Sunday 29 June 2008

A Fifth Estate? The Internet community acting as media corrective in David Davis's resignation

I largely missed the news of David Davis's resignation. At the time, I was being filmed for a BBC Six O'Clock News reconstruction for the "intelligence officer loses documents on train" story - I played the role of: 'the arm of the intelligence officer'. (This sort of thing happens if you sit around at the BBC not looking sufficiently busy and wearing a smart-ish suit).

But anyway, I more criminally also missed the media reaction to David Davis's resignation over the extension of the terror detention limit to 42 days and what appears to be quite a significant moment in the history of commenters, emailers and bloggers acting as a corrective to media coverage in the UK.

It seems that the mainstream media significantly misjudged the story and the public response to David Davis's resignation. They then quickly backtracked as it became clear from blog posts, comments and emails that they had got it wrong. (So apologies that this post is a couple of weeks out of date but it's useful for me to catch up even if everyone else has moved on...)

Here's the evidence, with a hat tip to Rachel North for getting me started.

Rachel North notes that the Sun's editorials went from vitriolic:
  • Friday 13 June: "HAS David Davis gone stark raving mad? How else can we explain his silly act of self-styled martyrdom?"

To he's 'still got a massive ego...but'
  • Monday 16 June: "WHATEVER David Davis says about noble causes, flouncing out of Parliament is no way for a senior player in a potential government to carry on....Annoyingly, though, it is hard to disagree with the cause Davis has decided to embrace."
And finally, to whole-hearted endorsement:
  • Tuesday 17 June, Fergus Shanahan: "I respect Davis for defending freedom" - "Davis has quit his Tory post over the 42-day detention limit. His enemies say he has made a bad miscalculation. I’m not sure he has. Although Davis is mocked in Parliament, the mood in the country is different. Davis has hit the nail on the head."

But the Sun wasn't the only one who misjudged the mood in the country:
  • Michael White on Comment is Free, The Guardian 12 June: David Davis resignation: a stunt and an ego trip
  • By 13 June Michael White was quoting Tory MPs who thought the resignation was "egotist", "self-indulgent", "loner" and "quixotic", but included a section about how "resigners' motives are usually high-minded".
  • Here's Peter Wilby on various other commentators initial reactions...
    • "Davis was guilty of "flawed judgment, erratic temperament and unrestrained ego", raged the Times leader. His behaviour was "egregiously self-serving", his resignation statement "weary rhetoric".
    • The Guardian's Julian Glover thought Davis's decision the result of "some sort of extraordinary brainstorm".
    • The Telegraph's Iain Martin saw it as "monumentally wrong-headed"
    • The Mirror's Kevin Maguire as "the mother of all bad political stunts"
    • The Independent's Michael Brown as "truly bizarre".
    • And that was just in the papers that agreed with Davis, at least on being against 42-day detentions. On the pro-42 days side, the Sun's headlines were "Davis is a quitter", "Who Dares Whinges" (Davis is a former SAS man, geddit?) and "Crazy Davis"."
By Monday various sections of the media were rapidly rewriting those commentary pieces because of an Internet backlash:
  • Peter Wilby in the Guardian: "But reaction against the dismissive and patronising media tone was sufficiently strong on the internet and in e-mails - the BBC's Nick Robinson reported the corporation was "inundated" with praise for Davis - to cause a certain softening and even backtracking in later press comments."
  • Read Frank Fisher in the Guardian: 'David Davis and the great media U-turn'
  • He links to:
    • Janet Street-Porter in The Independent: "Is David Davis a champion of the people or a shameless self-publicist? Many in the Westminster village quickly dismissed his resignation over the Commons' vote on the detention of suspects for 42 days as a meaningless gesture, but outside the hothouse atmosphere of party politics, there's been a more considered response."
    • William Rees-Mogg in The Times: "Pragmatists may have failed to recognise the impact of his personal declaration or the strength of public feeling on libertarian issues."
So how did the media get it so wrong?

Matthew Parris explains in The Times:
  • "I distrust clich├ęs such as “Westminster village”, but there are occasions when they fit. Within the space of an afternoon a relatively small number of people - MPs, broadcasters, journalists, party hacks - gathered within a relatively confined space and, communicating mostly with each other, worked each other up into a clear, sharp and settled judgment on the question of the hour. By now it was almost unanimous. The judgment was conveyed electronically to the offices of the national press, bouncing back at Westminster in the form of vituperative editorials and opinion columns by dawn the next morning."
And here's Frank Fisher again:
  • "The media sought the easy story - but they also sought what seemed to them the accurate story. They sourced, corroborated, conferred - the angle they decided on was absolutely spot on, but sadly, it was spot on on another planet. When your living depends on your contacts, and your contacts are all party political figures, your stance is always, invariably, coloured by that. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In fact, as we now see, what looked like a nail was in fact a screw-up."
And I sign off this post with some of the comments that might have changed a few minds:

'Wellop' on Michael White's CiF piece:
  • "It's remarkable how disconnected from the general population most politicians and political journalists are. Your piece, Michael, is completely shot through with Westminster village parochialism. In the wider world, what David Davis has done today will be seen by many many people as the least cynical and most principled bit of politics seen in far too long."
And Metroisbetter:
  • "Simply watching a politician that makes a stand makes for a wonderful change.

    Why would someone, by default, turn what at first sight looks like a principled gesture, into a cynical stunt?

    Because of the (cynical) angle of the person who makes the accusation.

    The author of this piece."

Comments on Nick Robinson's blog on the BBC website:

  • "David Davis has given a very clear account of his decision. He has taken a principled stand. Now I know it might be hard for a journalist of your ilk to believe this - but a lot (and looking round the webosphere - a vast majority) of people can see what he has done and support his stand."
Richard Gosling:
  • "You only need to go to Have Your Say to see how much admiration and support David Davis has from the vast majority of the public (or at least BBC News website readers), that we believe this is a genuine principled stand that does Davis nothing but credit, and (for many) gives credit to the Conservative Party just by association with him.

    I have never seen news reporting so out of step with public opinion."
Photo: Steve Punter, under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


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