Did the general election just prove that Croydon’s media doesn’t matter?

By - Thursday 21st May, 2015

For those disappointed by Gavin Barwell’s return to Croydon Central, Jonny Rose has some hard truths

Charlie Hedbo: Media that still matters.
Photo by Ctruongngoc, used under Creative Commons licence.

In the early hours of Friday 8th May 2015, Croydon Central returned Gavin Barwell (Cons.) for another five years representing the borough’s interests in parliament.

For some, it was a well-deserved victory. For many, however, it was unbelievable: it was inconceivable that all the terrible things they had heard, read and – in some cases – actively help spread over the years had not led to a new Croydon Central MP.

Media as a political corrective and moral mandate

Local media has long been a vehicle to encourage improved political transparency, accountability and participation. Without reliable information, it would be impossible for citizens to use their power effectively at election time, nor would they be aware of the problems and issues that need active consideration beyond voting.

Since the media are the main source of information in a local democracy – they are a vital link between the government and citizens, and are an indispensable precondition for both government accountability and social accountability. The daily flow of news generates a “running tally” of government policies, political events and the actions of political officials on the basis of which citizens make their choices.

Beyond the concerns about the brute mechanics and economics of journalism is the fact that news can make a difference in people’s lives. From that basic truth rises a moral mandate that journalists and  news consumers should recognise. Editors and journalists see themselves as truth-tellers and saviours: which often explains their zeal, and – perhaps – their more eccentric proclivities.

Croydon media: speaking truth to power?

For better or worse, Croydon has a boisterous media culture that has been full-throated in keeping our local politicians to account – all the more so in the run up to the general election.

Exhibit A: Inside Croydon. For more than five years the hyperlocal blog dutifully documented every slip-up (both real and imagined) by the Croydon Central MP, culminating in a heady pre-election week in which the site published damning accounts of Gavin’s “cosy” relationship with developers, circulating letters of support from “vulnerable” septuagenarians, and hyped up claims of aiding a beleaguered Crystal Palace in 2010.

Exhibit B: The Croydon Advertiser. The local paper has been a continual (and well-researched) thorn in the side of the incumbent MP nailing him on indiscretions such as flattering amendments to his Wikipedia page. Most notably, the (then) editor Glenn Ebrey and Gavin ended up on BBC’s Daily Politics after the local paper’s comical call for the MP to stop cynically launching petitions to collect locals’ email addresses.

Exhibit C: The Croydon Guardian. Similarly, the local paper has delivered excellent, methodical pieces – beating the Evening Standard with the story of the inconvenient campaign messaging that saw Gavin tell supporters to “not mention David Cameron”.

Exhibit D: Twitter. Any regular user of Twitter in Croydon will be aware of the harsh, ungracious and deliciously sociopathic timbre of political discussion. In particular, a vocal group of anti-Barwell residents have dominated the social network in recent years, frenetically disseminating much of the content created by A, B, and C. Notably, #BarwellFacts trended in Croydon on the day of the election as local football fans piled on to mock Gavin’s supposed ‘intervention’ to save Crystal Palace.

And, in the end, it didn’t matter one jot: Gavin was still re-elected. Albeit, with his majority of nearly 3,000 slashed to 165, but a win nonetheless.

What good is being better informed if it doesn’t lead to better action?

We’ve lied to ourselves.

We’ve confused retweets with revolution.

We’ve mistaken shares for solidarity.

We’ve made clicks equal campaigning.

Newsflash: the revolution was never meant to be quantified in ‘Unique Visits’ to your website

For too long, local media has adopted an oppositional or confrontational role in society which is insufficient and misses other key roles that it can play in fostering more effective state-society relationships. Media should seek to create trustworthy spaces that bring disparate groups together to discuss, mediate and collectively problem-solve – especially at the local level.

Croydon’s media is not a significantly corrective force for good that speaks truth to power. At best, it’s an aggregator of the malcontented. A beacon for the incapable to gather around and grumble. An echo chamber for armchair opiners and slacktivists. Never to be seen in the civic square and forever doomed to inconsequential ‘What-About-ery’ in comments sections.

Croydon’s media has led to more people being more informed, but let’s not pretend that this has led to anyone acting on that information.

This article was amended at 12:15pm on Thursday 21st May to correct an error regarding the size of Gavin Barwell’s majority.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Bob_G

    Well, I followed the Croydon media with interest during the campaign, as I work and often play here, even if I live over the border in the Mitcham & Morden constituency. And over there, I took an active part in campaigning. I think the local media were very useful in both, probably a lot more so in Croydon. Having all the information out there really helped. On the doorstep, the local issues discussed were the ones raised by local media. I’m sure people’s minds were changed. In the last council elections, I know they were. But people are nowadays very media-savvy. And this was a national election. Many of the anti-Barwell articles and tweets came across as anti-Barwell (or anti-Tory), not as disinterested presentations of “facts”; That caused many people to discount them. But the key thing is that nationally, TV beats all the local media in setting the tone in a national election. And the Tories’ national message cultivating a fear of Milliband and his potential SNP bedfellows as economic wreckers totally trumped both local issues and Labour’s pathetic national message (despite local opposition parties trying hard to focus people on local issues). So, good job local media, keep it up, you help keep people informed, but don’t expect to make a huge political impact in national elections. You are not Rupert Murdoch. Thankfully. :-)

  • David Callam

    It is difficult to assess the effect of local media on Gavin Barwell’s political fortunes. Who knows what finally triggers voters to put their crosses in particular boxes? Suffice to say that Gavin now has an uncomfortably small majority. Will that see him ousted next time? That depends as much on national trends as local ones. Did Gavin keep his seat this year because too many Labour supporters didn’t trust Ed Miliband to be prime minister? Maybe, who knows? The battle will be joined again in 2020 and both major parties will throw even more resources at the constituency. And one will be successful. But who knows which, or why?

  • David White

    I agree with Bob_G. In a national election factors like local press reporting and social media have only a small effect. The reputation of an incumbent MP and the effectiveness of the parties’ organisation in getting out the vote have slightly more impact.

    However the biggest influencing factors are national TV and press and the parties’ national message. The Tories won in my opinion because they kept hammering home a few key phrases, like “a Labour Government backed by the SNP” and “Labour messed up the economy”. Whereas I don’t accept the premise of either of these points they convinced enough of the public to swing things.

  • MrsBTejon

    Perhaps he won because more people in central cronx wanted to vote conservative?