One of the truly great things about British politics is the depth and breadth of raw talent which can be found at every level of every party and no party. Unfortunately, tired conventions of political discourse are preventing some of that talent from shining through.
One symptom of that fact is that political debate is, perversely, becoming ever less authentic at a time when distrust of political spin has never been greater.
During my eight years of lowly support of the Liberal Democrats, I often saw the party try to use its own campaigning tactics on itself. Candidates for internal elections would get off to a “flying start” as bar charts intoned that it was a “two horse race.” Fundraisers would assure campaigners that the candidate of the day had “asked me to call you.” A blue-ink, blue paper envelope would flop on to the mat and transpire not to be a hand-written missive lovingly etched on Basildon Bond, but a mass-produced, low cost, begging note.
This tendency of all the parties to recycle their external tactics in their internal machinations is no more clearly evident than on the party ‘home’ sites (one of which I used to run) where ghost writing is rife. Take three examples:
- On the day that Conservative Home attacked the NHS bill, Baroness Warsi wrote a defence of the legislation on the same site
- Just a few days after being appointed Secretary of State for the Environment, Ed Davey found time to write a lengthy blog post on Lib Dem Voice
- There was a time when Ed Miliband himself would write up a review of PMQs forLabour List
If any one of those pieces was written by its supposed author, I will eat a copy of Who’s Who?
Ghost writing debases these sites which are intended for authentic public debate as well as party communications.
It’s understandable why the sites allow it – to a shallow degree it gives them credibility. You’ve probably seen at least one local newspaper culpably splash “PM WRITES EXCLUSIVELY FOR CHIPPING GAZETTE” around election time, on receipt of an article ghost-written by the regional press officer. Yes it’s a bit seedy, yes they know the PM has never been near it, but sales are sales and this puts Chipping’s own rag right up there with the Daily Telegraph. Yawn.
It is almost possible to explain away this practice in mass media platforms, where it is deeply ingrained, but on sites written by party supporters for party supporters ghost writing is simply wrong. Here are three of the big problems:
In an age of direct, authentic communication – where seemingly every journalist, politico, or even footballer is on Twitter – this audience know when they are being fed bullshit, and most simply disengage when it happens. Political ghost writing is a practice which is often transparently false, and thus inherently pointless.
It’s a missed opportunity to promote talent. The people writing these articles are often the researchers, aides, and wonks who have great influence but little profile. They are the future leaders of their parties, living in the shadows of today’s top brass. Their contributions would be no less valid if they were given an honest byline, and most party supporters would welcome the authenticity.
Far from lending the sites credibility, often ghost writing cheapens the subsequent debate. If they bother to respond at all, party hacks and politicos argue their case in a comments thread which is rarely graced by the supposed author, who often receives only the condensed gist of the replies third-hand, if indeed they receive anything at all.
It is impossible to transform political debate overnight, but that shouldn’t prevent a small step in the right direction. The sites can find a way forward which is right for them individually – perhaps they could keep their big name bylines, but credit the true author with ‘additional reporting’ in the footer. Is it too radical to hope they could simply refuse to accept another ghost written piece ever again?
For the sake of everyone who could be engaged in politics, but who is turned off by blatantly phoney and incredible articles, I can only hope someone decides to change their approach soon.