Progressive Media Commentators – Time To Get Our Shit Together

March 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

I am sick of it – sick of progressives being punched and suckered on national broadcast debates.

I know that winning a media-battle is not how we’re going build a sustainable and just society – but to lose the debate so often on air surely undermines all the work we’re doing outside of the radio/TV studio.

Illustrative Story

I’m on the train to Oxford listening to ‘All Things Considered’, a BBC Wales talk-show about religion. This week, it’s a discussion about food banks and poverty – a perfect piece of proof for how serious the cuts and unemployment levels are. The first ten minutes features a sympathetic case study visit to a food bank in Bridgend followed by an interview with someone from the Trussell Trust (funders of community projects tacking poverty). Up next, a conversation between Neil Cooper from Church Action On Poverty and Colin Bloom from the Conservative Christian Fellowship, who gives a masterclass in how to win the debate. Some choice quotes with analysis below –

“We all have to work together (not those with most should help most) to make sure that the most vulnerable….(there are deserving and undeserving poor people – and if you don’t fit my criteria, you don’t get help) are helped (palliative, rather than dealing with root cause).”

“I work in Westminster (personal, open, friendly), I walk up Victoria Street every day (clear image that you can recognise), and for as long as I can remember (this problem has always existed and therefore we can’t do anything about it) we have had rough sleepers sleeping in the city centers. Whether it’s massively increasing or not I don’t know (sew doubt), I certainly know that there are problems there and working very hard to address those (I am perfectly reasonable and want the right thing to happen).

“And actually we’ve now got the opportunity, because of the Localism Bill, because of the work that’s being done in the Coalition (political message of support), that we are now seeing the opportunities are opening up for churches and faith groups to really get involved to do the things that they always were doing – but perhaps did less of in the last few years because government promised more than it could deliver (government fails, churches succeed).”

My favourite moment from the show has to be when he manages to say the following – and nobody challenges him.

“We have allowed compassion to become nationalised.”

SERIOUSLY?! We’re going to let that fly?

Another car-crash example is this debate on Woman’s Hour between a Daily Mail columnist and a spokesperson from Netmums on whether parents are going hungry to feed their children. Same story. Depressing listening.

How We Can Do It Better

Let’s start with some principles that we know and love.

  1. People do not connect with issues – people connect with people.
  2. People connect with other people by recognising their shared values.
  3. People share their values by telling stories that illustrate them (NB – NOT by saying ‘I have value X’, Mr Miliband.)

It is absolutely possible to be a powerful preogressive voice in the media. Some fantastic examples include Frances O’Grady from the TUC, Camila Batmanghelidjh from Kids Company and Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty. So what do they get right?

  • Illustrative stories – what is happening?
  • Clear analysis – why is this happening?
  • Confident communication style – good humour, passion, gravitas, not allowing themselves to be interrupted/thrown off course by others
  • Memorable memes and messages – nice turns of phrase, frames that resonate

Most NGO staff receive some sort of media training – but we need to up our game. How many simulated debates do we practice? How often do we use a real studio for this? How do we defend the strong media advocates when they get attached?

Request For Help

I’ve organised and hosted a couple of small attempts to build these skills in the past (media training + economics for activists workshop), but there is a lot more that we can do.

  • Do you have access to radio/TV studios which could be used for training?
  • Do you have contacts with emerging progressive leaders and spokespeople who will be stronger advocates because of some training?
  • Are you, or do you know, someone who can give high-quality media training and simulate real-life situations?
  • Do you have time and skills to manage and run something like this?
  • Do you have some cash that could help make this all happen?

If the answer to any of those is yes – comment below or email me, caspertk[at]

It’s time to get our shit together.

§ 3 Responses to Progressive Media Commentators – Time To Get Our Shit Together

  • Sunny H says:

    You think Resonance FM might help? They do a lot of progressive/left stuff.

    Might be better aimed around issues too: one day discuss narratives around economy; another day environment etc…

    Also – we do some media training stuff at Netroots – we’ll have a look into this.

  • Two thoughts. First, I think that we’ve lost the big debates to such a large extent (e.g. on the deficit or primacy of economists + idea of trickle down) that our arguments have a lot of heavy lifting to do before we can engage on the topic in hand. That makes it harder than it needs to be.

    Second, I think that the infrastructure doesn’t properly exist to train activists in the rough and tumble of media interviews. Especially in the context of the above, a half day’s media training is never going to cut it. What you really need is a fortnightly training evening for 6 months to really build up the skills. Then, use that group as a forum to start developing the meme’s/frames and group language needed to respond to some of the bigger debates as above.

  • Arseneknows says:

    A little parody I am working on:

    #workfare #spartacusreport Government Strategy Briefing

    General Briefing points (draft – not for publication)

    1/ We will reform the entire welfare system en bloc.

    1.1 This will allow us to conflate the more contentious areas of reform with those that are easier to defend

    1.1.1 When talking about the welfare bill always quote the figure including pensions

    1.1.2 When using statistics do NOT break them down

    1.1.3 The Home Secretary has supplied useful information on the involvement of some hard left trotskyists, should protests seem to be gaining wider support we will present these people as the face of the opposition. Influential commentators and supportive organisations are already on board. After they have made known the involvement of these people those who disagree with the policies we announce can be dismissed as hard-left extremists, the press will be interviewing and publicising them and thus we create a circular argument whereby the more they are publicised the more important they seem thus crowding out the other constituents of the opposition.

    1.1.4 In order for the PR strategy to work do not be seen talking to anyone in a wheelchair or with an obvious disability unless previously cleared with DWP. If unavoidable then grin, be polite and shrug off any questions with the usual meaningless stock phrases.

    1.1.5 You have all received statistics packs (FREUD-LIE 1) each of the packs are slightly different to make analysis more difficult. The vast majority of the public won’t be interested so the idea is just to keep a lid on it by turning important areas of policy into a dry debate over figures. If confronted make sure to use a figure that could be correct but which may not necessarily answer the question no matter how often the question is repeated offer the same answer this allows a claim of misunderstanding if interest hots up.

    2/ Unemployment and Housing Benefits

    2.1 On unemployment we will use the strategy that worked in the 1830’s by blaming the unemployed for being unemployed. The key concepts we want to get across have already gained currency, of course we are not able to use many of them but we can talk about ‘thieves’, ‘fraud’,’ cheats’ and the term taxpayer can be used to imply that those on benefits are not working. To show the government’s heart is in the right place we can also point out that if there was less fraud we could treat the deserving case better because we believe in looking after those who need it; a hand up not a hand out.

    2.2. When talking about the unemployed use the supplied briefing document (IDS-LIE 1)

    2.2.1. Do not explain how income figures are calculated (eg unemployed household including universal benefits v single earner excluding universal benefits)

    2.2.2 Do not give a number for those who receive these theoretical £100,000 payments (they are extremely low).

    2.2.3 Do not give a geographical breakdown that will show that all the figures being quoted are from the 2 most expensive boroughs in London. Do not give the average figures for housing benefit either for a particular area or for the nation as a whole. The benefit cap is £26,000 which equates to a ‘working’ person earning £35,000. If any1 queries the fairness the response is that £500 / week of ‘taxpayers’ money should be enough for anyone and that if they can’t afford to live in an area they should move out. You have a right to help but not a right to exploit the system. Stories about Somalis in £2 million pound mansions are to be the stock example; no mention of the old lady whose house has become unaffordable because we built an Olympic village and an international rail terminal on the doorstep.

    2.3 Back to Work Programmes are to be presented as a solution to scroungers on the one hand but as an educational opportunity on the other.

    2.3.1 It is absolutely imperative that you follow the briefing note provided (GRAY-LIE 1)

    2.3.2 Under no circumstances will the word workfare be used except when attacking its use by opponents

    2.3.3 When talking about the schemes they are not voluntary; they are ‘completely voluntary’ or ‘entirely voluntary’

    2.3.4 Do NOT dwell on the majority of schemes which are not voluntary

    2.3.5 Packs have been distributed to the usual people with detailed examples those most useful to our argument eg drinkers, smokers, single women especially if they are unsympathetic / or uneducated, examples using immigrants or ethnic minorities are also to be emphasised and Eastern Europeans will also fit into our European policy strand.

    3/ Disability

    3.1 This is the area in which we could have the most problems unless we handle it correctly.

    3.1.1 DWP will be taking a strong lead on this. A dossier containing information on scroungers is being prepared (MILLER-LIE 1). This will focus on those claiming benefits when it is very evident that they are criminals eg playing sports

    3.1.2 You will see that you should avoid wherever possible giving the impression that disability benefits are not means tested DO NOT MENTION THAT THE PRIME MINISTER WAS CLAIMING
    This will be backed up with stories of millionaires etc who are claiming disability benefits.

    3.1.3 The figures supplied are again not broken down thus allowing demographic changes and other factors that would tend to dilute our message to be ignored.

    3.14 Certain bald assertions should be emphasised eg more than x thousand have been on
    disability benefits for more than 10 years. Do not qualify such statements; if the public cannot work out that somebody who has, for example, been born seriously disabled may quite rightly be on such benefits for decades it’s not our job to spoon feed them.

    Other strategy briefings will be held on a regular basis. The next meeting will give a brief overview dealing with young people, children and pensioners

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