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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fighting Smears

Labour leadership contender, Huw Lewis has joined in my criticism of anonymous smears today with a report in this morning's Western Mail of a speech he gave in Aberavon last night.

He told activists that Welsh politics is contaminated with a dangerous obsession with attacking personalities at the expense of promoting ideas. He went on to say that rampant attacks on leading figures within the Welsh political establishment are so routine a scandal along the lines of Downing Street’s “smeargate” e-mail controversy would barely register:

Mr Lewis said: “There is something rotten at the heart of Welsh politics today.

“The battle for ideas has been subsumed by the battle of personalities, and we must use the McBride affair as a vital wake-up call.

“The actions that made up ‘smeargate’ were outrageous, totally unforgivable, but the idea that this is confined to one room, to one party, indeed to Westminster alone is clearly nonsense. In fact I would say that had this scandal been uncovered in Wales, nobody in the know in Cardiff Bay would have been surprised in the slightest.

“I accept totally the argument from journalists that off the record briefing is important, even vital, to political discourse, but it should be in addition to, not instead of, a proper debate on ideas.

“Personal and anonymous attacks drive far too much of political argument in Wales; ideas count for too little.

“We need to reverse that otherwise we will never deliver the devolution dividend this country so badly needs.”

Citing recent examples where he said anonymous smears had overshadowed politically important debate, Mr Lewis continued: “Think about the driving force behind the Nick Bourne iPod stories, or the disgraceful slurs aimed at Kirsty Williams during the Lib Dem leadership contest, the anonymously-run Plaid attack blogs, or the negative internal briefing suffered for years by Ieuan Wyn Jones.

“These are all stories generated internally by political parties, anonymously run through the media. What does it add to people’s lives in Wales?"

Huw is absolutely right. The Cardiff Bay bubble is very small and the people inside it sometimes lose perspective. It is only right that we are subject to a reality check every now and again.
Politics is and always has been a dirty business.
Media has always been used to attack political figures and propagate political propaganda since the invention of the printing press. You only have to read some of the 'anonymous' leaflets that have been distributed since the time of Jonathon Swift to know that there is a 'dishonorable' tradition of 'smearing' by underground media established for centuries. The Internet is now the vehicle for this stuff.
Huw Lewis and other politicians are being incredibly naive to be whinging about this. Get over it.

Debate about political ideas/dogma will find an outlet through TV and media. These ideas are always associated with Personalities of some sort whether it be Nye Bevan or Lenin or Margaret Thatcher or Lembit Opik. They are fire-tested in a crucible of local issues and politics. This is standard human psychology stuff. People are not going to vote for people they don't like or trust no matter what flavour their fancy politics of ideas. This would be obvious to a LibDem such as you.

The reason Welsh people are taking to blogging is that there is no proper media outlet in Wales. The Western Mail's sole reason for existance is to carry adverts from the WAG and write about rugby. Any of the fine traditions,staffing and reportage by regional newspapers in Wales has long been eroded or extinguished. As to the TV there is practically no coverage at all of things that are important to Wales and this, as you know, has been the subject of numerous 'reviews' complaints etc. Dragon's Eye is so constrained by BBC guidelines of impartiality and innocuous presentation as to be toothless. Bottom line is that there is no outlet for expression of public outrage or even valuable political 'ideas'.

The early days of the Labour Movement in the valleys of S.Wales (see books by Gwyn Thomas) illustrate well how good people trapped by harsh circumstance can organise into a political force - this is admirable and the way societies can change and move forward. However it is now a totally new paradigm - personalities are now the dominant factor. Barack Obama does not exemplify a political ideology or politics of ideas. Like many successful politicians of the past he is a superb orator and attractive personality - he would be very difficult to 'smear' no matter how hard the Republicans may have tried even with the new media tools such as Fox News and Internet.

Labour have destroyed themselves by 'troughing' and by being out of touch both on the ground and in the 'blogosphere'. Why haven't the Lib Dems (or even Plaid) taken their place? It's not because of a dearth of good political ideas it's because you haven't yet found a forceful or engaging enough personality around whom your party can gather.

I predict the future break up of all parties and the rise of many Independents who rely on their 'personality' to gather populism and votes. You see this happening already in council elections. The block of independent often 'single issue' councillors in Sir Gaerfyrddin is rapidly outgrowing the party ideology affiliated members. These people 'engage' with their people either in person or now using new media tools. I cannot remember the last time a Labour politician took time to 'press the flesh' of a local constituent in my neck of the woods - except when they want my vote just before an election when they bombard/spam my letterbox with poorly produced semi-literate leaflets depicting a passport photo of some idiot I wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley or down at the mart.
Odd how I never heard a peep out of Huw Lewis or any other Labour politicans when the - now happily defunct - (anti)Welsh Mirror was disgracefully and relentlessly attacking Plaid members and Welsh speakers on a daily basis. Who can forget the notorious Paul Starling.

I remember the Welsh Mirror calling Cymdiethas Yr Iaith, ‘an extremist group’, the pressure group made up of mothers and toddlers, young students and pensioners, everyone from all walks of life. Mmm, I guess that’s one extremist group you don’t want to mess around with. I mean they are so similar to Al-Qeada its frightening!

I knew a few members of the pressure group, one happens to be a retired Police officer, a primary school teacher and a librarian, I could see this crazed mob storming the HQ of the Mirror and refusing to leave until Starling swung from the nearest lamppost.
Politics is and always has been a dirty business. You only have to read some of the 'anonymous' leaflets that have been distributed since the time of Jonathon Swift to know that there is a 'dishonorable' traditionand that's why there has been a law against anonymous publication in this country since Victorian times (at least).

Get over it.No way. I'm a liberal, not an anarchist.

The reason Welsh people are taking to blogging is that there is no proper media outlet in Wales.Now there we are approaching agreement. The monopolising of the print medium in virtually all of Wales by one or two conglomerates is not healthy.

As to aggressive coverage of Welsh politics on TV, Mai Davies survives - just - but the next round of ITV cuts (I assume the only serious terrestrial challenge to BBC will not be allowed to fail entirely) may see the end of local news and comment.
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