Engines full of sawdust

There’s a problem when you start viewing everything as a communications issue. “It’s not that what we’re doing is terrible, it’s that we’re not communicating it well enough”.

This is why, from David Cameron’s perspective, Andrew Lansley got the sack. He was replaced with Jeremy Hunt, who has a journalistic background, because he will be better able to “sell” the NHS reforms to the public.

The Health Secretary (unfortunately)

Self-confidence is 90% of sales, and it’s also the easiest emotion to fake. It’s also self-perpetuating, the more your confidence is rewarded, the more confident you will become. The less you will listen to criticism, the less you are likely to be self-confident on the basis of actually being any good at what you do.

People rely on the media to hold politicians to account. The problem is that what qualifies you to be a journalist is, primarily, the ability to communicate. This does not always go hand in hand with knowledge or the ability to understand or make reasoned judgements about things – although many journalists are very capable of all these things.

When the format in which people are ‘held to account’ is – at most – a thirty minute (if that) TV interview, you also get issues around shallowness of questioning – the Jeremy Paxman approach of treating even perfectly reasonable answers as if they’re evasive, pushing for ‘Yes/No’ answers when such an answer is not appropriate. There’s also the fundamentally adversarial nature of this format, which is not so much about calm effective scrutiny, but making for good TV.

You don’t understand things properly by consuming information in media-sized chunks. You understand things by reading in depth over long periods of time, critically appraising your own views, and getting your teeth into details. Priming yourself to spot bullshit when you see it, and always testing what you hear, especially if it supports what you already believe…

Increasingly our governmental masters (masculine word chosen deliberately) are people whose most abundant personal quality is self-confidence, and whose skills are mostly around communicating. Snake oil salesmen in other words…

These are also the skills you find in journalists. Do we want to head towards a world run by people whose understanding of things is fundamentally shallow, who are in turn scrutinised by people whose understanding of things is fundamentally shallow?

This is before you get to the offensive assumption that the audience for this scrutiny is both disinterested and incapable of understanding complexity. It is not the place of the media to effectively censor large quantities of information because they think people are too stupid or ignorant to know it.

So what’s the solution? You are. You personally can take a deeper interest. That’s what democracy is, you’re the boss. But if you hire someone to fix your car for you, you have to make sure you’re equipped to see if they’ve done it well. Otherwise we all drive home with engines full of sawdust.