Personality politics leaves us ill-informed and apathetic

By Jack Taylor

Donald Trump began his working visit to the UK on Thursday afternoon and by Friday morning we’d already experienced the full effect of his authoritative, direct and at times lackadaisical leadership.

First came comments that the UK was in ‘turmoil’ after Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned over the Prime Ministers proposed soft Brexit. Then came an interview with the Sun that said May had ignored Trump’s advice on Brexit negotiations and that the UK would be at the back of the queue for a trade deal. This was then quickly debunked as ‘fake news’ later on Friday, and the media were told that US/UK relations had never been stronger.

What is striking about the events that have followed Trump’s visit is the focus on the personalities at play and comments made rather than the substantive policy and agreements the UK, US and Europe currently find themselves discussing. When Trump was asked about a ‘hard Brexit’, whilst still at the NATO summit, he misheard it as ‘heartbreaking’ and when corrected went into a rambling statement about how the people voted and that he wasn’t sure they would get what they were promised.

There was no new suggestion of policy for the UK or Europe, no insight into the role the US might play. The leader of the free world said nothing new on what could be a poignant visit during his premiership.

Gage Skidmore- flickr

Maybe this isn’t the place for policy discussion. After all, the visit is about building up a relationship between two leaders and two countries. It wouldn’t play well into the media if Trump went into a ten-minute lecture on the free movement of people post-Brexit. However, the further comments on Boris Johnson’s resignation, May’s leadership and his Scottish golf club have moved the story the media should tell to one of the personalities at play.

Trump’s attacks on Sadiq Khan over terrorism and crime rates were not bound in facts or statistics but in hyperbole. Kahn and MPs met comments with further attacks on Trump, branded as a bigot and in some cases a racist for personally attacking Kahn. That is then what is reported, not the fact that from 2017-2018 the violent crime rate increased in London by 5% or that drug offences fell by 8%.

It could be said that if the news was instead an hour-long lecture on current affairs, rather than the reporting of who said what, that people may be as interested. Donald Trump saying that Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister is a more digestible news article than something that explains every bill passing through parliament this week. To find this out you have to scroll to the bottom of the BBC politics home page for Mark D’Arcy’s article.

We all know that we have the responsibility to vote, but you cannot accurately vote if you are not informed.

But this all leaves us as the population ill-informed on what is actually going on. Put simply, since Trump has been visiting, only one of the BBC politics articles on the main page of 6 has been substantive. It’s a ‘Reality Check’ on whether a US/UK trade deal is possible. The rest are summaries on what was said at differing press events, not the informative pieces the population need at the ballot box. The casual news viewer will miss all the troubles currently happening in Belfast’s Bogside, the ‘hostile environment’ checks being paused by the home office and backbench MPs actually debating the substantive points of the government’s white paper for exiting the EU.

That is what the issue at play here is. We all know that we have the responsibility to vote, but you cannot accurately vote if you are not informed. The turnout in 2017 of 68.6% and the referendum of 72.2% show us that there is around 30% of people that don’t want to vote. Is the lack of substantive debate and engagement making people apathetic?

A survey by Opinium after the referendum showed that 26% of Brexit voters would have voted remain if the referendum was held again. They said they felt misled by undeliverable promises like the £350 million a week for the NHS. It was easy for them to be misled as the population is already misinformed due to our already established personality politics. A 2015 Eurobarometer survey found that UK citizens have the 2nd worse knowledge on the EU and that 84% did not have a ‘decent’ understanding on what the EU was, we simply are not informed. It’s certain that if you do not understand an issue, you’re less likely to participate.

The population are not to be blamed for this. Of course, the individual could do copious research on every issue to have a formed opinion but that is the role of the media. They should take current affairs and digest them into accessible pieces that inform the electorate, rather than the case in the Brexit campaign when many focused on promises from parties as fact.

Tony Blair once said that “the single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long”. This isn’t necessarily helped when the headlines in newspapers and late night news are reports of hyperbole and cabinet reshuffles reported as if they are reality television.

More should be done by the media, politicians and by individuals to inform those around them

There is still hope though. The BBC publish ‘Reality Check’ articles that attempt to inform people on the facts behind stories, readers of the economist or financial times receive quality analysis and from the Trump protests, we can see engagement in the political world. What is worrying is the day to day accessibility of political news to the masses, the likes of ‘Brenda from Bristol’ from the 2017 election viral video that are fed up with political drama.

More should be done by the media, politicians and by individuals to inform those around them- not just on reporting Trump’s opinion of Theresa May’s leadership style, but on the hard-hitting everyday issues facing ordinary people that, at its best, politics can solve.

Photograph Thomas Splettstoesser

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