General Election 2024

Beware the media-political complex

Politicians and the press keep promoting unworkable laws. It works to their mutual benefit—but is not in the public interest

June 07, 2024
Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex”. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex”. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In his 1961 farewell address as US president, Dwight D Eisenhower famously warned of what he termed the "military-industrial complex". The passage is worth reading in full: 

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

In 2024, the unhealthy relationship between arms manufacturers and those who procure their wares is still present in many western nation states. But there is another matrix of worrying connections between those with public power and commercial interests that is worth paying attention to, and that can perhaps be called the “media-political complex”.

In essence, this media-political complex is—like its 1961 counterpart—mutually beneficial to those involved and contrary to the public interest. What happens is this: policies (or “policies”, in quote marks) are adopted and promoted not because they would actually work—indeed, they will often not be implemented—but so as to gain favourable media coverage.  

In turn, the media get fresh content every day which allows them to hold onto readers. Those involved know each other so well and work together so deftly that a Martian looking down would assume that true political parties primarily comprise media professionals, thinktankers and politicians and their advisers working in concert, regardless of their nominal employers.

One example of such treatment by the media-political complex concerns the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For nearly 20 years, Conservative politicians have promised that the United Kingdom will replace the former or abandon the latter or both. Take David Cameron, as opposition leader, in 2006. Speaking, inevitably, to a thinktank, he said “a modern British bill of rights needs to define the core values which give us our identity as a free nation” and be “a clear articulation of citizens’ rights that British people can use in British courts.”  

But the Human Rights Act is still there, and the United Kingdom remains a signatory to the ECHR, because, as a matter of fact, the UK cannot repeal that act or leave the European Convention without breaching the Good Friday Agreement—as well as many post-Brexit agreements. This is rarely mentioned in the press coverage.  

This is not to say that improvements cannot be made to UK human rights law—and improvements have been made, such as in the 2012 Brighton Declaration negotiated by the coalition government. But that involved politicians doing the hard slog of shaping a complex and evolving legal instrument—which is of course what politicians should be doing, but they usually find it easier to issue media briefings and press releases.

There are many more examples. Before the Brexit referendum, for example, the media-political complex had it that success in the proposed “re-negotiation” between the UK and the EU simply required more forceful demands to made by British ministers. That way, David Cameron’s government would exact the substantial concessions it needed to preserve UK membership.  

There was little sense that there were structural limits to what could actually be agreed without a change in the fundamental EU treaties, which would not be possible in the time available and would also necessarily require the agreement of all parties. And so, when the “re-negotiation” did not result in any fundamental change, it was seen as a failure of will. The politicians had fed lines to the media and the media, often uncritically, had carried them. The media-political complex was thereby not able to interrogate the reality of what was happening. 

Similarly, during the process of departure, the then Brexit minister promised there would be the “row of the summer” over the structuring of the exit negotiations. This got claps and cheers right up to the point that the UK capitulated in the face of the stronger negotiating position of the EU. And the division between the politics of the possible and the politics of the impossible can be seen as a theme in working out the consequences of Brexit in the north of Ireland.

The disconnect between policy reality and media-political fantasy can be seen in many other places. There is the Rwanda policy, which even the Home Office’s own officials do not believe will work and which only makes sense as a media-political expedient. And then there are the perennial demands for “tougher” penalties for this and “crackdowns” on that, most of which are forgotten in days.  

The media-political complex also perhaps explains why, in areas such as drugs policy, we are stuck with a regime that actually does far more harm than good, for any attempt at useful reform would attract bad coverage. There is no immediate benefit to politicians or the media from having more sensible drugs laws. The complex also perhaps explains why some ministers and advisers have tried to use secondary legislation and government guidance to do things which should be a matter for parliament and primary legislation, often driven by thinktank proposals. Recently, this wrongful use of secondary legislation has been quashed by the courts but it will continue to tempt ministers who put media plaudits ahead of the proper use of law.

An incoming government with a genuine ambition to govern well and to make lasting reforms needs to reconnect the now-separate realms of policy and politics. Public debate needs to be guided by practicality and not publicity. The problem here is that policy grunt work does not provide good copy.

A government can ultimately have either a policy strategy or a media strategy. For one must be the servant of the other. Media tactics are a necessary and important part of following a policy strategy. But things go wrong—and stay wrong—if political tactics are used only in support of a media strategy. Ministers must have the courage to get the policy right, and the confidence that good publicity will then follow.