In politics the worst ideas and most deceitful statements are often the most amplified, and therefore the most successful, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
Back in early 2016, as the UK hurtled towards the Brexit referendum, Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign – now special adviser to Boris Johnson and one of the architects of his electoral triumph – had a problem. Like most political operatives Cummings invested heavily in market research. Who were his available voters? What messages were most impactful at persuading them? His focus groups and online testing showed that when voters were informed that EU membership cost the UK about £150 million a week, most of them were shocked at the sum. “Why can’t we give that money to the NHS?” one focus group member demanded. Cummings tossed that question into his campaign’s next round of tests and found that this message was incredibly persuasive.
His problem was: how could he get that argument into the national media? A news story is, by definition, something new, and the UK had been paying EU membership fees since the 1980s. Nobody in the wider electorate knew about the EU fee, but everyone in the political and media class did. Cummings’ most powerful message had no news value. There was no story.
Until there was. It turned out that when Margaret Thatcher negotiated the UK’s membership fee in 1984 (the Conservatives under Thatcher were pro-Europe; in the previous election Labour campaigned to leave and were heavily defeated) she worked out a rebate. The reasons for this are rather technical, but basically there was a pre-rebate amount which was subjected to a complicated calculation that reduced it by about two thirds, and this reduced amount was the actual membership fee that the UK paid.
So Cummings launched a now infamous campaign arguing that the UK paid £350 million per week: the pre-rebate amount. This message was (a) extremely misleading and (b) extremely newsworthy. Remain campaigners fixated on the accuracy of the statistic – the Leave campaign was lying! – which was exactly what Cummings wanted them to do. By litigating its accuracy his opponents amplified his core message – his “deeper truth”, as he saw it – and the issue his Campaign Leave most wanted to talk about dominated the end weeks of the referendum. Which it won.
Twenty years ago access to media coverage was controlled via the notorious gatekeepers: editors and senior journalists who decided what the news was and who got included or excluded from it. And this system had plenty of downsides but did make it harder for transparently bad actors like Cummings to swing crucial elections in advanced democracies.
As the world keeps reminding us, that media model no longer exists: the news value of a story is no longer defined by its palatability to gatekeepers, or anyone else. Instead, in a world of basically infinite content, news value is created by the ability of a story to maximise audience attention as it competes against rival forms of content: every political story vies for attention against stories about wildfires, Trump, celebrity feuds, evil Daenerys, the relentless white noise of coups, protests, riots, counterrevolutions, along with video games, streaming content, group chats, infinite cats, infinite sports, infinite porn.