Thursday, 22 September 2011

Manufacturing Voting Consent

The JEP leader sounded off about the importance of the hustings:

Although the hustings remain an essential part of the electoral process, it must be said that live appearances before parish hall audiences are now only part of a much wider campaigning process. Traditional platform speeches and question and answer sessions have long been accompanied by newspaper and broadcast media coverage, but new means of communication are now very much parts of the campaign landscape. Websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter allow election hopefuls to issue an incessant stream of information - or disinformation - to the electorate should they wish to do so.

It is, meanwhile, easy to make a case for the continuing primacy of the hustings as a means of weighing up the suitability of candidates. Crafting a lucid manifesto or firing off tweets are skills which, in their separate ways, can enrich the campaign, but a candidate's true mettle is revealed only when he or she stands up in public to speak and then face probing questions. (1)

I love the sly dig at "disinformation" from online sources, as if the JEP was unbiased and impartial!

I would also be interested to know whether the "packed Parish Hall" with, I am reliably informed, standing room only left, ever has such numbers that people had to be turned away because of fire regulations.

More than 200 people attended the meeting and there was standing room only at the Parish Hall, with several people standing in the lobby behind the assembly room to hear the candidates speak. (2)

Channel TV had a slightly different estimate:

More than 250 people turned out for Jersey's first senatorial hustings at St Clement's Parish Hall last night. (4)

With such variation, I suspect that no proper headcount was taken, and it was purely a guess based on a rough count of the number of seats, and the people standing, always tricky when the seats are occupied.

I would have thought, going by comparison with UK Parish Halls, that no more than around 300 would be allowed inside - it would be interesting to know what the regulations are, or if anyone has bothered to check. So while it was a good many people, it was not a massive amount compared to the whole population of St Clement, one of the most densely populated Parishes. It has 6,167 electors (3), so 3% turned out to the hustings.

I have heard candidates - both those whom I've supported, and whom I've disagreed with - both say similar things - that the response to them was good in the hustings, and they find it strange that this was not reflected in the vote. But it isn't that strange at all.

What the JEP falls to say is that it is the presentation of the hustings, to the widest public, which in fact probably means their own newspaper, which guides the public perception. And how those hustings are reported on, with two or three hours condensed down to three or even four pages will make a difference. In the old days, the JEP would have pretty well all reportage, with perhaps one photo, but now the photos abound, each grabbing space from what is reported. So there is a selection process at work.

This is plainest to see in the way in which - beside a photograph showing Sir Philip Bailhache centre stage, the report opens with:

THE Senatorial hustings campaign began in St Clement last night with former Bailiff Sir Philip Bailhache launching an attack on the current crop of States Members. (2)

That is called "framing" a presentation, and it has its own kind of bias, which focuses primarily on one of the candidates to the detriment of the others.

And that's also all the online version has to say, so you have to buy the paper to see what it reports the other candidates as saying, making in part a précis, and livening that with the odd direct quotation. But is the summary accurate? How much weight is given to different answers? You would have to be at the Hustings to assess that, and have a very good memory.

The inability to decide what happened at the nomination meeting with the declaration of Geoff Southern's convictions shows just how poor that ability is. People today do not have good memories for anything other than sound-bites, and the ability to listen to a good reasoned argument (if there were time for such) and remember it has gone. We have lost that skill.

Candidates learn to speak in brief sound bites, and advertisements are increasingly limited in length. Neither affords the opportunity for any sustained political reasoning, even if the candidates were inclined to reason. (6)

The reporting of the candidates short speeches is mostly complete, as can be seen by comparison with the online record of them at Voice for Jersey:

This is probably because the candidates were reading from prepared speeches, and it was easy enough for the JEP to obtain a copy. There are a few changes between the spoken and written word, but nothing of substance.

The BBC presentation on their website is much briefer.

Candidates were questioned about radioactive gas, States reform and the best things about Jersey at the first hustings of the election campaign...Questions from the public ranged from what the candidates would do to help individuals to whether a referendum should be binding on the States...Planning and building issues were also brought up by candidates in the opening speeches.

The photo is a general one of the hall with none of the JEP's prominence given to Sir Philip Bailhache, either in the photo or the reporting, which is pretty basic, and only tells you what questions were asked, not the replies.

There is no mention of any of the candidates in person, with one singular and notable exception - Chris Whitworth, who did not attend, but had a large cardboard cut-out in his place. I don't know if he will keep up this strategy, and his manifesto on has a photo of himself gurning to the camera, but it seems likely he is trying hard to become Jersey's answer to Screaming Lord Such, and will almost certainly finish last.

The Channel Report online summary was also brief, and only mentioned two candidate:

Not all the candidates presented manifestos - Chris Whitworth chose to present a cardboard cutout of himself on his seat instead. Darius Pearce, who announced he would not be attending the hustings because he believed they are not useful, did turn up. (4)

Public perception is not, I would imagine, largely made up from hustings meetings, which is why those standing are sometimes taken aback when hustings popularity does not translate into votes. If they are in the States, there is a past record to account for, and manifestos won't dwell on the less favourable actions by States members! Posters shove the faces of those standing with names, so that is another form of endorsement.

But by far one of the most powerful is probably the JEP. Back in 1948, it was blatantly telling people who to vote for. Times change, and the paper must be less obviously biased, but do not doubt that they are still in the business of manufacturing consent for their slate, even if it is no longer on public display quite so obviously, as nowadays it would probably turn people away from some candidates:

Bias in the news that favors one candidate over another may influence voters' perceptions of the candidates and can even affect their voting decisions. News coverage that is perceived as being biased may also be ignored or discounted by voters. (5)

But the presentation is still one of "honest brokers" between government and people, and presenting the hustings to the readership. However, the reportage has to be summarised, and that leads to selection, so that there is not and cannot be complete objectivity. How the selection is made will be determined by the bias of the editor and his team, and either consciously or unconsciously that will be effected by their own preferences. It is certainly clear there is a bias towards Sir Philip Bailhache in the reporting by the JEP (although that may be in part, at least, caused by his name being first alphabetically, so he is called first to speak):

Only selected stories are covered by the media, and one outlet may pursue one or another theme or topic that is ignored by another outlet. The news is not a blank slate upon which events are writ, but a construction of reality where organizational needs, personal judgments, and events meet in setting the day's stories (7)

The other problem, of course, is that the media tend to reflect the inability to process information except where it is in a short "sound bite", so that even where there is reporting, complex arguments get cut in favour of shorter bites that the reporter believes captures what the candidate is trying to say.

Increasingly shorter sound bites on television news and presentation of "nuggetized factoids" devoid of historical or political context in all media may lead to processing information episodically rather than reflectively (6)

This trend has, of course, been going on for some time. In 1983, Bishop John Taylor talked about the inability to listen, the way in which we tune out and block what we don't want to hear, and the failing to remember well what someone has said.

Human beings are losing the skill of communication: which is a paradox, for communications are undergoing a revolutionary expansion... And enriched with, almost drowned by, sources of information, where do we find time for reflection on it? How good are we at actually getting sense out of it? Where can we arrive at a mature understanding of the information we receive? Are we as good as our grandparents at hearing what folks say? at remembering what they say? (8)

I don't know what the solution is, but perhaps instead of classes in self-help, improvements, meditative techniques, etc, there might be classes in listening, recall, memory, reflection. In everyday life extensive listening to others is not the 'norm'.  As Annie Parmeter said:

active listening and minimal non-interpretative intervention is in itself an enormous contradiction to the usual climate of interaction found in everyday life

What we need is to improve skills for active listening to others, including restating, summarising, asking for clarification, and to some extent, run counter to the culture of our times. That, I think, rather that the "calibre" of candidates (as presented by themselves or in the media) will lead to an improvement in political engagement and debate. It's not a quick fix, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

(5) Media Messages in American Presidential Elections. Diana Owen, 1991
(6) Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. J Bryant, D. Zillmann, 2002
(7) The Psychology of Media and Politics, George Comstock and Erica Scharrer, 2005
(8) JV Taylor at the Diocesan Conference (Ephphatha) held in 1983
(9) Memories, Dreams and Insights, Annie Parmeter, 2010

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