Can we trust the opinion polls in election 2017?

Matthew Wyman, Keele University

Political opinion polls have taken a bit of a battering in the past few years. There was wide agreement on the eve of the last UK general election that the outcome would be a hung parliament. Few pollsters saw Donald Trump winning the 2015 presidential election in the US. And almost everyone agreed that Brexit would not happen. So are opinion polls worth the paper they’re written on any more?

Polling made its entrance onto the political stage in the United States presidential election of 1936, at a time when various prominent American newspapers were confidently predicting victories for Republican Alf Landon on the basis of polls of their (rich, unrepresentative) leaderships. George Gallop realised that he could achieve much more accurate predictions reasonably cheaply by taking a random sample of the population, and by doing this successfully forecast a landslide victory for Franklin D Roosevelt.

The key words in this statement are “random sample”, and this is where modern day polling is running into trouble. When Gallop began building his market research empire, gauging public opinion was a complicated business. It involved sending trained interviewers out to randomly selected addresses to interview a specific named person. If they couldn’t get hold of them, they were asked to go back again and again until they found them. What pollsters call “response rates” – the proportion of people agreeing to be interviewed – were very high. So was the cost. You had to train your interviewers, send them out, and tabulate the results, which in the BC years (before computers) was done by hand using punched paper index cards.

However, overwhelmingly, results were good, politicians came to rely heavily on poll predictions, and newspapers got into the habit of using them in order to report politics as entertainment about who was winning.

Polling today

These days technology and changes in the ways political opinion polling is done allow market researchers to get answers much more quickly and cheaply. Polling can also be done by post, online, or by phone. Rather than genuinely random samples, it’s usually cheaper for market researchers to use what are known in the trade as “quota samples”. Interviewers talk to certain numbers of people in different demographic categories (by gender, income, social class, ethnic group and so on).

However, they face several increasingly difficult challenges. Some kinds of people are just harder to reach than others, especially people who work full time – a group who are still a bit more likely to vote for conservative parties. We are now asked our opinions about so much so pointlessly that response rates for polls are desperately low at around 25-30%. We all suffer from poll fatigue.

Theresa May launches her election campaign. PA

Respondents are also self-selecting. People who are interested in politics are more likely to be willing to share their views with a stranger, and also are more likely to be left wing. All of these factors mean that the samples used by the pollsters to make their predictions simply aren’t as good as they used to be, and they all tend to err in the same direction.

This doesn’t mean that polls are now redundant. Well-constructed surveys which are properly carried out still get representative results. For example, the sample used by the British Social Attitudes survey, carried out via face-to-face interviews and requiring revisits where the randomly selected individual was unavailable for interview, correctly forecasted around a six point lead for the Conservatives in the 2015 general election.

However, these high quality polls are expensive, and take a long time. Given that the mass media mostly wants poll numbers rapidly, and for entertainment, it hardly seems likely that they will want to make the extra investment.

Parties’ own internal polls do take the time and trouble and do get accurate results, ones which will no doubt have been part of the prime minister’s decision to go to the country. Current published polls show the Conservative Party has a 20 point lead over Labour, if not more. Is the true situation in the country likely to be anything other than a large Tory lead? Absolutely not: even cheap polls are not that inaccurate. As it stands, you’d be most unwise to take the 12:1 odds currently offered by some bookmakers on Labour being the largest party on June 8.

Matthew Wyman, Senior Teaching Fellow, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. View the original article here.

Come on, Mr Trump – you can’t claim credit for another president’s successes

Image 20170310 3690 9wwkvq
Yes, but it wasn’t Donald Trump’s doing.

Gabriella Legrenzi, Keele University

Since almost immediately after his inauguration as 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump has been claiming credit for what he sees as a miraculous recovery in the nation’s economy. Barely a day goes by without a tweet trumpeting a new jobs deal or the strength of the US stockmarket. The Conversation

But how much credit is actually due to his administration? Incoming governments have a tendency to claim merit for post-electoral improvements in the economy and to blame their predecessors for worsening conditions – but how long does it really take for any policy changes to work their way through the system?

In a recent tweet, Donald Trump emphasised the increasing strength of the US economy, based on different indicators.


Here, Trump is referring to the S&P 500 Index and the newly released February 2017 Consumer Confidence Survey. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) is commonly accepted as an accurate indicator of equity performance, being based on 500 stocks selected by analysts considering a number of factors such as market size and sector weight.

The S&P 500 has gone up by 3.8% since Trump took office. And that’s great – but the S&P 500 has been rising since before the November 8 election and, notably, was also rising when polls were favouring Hillary Clinton as the next US president. The most recent data on the very same index also shows that it is now moving downwards – after peaking at 2395.96 on March 1 it fell over the following days, closing at 2362.98 on March 8. Given its volatility, it is difficult to extract from this a clear signal of performance.

Consumer confidence is measured via the Consumer Confidence Index, which is published on the last Tuesday of every month. The analysis of the survey data shows that consumers’ confidence increased in February and remains at a 15-year high, reflecting improved expectations regarding the short-term outlook for business, and to a lesser degree jobs and income prospects. That said, the Consumer Confidence Index showed a moderate decline in January.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Here, the president is referring to the March 2017 LinkedIn workforce report, showing that the “hiring rate” across the US was 1.4% higher in February 2017 than in February 2016.

Some caution needs to be applied here, as the “hiring rate” considered in this report is calculated as the percentage of LinkedIn members who changed the name of their new employer on their profile the same month they began their new job, divided by the total number of LinkedIn members. The report shows that this “hiring rate” has been on the rise since December – but it has fallen since January, and, considering the past two years, it has exhibited higher peaks during Obama’s term.

If we consider the Business Confidence Index (BCI) provided by the OECD and based on enterprises’ assessment of production, orders and stocks, as well as its current position and expectations for the immediate future, it’s clear that business confidence has been on the rise since the beginning of 2016.

Trump recently tweeted boastfully about Exxon Mobil’s plans to invest $20 billion over ten years in the US Gulf region to expand its manufacturing and export capacity.


But you need to take this with a pinch of salt. This investment actually began in 2013 and is motivated by the desire to take advantage of the American energy revolution – in fact, it began even before Trump’s announcement to contest the presidential election.

Time lags

Overall, some of these figures represent positive news for the US economy – and it is understandable that Donald Trump is keen to tweet about them, as tweets can move markets. But can he legitimately take the full credit for improved economic conditions?

Economic policy is subject to different types of lags: recognition lags, decision lags and implementation lags. These refer to the time necessary to learn about economic conditions, the time it takes to decide on an appropriate policy response, and the implementation period once the policy is chosen. Empirical evidence suggests that it takes policymakers and legislatures more than a quarter from learning about the economic conditions to deciding what fiscal measures are appropriate, passing them through legislature and actually implementing them.

Then there is the impact lag – the length of time from the implementation of an economic policy decision to when it has an observable effect on the economy. This is generally measured in terms of output.

The magnitude of policy multipliers – that is, the effects of monetary or fiscal policy on output – and the time required to observe the effects of a policy is still an open question for economists. But there seems to be an agreement that the multipliers peak after a considerable amount of time.

One influential study by British economist Andrew Mountford and US economist Harald Uhlig in 2009, which was based on data on the US economy, found that the maximum impact is estimated to occur only after five years.

So while it’s difficult to disentangle the effect of economic policies put in place under the Obama’s administration from the possible effect on business confidence associated with Trump’s announcements, the real test will be to consider the sustainability of such confidence after detailed policy plans are unveiled and implemented by the new president.

It will take patience realistically to assess the impact of Trump on the US economy. And patience is something that Donald Trump lacks, judging by his tweets.

Gabriella Legrenzi, Senior lecturer in economics, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Annual Social Science Symposium 5th May 2017: Call for papers

We are now beginning preparations for the annual Social Science Postgraduate Symposium.  This will be held on 5th May 2017 in the Claus Moser Building.  We invite abstracts to present a paper or a poster or both.  There will also be a 3-minute thesis competition.

Both postgraduate (PG) taught and research students from the Social Sciences are welcome to present.  Abstracts are welcomed on any aspect of your research, regardless of the stage you are currently at.

Our deadline for receiving your abstract and/or 3-minute thesis application is 10th April 2017.

We will provide feedback by 20th April 2017.

Presentations should be no more than 15 minutes plus 5 minutes for questions and answers.

Posters can be submitted at any size suitable for the project. There will be an opportunity for questions and answers on the posters.  This will be on the agenda for the symposium.

Abstracts for presentations or posters should be about 200 words.

3-Minute Thesis Competition: Your thesis title and slide should be submitted by the deadline.  We will timetable 3 minute slots for the symposium.  A member of staff and 2 students (chosen on the day) will be appointed as judges.

Approximately two weeks before the symposium day we will hold a 3-minute thesis practice heat at a date and time to be arranged.  Feedback will be given and this may be used to select the final competitors for the symposium.

Why should I present at this Symposium?

This event gives you the opportunity to

  • gain experience in presenting your research in a friendly, receptive environment, before presenting at external conferences.
  • share ideas, experiences and guidance.
  • receive constructive feedback on your research.
  • build your confidence of presenting in front of an academic audience.
  • draw on perspectives and feedback from outside of your main academic discipline.
  • advertise your research to the rest of the Social Science community at Keele
  • learn about the research of other PG students.
  • network and discuss your research.

Why should I present a poster or enter the 3-minute thesis competition?

  • all of the above.
  • designing a poster or presenting your thesis in 3 minutes brings focus to your research thinking.
  • skill-building for national competitions.

All abstracts, applications and enquiries should be sent to :-

Stephen Meachem –  

All applications should be labelled with your name, centre affiliation, presentation type (poster and/or paper and/or 3-minute thesis), email address and proposed title. In the case of a 3-minute thesis application your slide should also be submitted.

Abstracts and applications will be reviewed and notification of acceptance will be sent out to the email address you have submitted.

We look forward to receiving your abstracts and/or 3-minute thesis applications by the deadline: 10th April 2017.

Broken families: what happens to couples torn apart by immigration rules

Ala Sirriyeh, Keele University 

Campaigners challenged Britain’s minimum income requirement for foreign spouses in the courts. John Stillwell/PA Archi

Campaigners challenged Britain’s minimum income requirement for foreign spouses in the courts. John Stillwell/PA Archi

Couples that I’ve spoken to who have been split apart by Britain’s immigration system are facing a huge legal, financial and emotional burden that is putting real stress on their family lives.

Irene Clennell, a woman who has lived in the UK for nearly 30 years and is married to a British man, was deported to Singapore on February 26 after falling foul of strict income requirements for a spousal visa. Her case has caused widespread anger and a crowdfunding effort to pay for her appeal has raised over £24,000.

In July 2012, new entry requirements were introduced making it much harder for UK citizens and residents to get their partner from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to join them in the UK. These included the raising of the minimum income requirement that the UK-based partner, also known as a sponsor, had to meet from £5,500 to £18,600 per year.

On February 22, after a number of families challenged this through the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the minimum income requirement was not against the law. However, the court also found that neither the “best interests” of the child, nor alternative assets beyond the sponsoring partner’s income, were being duly considered. From now on, this means that the Home Office will need to address the lack of protection currently given to children’s welfare and may need to consider including third party sources of funding, such as financial assistance from relatives and savings, in addition to the sponsor’s income.

The Home Office’s own impact assessment projected the £18,600 minimum income requirement would impact between 13,600 and 17,800 people a year. But the number of those affected to date is unknown. Analysis in 2016 by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants indicated that 41% of the British population would not qualify under the new income requirement.

Although the ruling brings hope for families with children, many people have experienced considerable hardship as a result of the rules and are likely to continue to do so. In 2015, I interviewed people affected by the minimum income requirement as part of an ongoing study about the experiences of people in relationships with a partner living overseas. They explained how these rules had affected their emotional and financial well-being. One man observed that they were “being targeted for being working class or lower working class because if you are a millionaire another law applies.”

Big financial burden

Ironically, despite being affected because of their low incomes, one consequence of the rules was to increase the financial burden placed on couples. Couples had to maintain two residences – one in the UK and one abroad – and UK partners spent significant sums on travel overseas to visit partners not allowed entry to the UK (although not all could afford to do this). There were also legal bills from applications to reunite with partners. Altogether the financial burden was considerable, as another interviewee explained:

We had had enough, enough of trying to do this, of lawyers charging us all the money we had. All the credit cards maxed out. There was just nothing we could … we were backed into a corner.

Everyone had suffered mental or physical health difficulties. Another man I interviewed, who has a serious long-term health conditions, reunited with this wife and step-children in her country of origin, Uganda. But he had been unable to access the medication he needed there affordably and had to return to the UK in poor health.

Too many goodbyes. michaeljung/Shutterstock

Others spoke of the mental health impact of being separated from their partners. One man said that mentally, he was a “broken man” and that he didn’t see “where the future is leading me”. One woman said that she had become “highly strung” as a result of the rules. “Any little thing makes me stressed, makes me panic, makes me overthink things.”

Everyone I spoke to had used video-calling services to stay in contact. However, this was not a substitute for face-to-face contact and there were challenges in communicating this way. One man told me that Skype calls were not always of good quality and there could be concerns about discussing the finer points of something over a dodgy internet connection.

The Surinder Singh route

Faced with pressures of living apart, some families opted to reunite in another EU country before making an attempt to return to the UK at a later date through what’s called the Surinder Singh route.

In the 1992 Surinder Singh case, the EU Court of Justice ruled that under EU law Singh – an Indian national – was entitled to live in the UK with his wife, a British national. This was because she had previously exercised her right to free movement by working in Germany with her husband. The court ruled that an EU citizen who has travelled to another member state to work and returns to their home country has the right to be accompanied by their partner and children, whatever their nationality.

One man I interviewed, who is self-employed, decided to reunite with his partner in Ireland in 2015, even though this lost him business clients. His wife was able to obtain a visa to join him there. They have to reside there for at least three months before they can come back to the UK.

Others I spoke to also followed the Singh route and moved to another EU country as a way for their partner to eventually join them in Britain. One person I followed up has since been able to move back to the UK with their partner. But it’s not possible for everyone affected by the rules to follow this route, because they may not have the jobs, language skills and other resources that enable them to relocate to another EU member country. In light of the 2016 Brexit vote, this route to family reunification is now in jeopardy.

Transformations in labour markets and migration patterns, and complex residency and citizenship rules, mean families are increasingly being formed across nationality, immigration and citizenship boundaries. In both the UK and now in the US, immigration policies are leading to family separation. In order to protect people’s rights to family life, immigration policies must take account of the needs of mixed status families.

Ala Sirriyeh,  Lecturer in Sociology, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article 50 vote shows Brexit is about politics, not Britain’s future

Helen Parr, Keele University

The vote in the House of Commons on whether the British government can trigger Article 50 has been revealing. It showed just how much the current Brexit debate is cast not by the economic and international interests of the UK, but by British (and in fact, mainly English) party politics.

Public opinion has always been ambivalent about EU membership. The British public have generally been willing to follow the government of the day on the UK’s relationship with the EU. And we can see that it very much still is.

Britain’s departure from the European Union is all about the Conservative party. The decision to hold a referendum in the first place was party political – former Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt, monumentally failed, to silence Conservative eurosceptics and to quash UKIP. The Conservative government’s reaction to the result was a rapid exercise in party score settling, ending with the appointment of Theresa May – herself a quiet remainer – to the most difficult mantle any prime minister has inherited lately.

May’s policy has been, in effect, a continuation of Cameron’s – to prioritise the wishes of the eurosceptic right. Her first goal, therefore, is to reduce immigration. While she must hope for a Brexit deal that will give some access to the single market alongside restrictions on freedom of movement, her posture suggests Britain’s economy will play second fiddle to her ability to tell voters she has a deal on immigration and Britain has freed itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The politics of Brexit have centred first on the statement that the referendum result was the will of the people, and that the government’s duty is to carry it out, and second on the continued “in-out” tenor of the debate.

Eurosceptics have regarded any legal or parliamentary scrutiny as an attempt to “stop Brexit”. So although British politics should have been transformed by the outcome of the referendum, and debate should have shifted to how to exit and the difficulties this might entail, it has in fact continued along the referendum campaign’s “for or against” lines.

Where was Labour?

The supreme court judged that the government could not trigger Article 50 without parliamentary support. The government tabled a short bill, and parliamentarians tabled amendments, including whether to hold a second referendum, and to guarantee unilaterally the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Each of the amendments was defeated, and the bill overall passed with a large majority. Why was this?

Conservative party discipline has been impressive. Only the long-time europhile Ken Clarke defied his party whips on the final division. For the Conservative remainers the alternatives seem worse. They are unsure whether it is better to oppose outright or to find ways better to scrutinise. Stickling too much now might reduce their influence in the party later, when the terms of any deal become clearer. Most have to concede that May has played her political cards well. The Conservatives also like the fact that they are more united than Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, meanwhile, remains unclear about its position towards Brexit. Corbyn has said Britain should retain “tariff free” access to the EU – a position which does not address Britain’s relationship to the single market – and has at various times declared his support for free movement and his willingness to restrict it in some circumstances. Corbyn also wants to protect rights for workers.

It is difficult to discern whether Labour’s Brexit position is born of pragmatism, or whether it simply reflects Corbyn’s own long rooted ambivalence to Britain’s participation in European integration. Many MPs represent constituencies which voted to leave, and a constitutional crisis now would probably not serve Labour’s longer term interests. Supporting the bill now might allow greater scrutiny and say later on.

Corbyn imposed a three-line whip to support the Brexit bill, but 52 of Labour’s 229 MPs defied that whip in the notification of withdrawal division. Of those rebels, four, including Labour’s business spokesman Clive Lewis, resigned from the shadow cabinet.

The Article 50 bill will now pass to the House of Lords, where peers are unlikely to place strong obstacles to its passage. In all probability, May will trigger Article 50, thus beginning negotiations with the EU on Britain’s departure, by the end of March.

Politically, therefore, May has outmanoeuvred the opposition thus far. However, the politics of Brexit may now get tougher as the stage widens beyond the parties, and as, presumably, debate has to range beyond the familiar “in-out” lines. Negotiations with the EU are likely to be anything but plain sailing, and as negotiations progress, the ambiguities in Britain’s negotiating aspirations will become exposed.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon feels that May has ignored Scottish concerns, and may well move towards a second referendum on Scottish independence. The issue of the Irish border was not dealt with convincingly in the government’s white paper.

The government has conceded that MPs can vote on the terms of the final deal, but also made clear that the vote will be on a “take it or leave it” basis. It does not intend that the vote could peel back whatever it is that has been agreed.

The future, therefore, is still uncertain: May’s deal with the EU could be anything from membership-lite (unlikely) to a settlement that not only changes Britain’s position in world politics, but also gradually transforms traditional party politics, and the continued existence, in its current form, of the UK.

The Conversation

Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Teaching, School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For the full podcast which features Keele’s own Dr Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh please see the original article on The Conversation here.

Anthill 9: When scientists experiment on themselves

Annabel Bligh, The Conversation and Gemma Ware, The Conversation

Self-experimentation is something scientists have done since, well, science began. Throughout history, testing a theory on one’s own body was the easiest route to getting an answer.

You may be forgiven for thinking that this is a thing of the past. For starters, a sample size of one is rarely conclusive. Then there are pesky ethical review boards that need to be cleared.

But it turns out self-experimentation is alive and well and the ninth episode of The Anthill features researchers who have engaged in the practice.

First, our health editor Clint Witchalls looks into a field where self-experimentation seems to be growing in popularity – if not respectability. He talks to King’s College London’s Tim Spector about the many diets he’s tried and why more people should get on board with testing out different food regimes.

The second part of the podcast features an academic who took on the persona of the man he was researching. Overwhelmed by the existing number of books written about David Bowie, Kingston University’s Will Brooker decided to take a different approach to learning about his hero.

Brooker or Bowie?
Will Brooker, CC BY-NC-ND

Instead of just reading about him, Brooker lived as Bowie for a year. He read the books Bowie read, listened to the music he listened to, spent time in the places he lived, and copied his diet at different times in his life. He even employed a vocal coach and performed with tribute band The Thin White Duke. Hear them play, as Brooker shares his experiences of walking in Bowie’s shoes with our arts and culture editor Josephine Lethbridge.

Part three of the podcast returns to science and the efficacy of researchers taking mind-altering substances. Peter Kinderman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Liverpool, tells our science editor Miriam Frankel about how common this kind of self-experimentation is in his field. And Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh, a lecturer in ethics and law at Keele University, discusses the ethics of it.

The Anthill theme music is by Alex Grey for Melody Loops. Background music during the nutrition segment is Parisian and Spy Glass, both by Kevin MacLeod. David Bowie music is performed by tribute band The Thin White Duke, with vocals by Will Brooker in the song Let’s Dance. Music during the psychology segment is The Psychedelic And by Six Umbrellas.

A big thanks to City University London’s Department of Journalism for letting us use their studios.

The Conversation

Annabel Bligh, Business and Economy Editor, The Conversation and Gemma Ware, Society Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

#spicerfacts: how the White House’s relationship with the press will play out

Jon Herbert, Keele University

Journalists would have anticipated the first press conference of the Trump presidency with some trepidation. Not only had his briefing at Trump Tower as president-elect been something of a shambles as Trump excoriated some journalists and ignored others, but the whole election campaign had been traumatic for many. Reporters had been submitted to ritual humiliation at Trump rallies, ushered through baying crowds to be labelled “liars” and “disgusting” by a candidate who did not seem overly burdened by the concept of truth himself.

But campaigning is different from governing. Journalists, who had endured a storm of criticism from Trump’s transition team, were hoping for a transformation of campaign Trump into a more presidential Trump – or perhaps a press liaison operation sympathetic to the press’ needs.

The first press “briefing” from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, delivered the day after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States made it clear that this transformation has not happened. In a six-minute tirade, Spicer told journalists why their coverage of the inauguration had been wrong, told them what they should be reporting and left the stage with no opportunities for questions and answers.

Any impression that a mutual trust might be nurtured between presidency and media – or even that a deal for mutual benefit might be negotiated – was shattered. Journalists’ worst fears, articulated widely and openly during the transition, are now realised and both sides are now digging in for an extended battle.

Written out

From Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency at the turn of the 20th century onward, presidents have traditionally nurtured a relationship with journalists. Franklin Roosevelt held briefings in the Oval Office and Jack Kennedy traded on his own journalistic experiences in talking to the press. The relationship was symbiotic and mutually beneficial; presidencies broadcast their messages to the public and the media had stories and pictures to run.

But the relationship has soured since the 1970s – and the Trump presidency may come to represent the logical conclusion of a half-century’s development in presidential relations with the media.

The disillusionment of the media with the presidency is well-documented. The Watergate scandal and misinformation over the Vietnam War caused journalists to examine their assumptions about the trustworthiness of the country’s commander-in-chief.

But the media still needs the presidency. The presidency, on the other hand has long struggled to wriggle free of the media’s grasp. Frustrated by increasingly negative coverage from mainstream outlets, presidents pull away from the media over their term, offering fewer press conferences as their term develops. Obama’s administration built a reputation for unusual levels of secrecy due to its refusal to release information in response to press requests. Worse, administration threats to prosecute journalists for not revealing their sources permanently tarnished Obama’s standing with the media and generated many hostile stories.

During George W. Bush’s administration, journalist Ryan Lizza offered the term “pressless presidency” to capture the Bush team’s assessment of the press, not as a Fourth Estate with a legitimate role to check governmental and presidential power, but as just another interest group to be serviced.

The holy grail now for an administration is to bypass the hard questions and unforgiving judgements of the Washington media to reach the people directly. Each new technology seems to offer this potential. Obama attempted to bypass the Washington press corps through use of Reddit and YouTube, while Trump has done more than most to cut loose while calculating that he can use other means to communicate – Twitter being his favourite medium.



US vs them

Instead of working with the media, Trump has made it integral to his core message: his anti-establishment status. Trump’s rhetoric relies upon simple oppositions – and the media has been particularly important in this. In Trump’s populist rhetoric the media have become part of giant conspiracy of politicians, business and media working against the interests of the American people. And the press makes an excellent target – public trust in the media has dropped precipitously.


Declining trust in the news media. Gallup, CC BY

Usually there is something of a “honeymoon period” as the two sides develop their relationships and work out a basis of cooperation. Both the incoming administration and the media usually focus on appointments and leading policy proposals. But instead of trying to build that relationship for mutual advantage early on, Trump’s team is launching a full frontal assault on the media’s credibility. The Trump team is “pressless” from the start.

Not only is Trump to be pressless, then, but the logic of this position extends to discrediting the media as a competitor in setting the agenda or even describing reality. When Spicer highlights the delayed nomination of Mike Pompeo as CIA director and tells the press: “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering,” the attempt to control what is considered news is obvious. But this position extends to portraying the media as a malevolent force. Accusing the media of “dishonesty” allows the administration to claim a new role.

To quote Spicer: “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.” The administration has appointed itself the guardian of truth against the evildoers of the press. Theatrical denials of the media’s legitimacy suit the administration very well: much as Trump’s tweets have done before, Spicer’s press briefing made the tension between the media and the new administration the main news story. The administration portrays itself as the insurgency against the establishment. As long as the media continue to run the conflict stories, Trump will remain happy to trigger them.


High-risk strategy

But this approach carries substantial risks. As a rocky transition focused on Putin’s influence over the election and Trump’s conflicts of interest proved, the new administration has not found a way to control the media agenda. Trump’s familiar campaign technique of picking fights over Twitter has served to distract from the worst stories but has not refocused attention on the presidency’s priorities.

The stories in each policy area are of uncertainty and confusion around the administration’s direction and the overall image of Trump’s presidency has been damaged from the start.



So far, the media has expressed substantial doubt that the Trump administration has a clear direction or clarity over priorities, a claim reinforced by Trump’s own tendency to make bold, incredible and contradictory statements. Attacking the press is a serious – and unforced – error that will generate negative coverage. Trump and Spicer’s calculation, that the new president’s support can endure a relentless stream of negative stories, is an extraordinary gamble. It relies on Trump’s supporters resisting the influence of negative media coverage, while the administration communicates with them directly.

Without doubt, there is much to suggest that some partisans will remain loyal to their president amid media criticism. News accessed only through selective social media “bubbles” is likely to reinforce this effect. However, experience suggests that Republicans will not be blindly loyal. As Nixon and George W. Bush discovered, Republicans can turn on their own.

As the administration’s credibility falls, the same rhetoric from Trump blaming media demons for Americans’ perceived plight will sound less like a promise of conflict, victory and transformation and more like excuse-making in the face of under-achievement. Trump attacks on those merely trying to report on his presidency will come to look like the product of a paranoid mindset.

The Conversation

Jon Herbert, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Director of Learning and Teaching, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Brexit, comedy and ‘Britishness’ – what to do when parody becomes real

Neil ArcherKeele University


If as it is said comedy is tragedy plus the benefit of time, sometimes time allows things to come full circle. When in 1999 Edward and Tubbs, characters from the BBC’s The League of Gentlemen, declared their Royston Vasey village store “a local shop for local people” I laughed because their narrow-minded localist zeal seemed so grotesquely out of step with the UK’s global and multicultural attitudes. But in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, where not being “local” became a figurative, legal or literal stick with which to beat others, Edward and Tubbs have lost some comic lustre and gained an eerie relevance.

In much film and television comedy of the New Labour years – such as the Simon Pegg film Hot Fuzz (2007), where civic pride concealed satanic rituals of local “cleansing”, or Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), where the threat to local produce instils villagers with a mob mentality – it is an inclusive, plural, playful sense of “Britishness” that is the implied alternative to these excesses. When I recognised the Britishness of these films and how I identified with it, I realised that, to a large extent, this Britishness did not really exist – or at least, it only existed as an ironic gesture or parody. The alternative, of course, was to assert the sort of cultural and racial essentialism that has long been among the unpalatable myths used by nationalists the world over.

In laughing along, I feel that Britishness is here defined by not taking the concept of Britishness at all seriously. This isn’t itself an innately British quality, but it could be thought of as a certain post-imperial tendency in the comedy that has shaped a prevalent part of British culture since the 1960s. The sort of comedy that is as much obsessed by historical myths of Britishness as it is derisive of them: Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ripping Yarns, Blackadder, and The League of Gentlemen.

This comic playfulness regarding Britishness has become a key vehicle for promoting British culture abroad through hugely successful rom-coms such as Notting Hill or Love Actually. That the UK tops recent indexes of global soft power owes much to the self-effacing and metropolitan charms of films such as these. It is also apt that Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean persona, Britain’s most exportable comedy brand, should have found a central role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

The inspired choice to have Atkinson’s weary keyboardist daydream his way through a travesty of Chariots of Fire’s opening scene – a film more often associated with flag-waving jingoism – helped rework the ceremony’s traditional cultural remit towards less aggressively nationalistic or historically essentialist terrain. Recall also that the show began with Her Majesty jumping from a helicopter strapped to a Union Jack parachute. Yet this same send-up of British iconography also served in the context of the ceremony as a form of soft patriotism: one that while drawing a line under Britain’s imperial past, was no less assertive even through parody of its new cultural standing in the world.

But that was 2012. The events of 2016 point towards political isolationism and more tightly prescribed notions of national identity, with significant repercussions for British comedy. How do we reconcile, for example, the divergent comedic impulses to leave or remain? The League’s village of Royston Vasey is taken from the birth name of Roy “Chubby” Brown, a foul-mouthed and anarchic British comedian who has mined cultural and ethnic prejudices to perennially popular effect. The uncomfortable potency of the League’s dark comedy comes from their willingness to flirt with sentiments that have clearly not been banished to the past, but which still churn away just under the surface.

The lessons of “Chubby” Brown and a whole other tradition of British comedy dating from the 1970s (oddly enough, the decade that Britain entered the European Economic Community), such as the Carry On films, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and Mind Your Language, are that comedy can as easily reinforce exclusive and culturally fixed notions of national identity as it can dispel them. Nor can we simply laugh away such comedy’s potent appeal, however much it might make us squirm.

The role of comedy in negotiating not only a hard or soft Brexit, but hard and soft conceptions of Britishness, will be a pressing concern both for comedy producers and those who write about it. It was perhaps fitting that this of all summers should see the BBC attempting, in an evidently nostalgic gesture, to revive popular sitcoms from the 1970s, and just as apt that the week after the EU referendum saw the release of Absolutely Fabulous – a very knowing comedy portrayal of national self-denial. The wider impact of the events of 2016 on the cultural and comedic tendencies to come remains to be seen.

Dr Neil Archer, Lecturer in Film Studies, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.