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In a Lobster's Eye: truth, power and print

The role of the writer in politics is to speak truth to power. But the relationship of politicians to the truth has shifted over the last generation, due in part to the perceived power of the media. So how do the writers who would be speakers of the truth respond?
Robin Ramsay
29 July 2011

Two days after Dan Hind asked me to write this, I dumped three boxes of back copies of Lobster in the blue, paper recycling bin. Lobster was a little magazine, a hard copy magazine, that I published between 1983 and a couple of years ago when I gave up paper and began putting it on the Net.  It was my custom to print an extra 100 copies of every issue and what’s left of them is now in my loft, a couple of thousand back copies no-one will buy. Before I went digital I used to sell a steady trickle of back issues (and every little helps with a small magazine with no advertising). Now the whole thing is on-line the trickle has all but dried up.

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It is all vaguely symbolic. Lobster began with gum, scalpels and off-set litho; along came computers and computer setting; and finally it’s just words on a server somewhere on-line. And here I am adding another thousand to the unquantifiable zillions of words cluttering-up cyberspace.  

There is an expression, truth speaking to power, which encapsulates a notion of the role of writers in politics. I first heard it used by the Canadian diplomat-turned-writer, Peter Dale Scott, when I interviewed him in 1986. I googled the expression as I was writing this: it was the title of a 1955 pamphlet put out by the American Quakers. (It does, indeed, sound Quakerish, does it not?) 

The writer’s role appealed, of course. ‘Speaking truth’ sounds great, doesn’t it? And for years I trundled along vaguely thinking that’s what I was doing, if I thought about it at all; in the early years of Lobster just getting something out on a budget of zero was a miracle. But, sadly, power simply isn’t interested in the truth.  

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The closest I have come – most of us come – to power is politicians. (And it is they who still have the ultimate power in this society: they make the laws; though they have been persuaded that real power lies elsewhere.) Looking back, it took me an embarrassingly long time to grasp that politicians were developing an entirely different approach to the truth from the one that had guided them in the past. 

We've reached the point now where for most politicians data has value or not. It’s useful or not. It gets them on the media or not. It does opponents damage or not. It helps them hang onto their seat or not. Yes, of course, they ask ‘Is it true?’ because they don’t want to tell lies or look stupid on camera. But that’s all.  ‘Because X is true’ implies nothing to most politicians. 

This is a big bump on the road. Why speak truth to people who have no interest in the truth?   

The game has changed. A few years before Lobster started it was still the role of the leaders of political parties, particularly parties who were not in government, to try and work out what to do; which policies will create jobs, reduce unemployment, build houses, protect the environment - whatever. In the mid 1970s Mrs Thatcher and her faction in the Tory Party looked for a solution to inflation, then perceived to be the biggest economic problem. They plumped for monetarism. In a sense it doesn’t matter what they chose: what matters is that they did choose policies. Modern politicians – Ed Miliband and his team, for example – are not asking themselves ‘What does the economy/country need?’  But: ‘How can we win the next election? What can we find that is acceptable both to the major media and our focus groups?’  And this means that even if I had access to Miliband and his team (and I don’t) I would be wasting my time (and theirs) talking to them.  The Labour Party last took policy formation – took the national interest, to use an older concept – seriously in 1986/7; and even then the policy review's conclusions were ditched by Neil Kinnock.

Oh dear, some readers of this will be thinking, we’re back to the bloody Labour Party. Not quite. In the 1980s, however vaguely it worked, there was something called ‘the labour movement’, whose focal point was the Labour Party. When I was writing for and producing Lobster in those days, had I been asked who my target audience was, I would have said, ‘I don’t have a target audience. But I’m writing within the labour movement’. (I was also a member of the Labour Party then and wrote regularly for Tribune.) I had no idea who was reading Lobster; and that didn’t matter. In some vague way I figured I was pitching my tiny little boat onto the great political and intellectual stream that was the British labour movement. That has now all but gone. Despite the best efforts of a lot of people no way has been found to recreate it – or replace it.         

This has happened because of the perceived power of the media. It is almost universally believed among politicians that stepping outside the mainstream, the spectrum which has the shit media (Murdoch, Daily Mail) at one end and the BBC at the other, will mean destruction. I have never believed this; and the career of Ken Livingstone, to take the obvious example, suggests it simply isn’t true. And even if it is true, it no longer matters. There is nothing to be gained by ‘progressive forces’ or ‘the labour movement’ in electing another bunch of be-suited careerists (of either sex). And if we’re going to end up with a Clegg-Miliband anyway, why bother placating the shit media?

Robin Ramsay is editor of Lobster magazine.

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