EU Referendum

Media: owning the agenda


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Autonomous Mind
today takes a jaundiced look at triumphalism of David Rose in the Mail on Sunday, and claims of how the paper "defiantly leads the way in exposing menace of eco-propaganda".

We, of course, welcome the intervention of the MoS in the climate change and energy debates, with its ability to bring them to a wider audience. But, as AM rightly observes, the paper came late to the table, its work is largely derivative, and it is focusing on issues that have long since been brought front and centre by others.

This, as we have remarked many times, it a general characteristic of the media, where they feel impelled to "own" a subject before they will engage with it, arrogantly projecting themselves as the only labourers in the vineyard.

On the other hand, many will assert that this does not matter – what is important is that a subject is widely aired. But there is a more fundamental issue here, signalled by the very frequency with which the media seek to take control of the agenda.

The issue is, of course, precisely that word, "control". For commercial and political reasons, the legacy media is anxious is to establish and then retain its grip on the agenda. That is the source of its power and influence. Thus, it talks up its own importance and the centrality of its role, all in an attempt to bolster its own authority.

Arguably, on the basis that so much of the media adopt it, this strategy works. But the result is a sort of "bidding war", where communicators must devote an increasing amount of their time to "blowing their own trumpets", just to get above the noise level. Eventually, one supposes, this reaches such a peak that it absorbs every last bit or energy, leaving no room for original thought.

The more serious problem, though, is the false ally. Dredged from my memory is a half-remembered quotation, the source of which I cannot recall. It goes to the effect that a good case badly argued by an ally can do more harm than an attack from an enemy.

Thus, when the media monopolise an argument, and do it badly, it can do more harm that good. This we see with David Rose when it comes to energy. Without him really understanding the issues – and there are very few who have put the work in to expand their knowledge – we get him referring to "huge reserves of cheap, clean shale gas", as if this was the answer to our problems.

Against that, it is by no means pedantry to insist that people refer to our shale gas as a "resource", distinct from the technical term "reserve", which describes that which is economically recoverable. As it stands, while there is a huge resource, technically our reserves are as close to nil as makes no difference. It has not yet been established whether any of the resource is economically recoverable.

What will make a huge impact on that equation is the regulatory cost. And, when it comes to leading the way in exposing not the "menace of eco-propaganda" but the far greater menace of eco-activism, it is undoubtedly Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph and myself on this blog who have been leading the way. The Mail on Sunday have not begun to wake up to this threat.

There is, of course, a personal element to this. We would not be human if we did not want wider recognition of our work. But being grown-up also means we are able to get over it - it would be nice, but it is not important. What is more frustrating is that the legacy media, trailing along behind while claiming to lead, is both a distraction and a bed-blocker.

When the media sets its stall out to grab the agenda, it does get attention. Its weight and prestige then tends to drown out the more urgent and important issues found on minority platforms, to the detriment of the fight as a whole.

Sadly, there is no complete remedy to this. However, some of it does lie with readers, but only if they choose to empower themselves. Individually, they can decide to promote minority platforms on the social media. These are the places where there is an equality of arms, where the pretensions of the legacy media can be challenged and the "playing field" levelled.

That is one of the reason why so many of my own readers encourage me to take an active role on Twitter. But, from my perspective, when you add the time taken to write posts on the blog – and expand into The Harrogate Agenda - to manage and respond to my own forum, to keep my Facebook pages up-to-date, and then to keep on top of Twitter, I wonder when I'm supposed to sleep.

Clearly, though, the democratising potential of the social media is being under-used. And if the majority of users continue to allow the legacy media to set the agenda, responding to it instead of setting their own, the new media simply becomes a slave of the old.

By and large, the legacy media have already damaged the independent political blogosphere, and are capable of capturing the social media, using it as an extension of their marketing effort. Whether that happens is up to users. They can accept the lead from the legacy media and become followers, or they can exploit the democratising potential and set their own agendas.

So far, though, I have to say that I see more followers than leaders. People seem content to fashion their own chains. But if they are, they cannot blame the legacy media.  This is something people are doing to themselves.