Monday, 28 March 2011

Political narrativewatch: Tom Pawlenty's campaign video

The Republican Party is having a tough time finding a presidential contender who has a chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012. But they should remember that President George H.W. Bush was “unbeatable” this far out from the 1992 general election.

One of the Republicans who looks set to run is the former Minnesota governor, Tom Pawlenty. He has an outside chance of becoming the nominee. I doubt that I’d ever vote for Mr Pawlenty, or any of the other Republicans. He may sink without trace. But this early campaign video shows that he gets what political marketing and political storytelling are all about.

Brian Jenner has written a rave review of the video and its astute use of the best speechwriting techniques.

To his comments I’d add that the video is an almost-brilliant piece of political storytelling.

Right from the start, Pawlenty’s video tells a story about America.

“The United States of America is the most successful nation the world has ever known…”

The moral of the story is that America has triumphed in the past through will and determination, in World War II, at Valley Forge, by going to the moon and settling the West. With the same sort of spirit, and more toil, by “rolling up our sleeves”, America can overcome its present problems.

Pawlenty’s video works because it speaks to the stories that his audience – Republican-leaning Americans – tell about themselves. He offers a springboard story based on their sense of identity.

"We are the American people. We have seen difficulties before and we always overcome."

Pawlenty understands that politics is about emotion first and foremost.

His next storytelling challenge is to explain how Tom Pawlenty fits into the story, how he embodies the narrative, how he can help his country overcome. Just like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan – and Barack Obama.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Generation Jones - a question of courage

In the latest issue of The Economist, the Lexington column ponders whether President Obama has, at any point in his presidency so far, demonstrated real political courage.

After weighing the evidence, Lexington concludes:

[Obama] made hope and audacity his running mates, so he should answer for their defection. With the exception of health reform the big fights—on global warming, immigration and the deficit—have been put on hold and many of the smaller ones ducked . . .

. . . Maybe Mr Obama will find the same raw courage [as some of his predecessors] when at last he thinks it warranted. All one can say is that it has not happened yet.

I was persuaded, even if the article led me to another uncomfortable conclusion. Obama’s lack of ideological clarity or, to put it more kindly, his propensity to synthesise all sides of an issue, might stem from to a lack of political courage. Other political leaders from Generation Jones - my generation - display similar characteristics [click here and here]. Might they too be lacking in courage?

The evidence isn’t encouraging. Last year, the then Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd (born 1957), flip-flopped on whether to bring in an emissions trading scheme, despite the fact that fighting climate change was meant to central to his government’s mission. His personal popularity sagged badly, providing the ALP caucus with an excuse to dump Rudd and bring in Julia Gillard.

In New Zealand, prime minister John Key (born 1961) is a popular and charismatic politician, but is so cautious that he has been dubbed “smile and wave” by his Labour opponents. On the other end of the political spectrum, Sir Roger Douglas has repeatedly criticised Key’s government for its “cowardice” and reluctance to take “tough decisions”.

Here in London, Lexington’s question about courage could just as fairly be asked about Mayor Boris Johnson (born 1964).

The baby boomers’ willingness to push boundaries and achieve greater personal, social and, later, economic freedom surely stemmed from the prosperous economic times in which they were raised. The more difficult economic environment of their formative years (the mid/late 1970s and early 1980s) and the ambiguous and uncertain spirit of the age could have caused members of Generation Jones to be less politically confident than their forebears.

But Lexington and I may both be rushing to judgment. The Economist article was written before the international coalition, which of course includes the US, imposed a no-fly ban on Libya – otherwise known as going to war. The Obama administration’s action on Libya has been criticised by some of the president’s political opponents [click here, and here]. The response from the American public has been somewhat ambivalent and they want no further military involvement in Libya. Lexington’s opinion of the president’s backbone may yet have to be revised upwards.

Julia Gillard (born 1961) is a member of Generation Jones, just like Rudd. She is now bringing in a carbon tax, after ruling it out during last year’s federal election campaign, and her Labor government’s poll ratings have collapsed as a result. Courageous, or what?

As for Key, he has promised to sell off some important government assets if his National-led government is returned at the November general election. He’s taking a big risk. Public anger at a large-scale privatisation programme helped to sink the fourth Labour government (1984-90). So far, however, Key’s proposals haven’t fired Kiwis up in the same way.

The leaders from Generation Jones may still be able to take pride in their political courage. But they - or at the least, the leaders from my side of the political fence - could have to claim that mantle in electoral defeat.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Is climate change yesterday's media story?

The latest news on human-made climate change is grim, very grim. 2010 tied with 2005 as the planet’s warmest year on record. And the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 390 parts per million, a figure almost 40% higher than it was before we started burning fossil fuels for industrialisation.

Except that it’s not news. Or, at least, we don’t seem to hear so much about it anymore. Almost all the UK media virtually ignored the above reports.

Since 2004, Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado and Maria Mansfield of Oxford University have tracked global trends in media coverage of climate change. Their research shows a noticeable upsurge in media interest in 2006-07, followed by a gentle decline. There was a spike in coverage at the end of 2009, followed by a sharp drop for most of last year.

The trendline for Europe, which is more pronounced than most other regions, takes in coverage by The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Mirror and The Express and all their Sunday titles.

The trends matter because media coverage influences what people are most concerned about. Ipsos MORI showed in January 2007 that 19% of the public rated the environment (unprompted) as “one of the biggest issues facing Britain today”. (That was up from a tiny figure a few years previously.) In January 2011, just 7% said that environment was one of the biggest issues.

I agree with Bob Ward of the LSE’s Grantham Institute, who suggested that “climategate” – the controversy over the hacked e-mails from the UEA’s climate change unit - may have made climate scientists’ assertions too hot for some news editors to handle.

Yet the shock and trance cycle has other, more straightforward explanations. Lord Stern’s review of the economics of climate change appeared in late 2006 and the following year saw the release of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and the publication of the IPCC’s four assessment reports on climate change. The latter took place in four stages, thereby maximising the amount of coverage that the report received. The 2009 news spike can be put down to Copenhagen and, perhaps, the attempts in the US to pass cap and trade legislation.

At the end of 2008, however, the global financial crisis, the recession and the ensuing worries about jobs shot to the top of media agendas everywhere and chloroformed their coverage of climate change. After the disappointing outcome at Copenhagen, “climate change” looked, more than ever, like a problem that was both huge and intractable. It also seemed old hat and, perhaps, a bit of a bore. Dr Boykoff’s chart shows that the media started to wake up to climate change around the end of 2010, when the Cancun conference was going on, but quickly dozed off again.

The snooze factor is really important. Matt Nisbet of American University argues that for the US media and public, climate change has lost much of its perceived dramatic qualities. He says that:

. . . journalists' coverage of climate change is driven by the need for dramatic storytelling and novel narratives. Much of the drama in news reporting generally -- and in science reporting as well -- derives from visible political conflict, personality clashes, and contested claims over risks that allow journalists to construct a “news saga” that they can cover for more than a day or week.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that climate activists and some politicians have looked for ways to inject a sense of drama back into the issue. The most noteworthy is 10:10’s “exploding schoolchildren” video last October. But that ended in disaster. Big drama = high risk.

So, where next? Nisbet suggests that the media will only look at climate change anew if they have:

a new novel storyline . . . for the issue that does not define the problem in terms of environmental impacts but rather in terms of something more proximate, localized, and relevant to the public such as human health risks.

That’s right, we’re back to reframing climate change – except that the media, rather than politicians, companies and NGOs are making the shapes. I agree that the public health frame has the potential to pick up traction with the media and the public. [click here]. Yet stories about threats to the economy, jobs and lifestyles are, surely, more likely to grab their attention, for a longer period of time. As for localised stories, floods and droughts in the UK may work in the way he suggests, with one caveat: there may still be too much uncertainty as to whether global warming is the reason for personal catastrophes.

But some interesting new frames and storylines may be emerging. Recently, Kate Galbraith of the New York Times suggested that coverage of climate change and environmental issues has evolved and become more specialised. She instanced the way reporters are subjecting politicians’ and companies’ green initiatives, as well as the challenges and quirks of new energy technologies, to more scrutiny.

In January, Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth showed how his colleagues at the New York Times have illustrated the impacts of climate change on communities and tried to show how clean energy solutions have transformed peoples’ lives in developing countries. He went on to say:

Good reporters, those always eager to get to the root causes of a problem . . . will still track climate science. But they will devote more time and effort to diving deeper on energy policy, habits and innovations — whether unraveling counterproductive subsidies, pointing out the lack of money for path-breaking research, or revealing examples of social and financial innovations percolating around the world — any one of which could make a big difference if the information gets out and around.

My views are impressionistic rather than being based on a Boykoff-type study, but I perceive that the British media’s coverage of climate change and environmental issues has evolved and matured, possibly faster than its American counterparts'. Fiona Harvey of The Guardian (and before that, the FT) has covered the “green growth” debate and the economic arguments around EU emissions reduction targets. She has also placed claims about “green jobs” and companies’ various claims to environmental virtue under scrutiny.

Last year, The Observer’s Juliet Jowitt focused on risks to the world’s biodiversity and brought out the threats they pose to future economic prosperity. She has also been known to question how low carbon energy policies will impact on consumers power bills.

The Guardian’s Leo Hickman has looked into the pro’s and con’s of electric cars, organic milk, green TVs and all kinds of “go green” consumer behaviours.

James Murray’s Business Green website is indispensable for its coverage of “green growth” and the “green economy” debate and of new UK business initiatives and innovations that will reduce our carbon footprint. The Sunday Times’ energy and environment page is largely devoted to new green technologies and their potential impacts.

John Vidal of The Guardian measures up to Andrew Revkin’s global standard. So does the BBC’s Richard Black. Black has framed the climate change in terms of national and international security risks. The Financial Times has developed the security theme for a few years now.

None of the journalists mentioned above has stopped writing about climate science or climate risks.

So, the British media has not turned off climate change. They are covering the issues in different ways. But the question remains as to whether the media’s stories will help build the political space that is needed for effective policies to tackle climate change. Perhaps that’s a job for the politicians – if the media will allow them to be heard and the politicians tell interesting stories.