As a spin doctor, I teach people how to get the headlines that work for them. It is more art than science but it is a well-understood set of principles.
Somehow or other in the last 10 years those of a right-wing bent have gotten better and better at this game, taking it to extremes that many of us find uncomfortable. And while the right gets bolder and becomes more outspoken, those who are liberal and left-wing have all but given up the game.
Abbott: Let Relatives Die of COVID
The row ignited by Tony Abbott’s comments in a speech at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London last week is just the latest example. His comments about ‘letting people die’ rather than having the economic damage of lockdowns seem to me to be deliberately phrased to get media attention ahead of his appointment as Trade Envoy. Here is the Guardian write up.
And while the media report the headline comments, social media is quick to throw lots of fuel on the fire.
In different times, courting outrage would pause the hand of a Prime Minister about to appoint a foreigner to a high-profile advisory position. But today it seems to have either had no influence or helped the cause.
The reality of health economics – how much it is worth spending to keep someone (even someone we love) alive – is a real dilemma that we all have to grapple with at some point in our lives. Whether with pets, elderly parents or ourselves. Society has to grapple with this too. It is a difficult issue and any sane person knows the answer is neither ‘it doesn’t matter how much it costs’ or ‘just let them die’. It is a nuanced sensitive issue that can quickly cause hurt, harm and outrage if phrased badly.
Abbott: Being insensitive and outspoken wins publicity
Most people in public life would be very careful about tackling the question directly. By being insensitive and outspoken Abbott wins a lot of publicity. Here, for example, is a Sky interview with the UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, where 3 minutes is devoted to Abbott’s comments and impending appointment. Aren’t there more relevant things that our Transport Secretary should be asked about? Of course, the tone of the interview is negative. No one does outrage like Kay Burley. And most normal people would find it horrible to be discussed publicly in this way. But I am prepared to bet that Abbott is far from displeased.
I have just finished listening to, rather than reading, the book Tribes by the Labour MP David Lammy. He bucks the trend and is an unusually outspoken voice on the left, no stranger to courting controversy himself. I found the book a somewhat unsatisfactory mixture of big thinking, personal anecdote and discussion of the issue of race but there were some good takeaways. In particular, when talking about how being extreme in one’s views and choice of words is being rewarded by the algorithms of social media and the news cycle – with the effect of pushing us all into one camp or the other, and pushing the camps further and further apart. Why the right seems to be winning this damaging battle is a mystery to me and I would welcome other people’s views.
But in the meantime, I believe Tony Abbott is manipulating the UK news cycle with his ‘let your relatives die’ comments. He would have barely been known in the UK before that speech and his appointment would have had a lot less coverage.
Image: Tony Abbott, YouTube