Finishes talking, relaxes face, drinks some water.

Ed plows on. He doles out the trademark incredulous half-smile.

Sarnie: “Okay, well thank you, yeah… thanks for that Ed.”

But was Sarnie actually listening.

Cue a video. We need the “right kind of jobs” says someone called Mawaan.

Those kind of jobs sound good.

“What would you do about youth unemployment?” Asks the evening’s backseat MC, Jamal Edwards (founder of SBTV, the music video channel).

Ed: “We would tax the bonuses of the bankers and we’d use the resources to guarantee every young person who's been unemployed for more than 12 months a job… It’s a very specific transfer.”

Jamal: “And it’s actually possible, 100 per cent?”

No, Ed was l-y-i-n-g.

Here comes Sarnie again.

Sarnie: “You might have seen the pictures on the social media… The debate on MP salaries, the chamber was packed, the debate on the public sector, there were only a few people…”

There was a debate on “the public sector”? Sarnie seems to be referring to the largely made-up memes of MPs not participating in debates on like important issues – debunked by Isabel Hardman at the Spectator.

But was Sarnie actually listening.

Some guy called Max weighs in on Ed’s job guarantee: “It sounds like a great sound-bite, but it doesn’t sound particularly workable.”

Ed: “It’s much more than a sound-bite Max…”

Well the good news for Ed is 76 per cent of people are responding well to his ideas on Twitter, Sarnie tells us.

Ed: “I want to stop the privatisation of our National Health Service.”

Can Ed actually name three ways the NHS has been privatised?

One senior Labour minister who knows far more than Ed about how public services work told May2015 the party’s war cries on privatisation are overblown.

We wade on. Ed: “I haven’t taken drugs…” Cue the news stories… (Even if he said this three years ago.)

Ed: “We should always be looking at the ways in which we discourage young people from taking drugs.”

Way to win over the young people here Ed.

Sarnie has a follow-up. “But if THC levels [in marijuana] were lower, it might not have as drastic side effects… is that not an interesting debate?”

Ed: “Look I understand the argument. I do understand the argument.”

But does Ed know what THC is.

Here’s a new question from “Jezza”.

“There was a gentleman on the live stream… who I don’t think likes you very much…” he begins, before bringing up the way New Labour sort-of-privatised-the-way-the-NHS-is-financed-but-ssh-don’t mention-it.

He means whom but grammar is like not important.

Ed: “Well let me answer directly Jezza. We did bring in private finance to build hospitals. I think some of the deals weren’t the best deals, but overall…”

But overall private finance is not the evil privatisation the Tories are doing, Ed is clear on that.

He means “whom” but grammar is like not important.

Private finance “modernised” the NHS, he continues, but the government wants “markets and competition”. Because there are no markets or competition in the NHS…

Time passes.

Ed: “We need to hear the voice of young people more in our democracy…”

One of the young people pipes up. “I think about 80 per cent of 16-24 year olds voted for [Scottish] independence,” he says.

Yeah well sort of basically but actually like half of that.

The next question is on “Mass surveillance… GCHQ … Ed Snowden for me is a hero.”

Ed: “First of all, I think it’s incredibly important there are rights for citizens… We’ve got to improve… On the other hand, we also have a responsibility to make sure our country is kept safe.”

Great answer Ed.

Ed talks some more. “I understand all your concerns…”

Ed’s interrogator isn’t convinced: “They can access all our computers and cameras, our phones – my phone I’ve got encrypted, and there’s been over 20,000 tracking attempts in the last three weeks of my data.”

Who is this guy?

Someone asks a question that doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a teenager and should demand Ed actually say something.

Kenny: “Yeah Ed I wanted to ask… What about ethnic minorities actually becoming MPs? … [And] You talked about engagement, it’s not just about making me know that my vote can make a difference, it’s also showing that people like me can become like you, and be in your seat. What would you do? And would you do shortlists?”

Ed: “We’ve got to do better… [But] Let me tell you what we’re doing… I’m absolutely committed Kenny… But I’ll be honest with you, I’ll be clear with you, we’ve got to do a better job, and if you’ve got ideas about what we should be doing, I’m happy to look at them.”

But will he actually.

“It could be worse”, Ed says.

Some more chit-chat. A new Ed sentence drifts from lazy language to the other word he pronounces like no one else in the room: “There’s big iss-ewes…”

And it’s time to go to the audience. How has Ed done on “the hashtags”? Do you agree with his views tonight? Twitter is 50:50.

“It could be worse”, Ed says.

That’s the spirit.

Finally we’re onto immigration – the only topic not chosen by Ed’s team.

We go to a video by someone called Harry Hitchens. After a few facts he concludes, “As a 19 year old kid, I’ve got my first vote coming up, I think it’s a failure I don’t know more about this.”

Who’s failure? Ed’s? Ours? If only Harry had, like, a computer with some sort of free online encyclopedia or some news websites where he could, like, learn this stuff so his ignorance wouldn’t be a failure. Our failure. Not Harry’s failure.

Ed differentiates between those concerned by immigrant and racists.

Which is good because otherwise most voters are racists.

A Twitter ticker pops up as Ed continues to say things: “+UREdrum23 Immigration: the most important issue?!”

Yes +UREdrum23, immigration is the most important issue. (You can break down the past 5 years of polls – on everything from voting intention to immigration – by age, gender, party ID and region on May2015.)

+PMills and +HighOnSprite also weigh in. Good to have them with us.

Ed is talking again. “You know… I passsssionately believe…”

He talks some more. He wades into tackling crime. Because Ed has loads of experience of gangs and estates and criminal role models and how to challenge them.

Clegg’s here next week, so you can look forward to another round of earnest jokes, passionate beliefs and mythical plans.

Or you can watch David Dimbleby interview Harold Wilson in 1970, or Robin Day interrogate Margaret Thatcher in 1987, or even Russell Brand jabber with Paxman last year, and recall what quality broadcast journalism looks like.

 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder