How Election coverage has made media look dumb
An obsession with frivolous issues such as how Cameron eats hot dogs has done news outlets no favours this week, says our media specialist
The public frequently accuses spin doctors and the media of conspiring to dumb down politics, and this week it was hard to disagree. In fact, if you judge by the most-read stories on news websites from the past few days, frivolous articles have been pumped out with even more emphasis than usual.
Firstly, we had the recurring topic of how politicians consume greasy snacks. This goes back to a flood of interest over how Ed Miliband looked when he ate a bacon sandwich – he even joked about it himself in the televised election show a few weeks ago. Over Easter, David Cameron went to a barbecue and was snapped eating – unsurprisingly – a hot dog. What apparently did surprise people was the way he did it. David Jack of The Times wrote; “What kind of person eats a hot dog with a knife and fork?” Some commentators seemed to try and get some mileage of this by implying that Cameron is too posh to eat food “like a normal person”.
The stories neglect to mention that there’s also a salad on the plate, which, had he eaten this with his hands, would surely have provoked an equally horrified response. The more reasonable coverage simply pointed out that Cameron was trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid the attention that Miliband got before him.
Secondly, we had the furore over a popular story titled “The story of Nigel Farage’s coat”, with one commentator, Rob Blake – head of marketing at clothing manufacturer Crombie – saying: “It's interesting that he doesn’t seem to care [about it]. You could imagine him forgetting it in the pub or it falling on the floor while he has a pint. Clothing seems to be a means to an end for him.” Which might suggest that even Farage isn’t very interested in the story of his coat.
Blake did add that Farage’s coat possessed “sheer Britishness” and surmised that “It's the kind of coat you expect him to wear.” So, it’s very likely that Farage has thought quite carefully about his “look” – or, somewhat more probably, pays people to do that thinking for him.
Thirdly, we had the “child face plant” picture, which implied that six-year-old Lucy Howarth was less than positive about a visit from Cameron to her school. Indeed, the internet took great delight in providing captions to the photo, when of course the real story was rather more innocent.
All these stories are frankly detracting from the real reasons why people should make their decisions when they vote. If the media (and party press teams) are flooding the airwaves with stories about how politicians look, then we’re not thinking about the policies they will carry out if they win. Some people will argue that the parties are all too similar for people to judge between them – but it would be hard to deny that the public are seemingly being pushed into making choices based on looks and style more than anything else.
These days, it’s less “dumbing down of politics” and more “making politicians look dumb”.
Will Edwards is managing director of media training consultancy Bluewood Training.