Our regular guest blogger, Monimbo, reflects on Malcolm Dean’s new book ‘Democracy under attack – How the media distort policy and politics’ to be published on 9 November by The Policy Press.
Malcolm Dean, who for many years edited the Guardian Society section and wrote social policy leaders, has a new book out this month about the way the media distort social policy.
Interwoven with the story of policy-making – mainly during the Blair/Brown years – he shows time and again how politicians bent policy towards what they thought were popular sentiments, but often were simply the views promulgated by the tabloids. They sometimes did this even when there was clear evidence of public support for different policies. Regrettably, as the recent excursion of John Humphrys into welfare benefits shows, the malign influence continues, even post-News of the World.
Dean’s chapter on housing is rather different. Here is a story of not-so-benign neglect, as
the media got rid of specialist housing and planning correspondents and consigned housing stories to the business or personal finance pages. We all know why: Britain had become a nation of homeowners, and those who’d failed to jump on the bandwagon weren’t people to whom advertisers wanted to get their message across. If social housing was mentioned at all – and this is a story that goes right up to the recent riots – it was in the context of policy failure not success.
Those of us who work in social housing are rather reconciled to this, and in part are relieved that the sort of hostile attention suffered by social workers is largely avoided by housing officers. But it does mean that government targets and policy changes, with the partial recent exception of the housing benefit cuts, are largely unexamined. One downside is that if the government actually achieves something – for example, Labour’s
near-completion of the decent homes programme, in which a remarkable £37bn was
invested over a decade – it is ignored.
Even more important is that the press simply doesn’t do its job of keeping the government on their toes. Where are the articles pointing to the waste involved if decent homes aren’t maintained after this money was spent on them? Where are the stories about the virtual
extinction of inner city regeneration programmes – barely mentioned even after the riots? Or how can the almost complete silence about policy towards private renting be justified (with the exception of the admirable Dispatches programme)? Homeownership has been
falling since 2004: it has taken rather a long time for the press to catch on. As Dean points out, given that they hardly covered the sale of 2.5m homes under the right to buy, or the transfer of another 1.2m council homes to housing associations, how can they be expected to be up to date?
Now that housing is becoming an unavoidably bigger issue, the press is playing catch-up. But with the exception of one or two reporters like Peter Hetherington, it has few commentators who know about anything more than house prices, mortgages, or doing up your house, at a time when these are of declining relevance. There are several snags to this. One is that affordable rents, Supporting People cuts, ending of tenure security and a host of other crucial policy changes are analysed in Inside Housing but not in the Mail, Telegraph or even perhaps the Guardian. The other is that, despite the effects of the credit crunch, housing issues are still usually looked at only from the single-issue perspective of whether or not they will restore house price inflation.
Labour can’t do much about this, especially in opposition, but can at least try to turn media unawareness to its advantage. There is simply no reason to play the media’s
game of criticising the government for letting house prices stagnate, as shadow minister Jack Dromey did this week. Let’s put this down to early nervousness and hope that the Benn-Dromey team can come up with something more robust.
After all, the government is a sitting target on the real housing issues, without having to blame them for a pause in house-price escalation. And you never know, things might be about to get so bad that the press won’t be able to avoid paying attention.