Liberal Democrat commentators in the media

x2_c54b516Yesterday’s Week in Westminster on Radio 4 has generated a little bit of a spat in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere. Not so much because of what was said, but because of who said it.

The BBC was looking to hear some grassroots Liberal Democrat opinion. The two contributors to the programme were Ben Ramm and Nick Thornsby. Presumably these were intended to be views from the left and the right respectively, but you never can tell.

The media’s repeated willingness to offer Ben Ramm opportunities to air his views on party matters is curious, given that to the best of anyone’s knowledge he hasn’t been in the party for quite a while. It is even more puzzling than their insistence on asking Mark Littlewood for his views on the state of the party. At least Littlewood did at one time hold a key post at LDHQ, even if he hasn’t for quite some time now.

But we already know about the Ramm problematic.

The spat I have in mind is Gareth Epps’ criticisms of Nick Thornsby, whose position he summarises thus:

Nick Thornsby … to my knowledge is known solely as an opinionated blogger and has not held any office in the party. He represents no-one.

That seems more than a bit harsh.

In political terms I am probably as far away from Thornsby as it’s possible to be and still be in the same party, so I have no sectional interest in defending him. Indeed, I am closer to Gareth’s views on most matters political. But it is clear that as one of the editors of Liberal Democrat Voice Thornsby has a profile. He’s won the BOTY. Presumably that’s what gets him the epithet “opinionated”. It was also equally apparent that his work is in the process of bridging the gap between the blogosphere and the mainstream media. So it is hardly a surprise that he pops up in the media, following the path of several previous Liberal Democrat Voice editors before him.

This got me thinking more broadly. Who can sensibly speak for “the grassroots” or represent Liberal Democrat views in the media?

Gareth clearly feels that it should be someone who holds office within the party. Presumably holding office can’t include being a leading member of one of groupings within the Liberal Democrats – Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Reform or Liberal Left. On that criterion, as a prime mover behind Liberal Reform, Nick Thornsby would seem to be fully qualified. As would someone like Charlotte Henry, who also crosses our screens occasionally. So holding office must mean something more like being on FPC or FCC. But I do wonder whether reaching the dizzy heights of FPC almost by definition means that you’re starting to be sucked into the Westminster bubble and you’re no longer a “pure” representative of the grassroots, if that is what is required.

That raises the question of what it is that the BBC or other media outlets are looking for when they invite Liberal Democrats to comment. Are they asking people for their views as intelligent and engaged media-friendly Liberal Democrat members who don’t necessarily have a particular line into what’s happening among the leadership of the party? Or are they looking for insights into what’s happening among Clegg and his entourage? Are they looking for someone to give a view on what “liberal democrats” or “the Liberal Democrats” think on an issue?

Are commentators speaking as liberal democrats – unconstrained by today’s Lines to Take – or for the Liberal Democrats – obliged to toe the party line?

The latter would tend to imply that one needs to have some sort of position near the top of the party to offer any meaningful insight. The interpretation of the former, I guess, depends on whether you are offering an individual view or a view that is constructed as representing something broader – “the grassroots”.

Of course, the subtleties of these distinctions may well be completely lost on the audience – or the broadcaster for that matter. And, unless you happen to be a particularly influential individual, broadcasters are unlikely to be hugely interested in your views without some accompanying claim that those views provide some broader insight into what’s going on or what a broader group of people think. You have to be, however loosely, representing something.

If you look across the Liberal Democrats outside the Parliamentary party who have some profile in the mainstream media, then their position often originates in the blogosphere as close watchers of Liberal Democrat affairs and political affairs more broadly. They may have held some sort of office in the party. Or they may not. You might think of Mark Park. Stephen Tall, or Mark Thompson in the broadcast media. Or Richard Morris, Prateek Buch or Gareth Epps himself in the mainstream “print” media. It doesn’t seem to me that Nick Thornsby is noticeably less qualified than several of these other Liberal Democrat members to offer a view on proceedings.

And a media encounter with any one of those commentators will undoubtedly offer more that I, as a mere grassroots member, can agree with than would be contained in the entirety of another truly teeth-grinding interview with Danny Alexander.

Perhaps a bigger issue is that if people took that list commentators as indicative of the Liberal Democrat grassroots then it would suggest the Liberal Democrats comprise primarily highly articulate middle-class men, the majority of whom are white. There is a selection effect in operation here, for sure. And you certainly find Liberal Democrat women appearing in the media. I mentioned Charlotte Henry above. Others, such as Daisy Benson, can also be encountered on screen. But, unless I’ve missed something (which I admit is perfectly possible*), the Liberal Democrat “grassroots” presence in the media is less diverse than would be desirable. In fact, with Olly Grender and Miranda Green having had significant media profiles, the party perhaps does slightly better in terms of diversity among those who are reading the runes from within the bubble than from without.

But then diversity, or lack of it, is a problem we’re all – at the top or the bottom of the party – only too well aware of already.

* In particular, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve missed Caron Lindsay’s appearances on the msm.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Image: Author’s own photograph, BBC Radio studio, Swansea.

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9 replies »

  1. can there possibly be someone else gareth has in mind to be interviewed by the BBC ??

  2. Well that thought had certainly crossed my mind … but then I couldn’t quite put my finger on who it might be …

  3. Leaving aside Mr MrGrath’s typically pathetic personal sniping, the point I was making was: with the BBC insisting on using ‘Liberal Democrat’ voices who by not being members are nothing of the kind, such as Ramm or Mark Littlewood, they are essentially conning the audience. I am similarly suspicious of anyone who appears from nowhere and gets quoted in this manner.

    The point about diversity, though, is well-made. There are countless people who could be featured if the media wanted to interview those representative of the wider world – the Social Liberal Forum through my co-Chair Naomi and our Director Prateek does pretty well in this respect, I think. But of course media organisations who would rather talk to ex-members who ran now-defunct magazines are only accountable through blogs (etc.)

  4. Alex,

    This is an interesting piece, so at least Gareth’s post has achieved something.

    Most of the time I don’t know why I am invited onto the TV or radio instead of somebody else. Sometimes it’s because others aren’t available and they’ve given the producer my details. Sometimes they contact a few people and the first to get back to them gets the gig.

    One thing I consciously try and avoid whenever I do these things is to try and “represent” other party members. As Gareth says I am not elected, and even if I were I would still not presume to speak for other party members. Being involved with Lib Dem Voice does give one a flavour of what members are thinking, not least because of the surveys that the site carries out, and also from corresponding with members from across the spectrum. So I sometimes (if asked) try and give an insight into what members might think where I can. But I try and make it clear that it is a personal opinion.

    The diversity point is a good one, and I don’t have an answer or any particular insight. I’ll think about it, though.

  5. Alex,

    Likewise, an interesting piece. Following on from Nick’s comment about Liberal Democrat Voice, the Editorial team are rather more visible and easier to find than most other Liberal Democrats, simply because the media use both LDV and, less commonly, Lib Dem Blogs to follow the internal debate within the Liberal Democrats, even more so now that Liberal Democrat News is no more. And, of course, there are enough examples of the team’s writing to be able to judge their ability to be coherent.

    I will admit that, as a now pretty much inactive member of the editorial team, I did no media at all, a matter entirely of personal preference, which left the rest of the team to pick up the slack. I don’t really have a face for television, and my professional life does not sit easily with the role of media pundit. And, of course, when the call comes, that means that someone has to do it.

    On the diversity point, blogging has been a route into the media for a number of Liberal Democrats, particularly those who have been recognised by receipt of awards. But the evidence of Lib Dem Blogs is that the majority of active bloggers are male, the media who interview are predominantly male and that male domination is perpetuated as a result. As an ethnic minority blogger, I wonder about the absence of ethnic minority Liberal Democrats in the media, but that’s another debate altogether.

    And, finally, Gareth doesn’t like Liberal Democrat Voice, or the poor unfortunate souls who run it. His attack on Nick is entirely predictable, and consistent with his approach to LDV over some years now. So, no surprise that he begrudges Nick the right to express an opinion that could better be expressed by someone he deems more worthy.

    Ah well, such is life…

  6. As others have said, I think there’s a big difference between the two here. Nick has a strong profile through LDV and as you say is a fair and credible commentator on Liberal Democrat debate and opinion. Even though I don’t always agree with all his opinions, he expresses himself extremely well and is somebody I’m happy to hear from. I obviously declare an interest as an LDV colleague, but even if I weren’t,I would still be happy with Nick being one of the pool of people that the media contact.

    When it comes to the others, I have done a bit of media around the fringes – usually at Conference at 5 am. I’d be more than happy to do more. The diversity point you make is absolutely crucial. The party needs to think about that when it is putting people up as well. I was really annoyed with Scotland Tonight recently when they had 4 men on their Aberdeen Donside results programme. They denied all responsibility,saying it was up to the parties themselves to put people up.

  7. Thanks for the comments. It is heartening that colleagues agree on the diversity point. I wonder if anyone in a position to exert influence on the issue is watching. Let’s hope so 🙂

  8. Personally I’d be quite happy with a rule that says the best commentator is someone who is both a blogger and elected to a committee such as the FPC 🙂

    As liberals though it would be take an uncharacteristic deference to posts and titles to think that someone’s views are more worthy just because of a collection of those that they have. It’s not even as if being elected to something like FPC means you are representative of the wider party – because one of the very reasons for using STV for our internal contests is so that people can get elected to represent the views of various minorities. By definition, the system sees elected people who don’t speak for everyone.

    I think it makes much more sense to judge commentators based on their comments and praise or criticise based on that. Even when it comes to talking about the Lib Dems, there are some non-party members who are very knowledgeable about the party – just as there are some party members who are not. Judge ’em by what they say.