Rising above a soundbite general election

Whatever your political persuasion as we approach the UK general election, soundbites and sloganeering can prove empty of real meaning. Giselle Green, head of the Constructive Voices project, suggests ways we might replace slogans with substance

Do you want to throw the remote control at the TV when you hear Theresa May repeat that slogan for the hundredth time since the election was called? Does hearing wannabe MPs (of any parties) trade insults and spew soundbites help you decide who has the right policies to deal with the issues that matter to you?

It’s time for responsible media to take action. Unlike those of us who nerdishly follow every press release and media opportunity of the election campaign, some people may not be aware they’re being intravenously drip-fed slogans that are carefully crafted to capture their vote. Whatever your political persuasion, you can’t help but marvel at the Conservatives’ total mastery of this technique. And despite being ridiculed, for example by voters playing slogan bingo, the infuriating slogans do cut through. Think of all those leave voters explaining how they voted to ‘take back control’.

But now that we’ve reached a stage where a prime minister is openly mocked for crowbarring the same slogans into virtually every interview answer and sentence in her campaign speeches, maybe it’s time for news outlets to come up with a few fresh rules of election engagement.

I’d like to suggest the following:-

1. Stop doing the candidates’ work for them

Political parties are equipped to deliver their own messages directly to voters – via social media, leafleting and canvassing. The media shouldn’t be part of what is effectively an advertising campaign, choosing to include slogans and meaningless quotes in their reports. Is it really that hard to pick a clip that doesn’t involve the words ‘strong’, ‘stable’ or ‘chaos’?

2. Avoid name-calling and personal spats

Boris Johnson may have invented a funny word to launch a cold-blooded attack on Jeremy Corbyn, but it was the media that mainlined it, falling compliantly into place, no doubt exactly as [Australian election strategist and Conservative campaign adviser] Lynton Crosby hoped. That’s not to say fitness for office isn’t an important issue if done in a serious manner and in response to a specific event. But a pre-meditated stream of personal abuse – that’s not on.

3. Call out candidates who pepper interviews with empty slogans

It’s encouraging that journalists and commentators are pushing back, and that more and more interviewers, such as Andrew Marr and Mishal Husain, are drawing attention to sloganeering, albeit with varying degrees of success. Maybe a klaxon is the only solution for candidates who refuse to stop regurgitating slogans. I’m not joking.

Maybe a klaxon is the only solution for candidates who refuse to stop regurgitating slogans

4. Encourage candidates to run positive, rather than negative, campaigns

Make an effort to redress the balance away from candidates attacking their opponents and towards what they are proposing to do. Of course it’s important that all candidates are allowed to vigorously challenge what their opponents have done or are planning, but let’s have more time in reports and interviews asking them about their policies – and scrutinising how they will impact people’s futures in an evidence-based, rather than a press-released, way.

5. Ask about the good in politicians’ opponents

Why not take everyone by surprise and ask politicians which of their opponents’ policies they agree with? This could create potential ground for collaboration rather than following old, adversarial ‘battling’ patterns. In a similarly constructive vein, ask the candidates about the most inspiring or innovative things voters have told them on the campaign trail – and whether they’ve incorporated any suggestions or solutions into their plans.

Make an effort to redress the balance away from candidates attacking their opponents and towards what they are proposing to do

6. Get real on candidates’ appeal

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming someone is the villain and ignore the fact that they may well represent the interests of many voters, as happened very acutely during the EU referendum and US presidential campaigns. Find out why they strike a chord with a section of the public.

7. Empower voters to set the agenda

Ensure it is voters who set the agenda for debates and hustings by prioritising the issues people want to hear about rather than the ones the politicians want to focus on. Ask the voters (crowdsource questions via social media) what are the issues they want examined and what solutions they want to see?

Only by challenging candidates to explain specifically how they’ll deal with particular problems and pinning them down as to which solutions they back can voters be usefully informed about the relative merits of candidates. Moderators of hustings and debates, like interviewers, need to be strict with candidates to ensure they focus more on explaining the impact of their policies than launching attacks on their opponents.

Why not take everyone by surprise and ask politicians which of their opponents’ policies they do agree with?

This type of approach fits with many of the core principles of constructive journalism: looking for evidence of what’s working as well as what’s not, exploring potential solutions as well as their limitations, taking a critical not cynical approach, and engaging with the public.

Only when our news coverage is rooted in facts rather than slogans can we begin to have meaningful debate.

Giselle Green is head of the Constructive Voices project at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Image: The Guardian

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