Davis by-election: Did the media get it right?

Tom Griffin
11 July 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The turnout in Haltemprice and Howden may have been better than expected, but it doesn't seems to have shifted the media narrative.

The Independent's Open House blog asks whether David Davis' re-election was a hollow victory. The Telegraph confidently concludes that it was. The BBC's Robin Lustig argues that the hoped for national debate on civil liberties never materialised, while his colleague Nick Robinson continues to see Davis's relationship with David Cameron as the real story.

In the Guardian, Martin Kettle damns Davis with faint praise, arguing that he gave 'a small push, which should not be exaggerated, to the public mood.'

But don't let's kid ourselves. It wasn't Davis or a few thousand East
Riding voters who delivered the most important blow to the government's
plans this week. It was Lady Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5,
in her devastatingly succinct maiden speech in the House of Lords. When
the recently retired head of the security services declared that the
42-day power is not justified on grounds of either practicality or
principle, the plans were holed below the water line. Where, by the
way, does her speech - and the similar speeches of so many former
police, prosecutors and judges - leave those who always claim that "the
state" is a sleepless and hegemonic conspiracy against the innocent
downtrodden? The truth is far more nuanced than the conspiracy
theorists can ever admit.

For Kettle, it seems, it is the elite debates which matter. Attempts to involve the public are at best quixotic. His account of the by-election campaign reinforces the point.

Phase one was dominated by the widespread view at Westminster that this
was a quixotic act of vanity whose main immediate consequence was to
turn the spotlight off Gordon Brown's humiliatingly narrow win in the
42-day vote and on to Davis's enduring rivalry with David Cameron. That
was quickly followed by a backlash, disproportionately from the
blogosphere, which celebrated both Davis's independence and his cause,
and which purported, without much objective evidence and in defiance of
most opinion polls, to speak for the mass of ordinary people against
the Westminster elite.

Typical bloggers, always jumping on the populist bandwagon. Except that they didn't on this occasion. True, OurKingdom, Rachel North and Paul Kingsnorth, among others, supported Davis' stand, but Iain Dale was sceptical, while the Spectator's Coffee House Blog was opposed. As for Liberal Conspiracy, lets just say that the truth was far more nuanced than the commentariat might care to admit.

If there was a backlash it was not so much from the bloggers, as from public response to the commenters, a different and perhaps more significant phenomenon as this admission from Nick Robinson, a classic Davis sceptic, makes clear:

The BBC has been inundated with calls, texts, e-mails and blog comments
praising David Davis' decision yesterday and some have questioned why I
have suggested it may be a nightmare for the Conservative Party.

Kettle just does not seem to be able to see that it was not in any way the commentariat, whether on or off line, that shifted the initially totally hostile reaction by the political class. It was members of the public themselves. 

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