The dark arts of political advertising as the clouds of a Brexit war gather

I was struck by an image today of Dominic Cummings, the master of the dark arts of campaigning and political advertising, now Johnson’s chief SPAD at No. 10, whom this author describes as a Svengali-like figure. In the 1895 du Maurier novel, Svengali is a figure who seduces, manipulates, dominates and exploits his victim. Behind the jovial, bumbling, jokey but false front of Boris Johnson’s pre-election campaigning (it seems), lurks this arch-manipulator. Perhaps he symbolises what Brexit is about, a fraud on the British people, no doubt sincerely believed in by huge numbers but cleverly sold in 2016 by this Vote Leave team now in power, a massive wrench to the country with no plausible, developed policy and programme, with a claim to being democratic while their behaviour demonstrates otherwise, and with behind them an actual policy of a further … Read more

Now is the age of the hyperleader of reactionary populism

Today is the age of the hyperleader whose power rests on a superbase of mainly online social media supporters, which is partly eclipsing traditional politicians. To understand the power and appeal of reactionary populism, and therefore what Brexit is about, one needs to get the nature of this largely male beast and its ability to manipulate its following, and the challenge it poses to representative democracy. What are hyperleaders? Trump, the Five Star movement and also Salvini in Italy, Modi in India, and to an extent Farage in the UK, for example, are hyperleaders, according to Paolo Gerbaudo, drawing immense empathy and loyalty from their followers, often charismatic, demagogic some might say, very outspoken, often outrageous, presenting themselves as outside the political establishment, claiming to represent the “ordinary person” against the perceived remote and corrupt political elite. They present themselves … Read more

Political disinformation has become dangerous and unacceptable

Further evidence has been emerging in the last few days of an undermining of democratic processes in the UK and elsewhere as the UK Select Committee , the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, reported on political disinformation and “fake news”. This report underlines previous posts in this blog on what can be described as potentially illegal or at best ethically questionable activities to influence voting. The charge sheet keeps growing The charge sheet that is being drawn up includes: A small group of individuals and businesses are influencing elections across multiple jurisdictions, not just the UK. One wealthy person, Arron Banks, who funded one of the pro-Brexit campaigns in 2016, has not been able to fully and satisfactorily account for his activities both in the UK and overseas including Russia. There is a lack of clarity as to the … Read more

Data manipulation and the murky world of political advertising

Recent investigative journalism has shone a bright light on the murky world of digital data mining and political advertising. A US-UK company, Cambridge Analytica, with an off-shoot the Canadian firm Aggregate IQ, have been found to have mined huge quantities of personal profiles on Facebook and turned the data into a means for highly personal and psychologically targeted political advertising that some consider could have helped swing elections in marginal constituencies such as the Trump Presidential in 2016. Such is the concern over data manipulation that questions are being asked about the adequacy of the law in the digital age and whether further strengthening of regulators and a catch-up in electoral law are needed on both sides of the Atlantic. Why should political observers be concerned? The recent rapid growth of social media The context is the rapid shift towards … Read more

Are Trump and Brexit two sides of a hard-right anti-democratic take-over bid?

Are Trump and Brexit two sides of a hard-right anti-democratic take-over bid? One has to ask the question, since in the pursuit of power and influence both groups seem to be using questionable techniques that could lead one to wonder quite where this is going. In the US there is an ongoing probe by the FBI-appointed special prosecutor Mueller into whether the Trump campaign indulged in illegal activities in collaboration with a hostile foreign power, Russia, to swing the 2016 Presidential election in Trump’s favour. In the UK, the Information Commissioner is examining the Brexit campaign’s exploitation of personal data potentially at the risk of data protection laws, while the Electoral Commission is looking into the possible by-passing of strict spending limits and whether there was interference in the campaign by Russian troll farms through social media. Some commentators are … Read more

Is press freedom at risk from commercial interests?

Readers of The Daily Telegraph will have awoken this morning to find that their chief political journalist Peter Oborne has resigned in protest at what he regards as editorial subservience to commercial interest and to the owners, the Barclay Brothers, over under-reporting of the Swiss HSBC scandal. He says that there was a concern that the paper would lose vital advertising revenue and thus journalistic freedom, the truth and press freedom itself were being sacrificed on the altar of commercial interest. “The coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.” (post in “Open Democracy“, 18 February 2015) It should be said that The Daily Telegraph denied his allegations. Falling revenues exposes the Press to its commercial backers … Read more

The price of a free press can be uneasy choices

As the last-minute late night deal between political leaders and Hacked Off sinks in amongst publishers and people consider whether to sign up to the yet-to-be-finalised regime of press regulation, people have been pointing out the crucial confusion that lies at the heart of the proposal. The use of legislation to support the device of the Royal Charter to set up regulation seems to make no distinction between the various roles that the press perform, and in particular its essential role as watchdog on the political process seems to have escaped those that advocate state-backed regulation. The press as watchdog in politics The media have for long been the UK equivalent of the US “Fourth branch of government“, one of our “checks and balances” within our unwritten constitution. Two recent examples come to mind, both likely to be relevant to … Read more

Press regulation and unintended consequence of a new UK constitution?

As the dust settles a little from the crisis over press regulation, Britain’s journalists have been contemplating the implications of the system devised between the leaders of the major parties in the small hours of 18 March. There has also been a steady stream of concerned criticism from overseas. The enormity of what has been agreed is beginning to sink in and, just maybe, bringing forward some major unintended consequences. What started as a largely celebrity-led protest at media intrusion into private lives through such things as mobile phone hacking, as vocally expressed by the pressure group Hacked Off, has transformed itself into the issue of political control of the media. Regulation is intended to make sure that the unacceptable intrusion “can never happened again”, in the words of my MP today. It is curious that somehow the use of … Read more

How do we balance freedom of expression with press intrusion?

The current state of confusion over press regulation here in the UK presents me with a very useful opportunity to start this blog – the attempts by politicians to come up with a model of regulation that meets the assumed need for reform and also satisfies the various scruples about freedom of expression. One could choose to start a blog at any time but what is so good about this one is that it once again presents us with that most enduring of political dilemmas, the relationships between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and constraint and between the individual and the state. Freedom of expression has long been assumed to be a corner-stone of British democracy and the key right of the individual. One classic definition is that of John Stuart Mill who wrote in On Liberty (1859), “However, positive … Read more

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