Earlier this summer I watched “The Thick of It", a British TV show from the 2000s about the inner workings of the government and media. It’s really popular with UK government types, and watching it I immediately understood why. It feels very accurate even to someone like me who is familiar with, but not really part of, the London media and political scene. Watching the character archetypes I felt like I had met these people.
The reason I’m writing a review of the show is because time has turned it into an unintentional period piece. It depicts the relationship between government and media during a transitional period between the 20th century and today. The show, set in the mid-2000s, revolves around a “spin doctor” who spends his days aggressively managing the press, texting his contacts on a Blackberry, and yelling $#$#@$!@ in an angry Scottish accent.
The premise of the show is the dysfunctions of a government that is in thrall to public relations. And this is the 2000s, so the concern is not about what people are saying on Twitter, but rather the deregulated traditional media. The ur-example would be papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, and new tabloids such as the Daily Mail.
One way to see the internet is as a black swan that came out of a general trend towards media choice that started in the 1980s — partly a conscious cultural choice, and partly the effect of better and better information technologies, from VHS to cable to web sites.
As a direct result of greater media choice, competition between news outlets becomes more intense, news cycles get shorter and more information makes its way to the public. This forces greater transparency upon people in power, and forces them to constantly have to earn their legitimacy.
5. The super-Dunbar world requires markets and hierarchies, with elites exercising power. But they have never had to obtain legitimacy from the public on such a direct, continuous basis. — Conversation between Arnold Kling and Martin Gurri.
The early response from government to a more demanding media was simply improving public relations. The idea of a “spin doctor” originated in the 1980s, right at the start of the information revolution, but only began to be seen as problematic in the early 2000s, as new media outlets like Fox News and the Daily Mail reached scale, and the information war really started to heat up.
A recurring theme in “The Thick of It” is the government dysfunction that results from managing the relatively freer flow of information:
- The need to build personal relationships with media figures and having nepotistic “tit-for-tat” agreements
- Junior people using leaks to undermine long-timers and further their own careers
- Action being constrained by professionals thinking first about how some initiative will look, rather than if it is a good idea or will work
- The “spin doctor” having an absurd amount of veto power over what people are allowed to do.
The result is an incestuous but ineffective media-political complex desperately trying to form alliances to hold on to their influence, but frequently falling into infighting. It’s an early, toned-down version of what we see happening all over the world today.
The last season is set in 2012, just as social media is reaching the level of scale necessary to affect news media. You have your first mentions of iPhone and Twitter — and this is the also the season where all the above trends accelerate and the whole complex of alliances really fall apart.
The plot revolves around a fictionalized version of the real-life Leveson inquiry, an investigation into ethics in political journalism. At the time I was living in the UK but didn’t pay much attention to it, but the media covered it 24/7. It was the ultimate “inside baseball” story of the media covering hearings about other people in the media.
With the context of the latter half of this decade, it now looks like the beginning of the end for a certain type of mass-media-driven legitimacy. The investigation was triggered by outrage over journalists hacking phones. A recurring theme in the scandal was that the police and politicians and journalists were all helping each other cover up. There’s no direct link to social media, but this case was ignored throughout the 2000s before public opinion became more demanding in 2011.
In the final season of the TV show, we see the end of “spin doctors” and the rise of something else. The practices that worked to manage the public opinion during the 2000s are no longer effective.
“And whilst you’ve been doing that, everybody else has been changing, and it’s all a bit softcore now, it’s all a bit algorithms now.” — Final Episode
What seems to happen during the last season, and in real life, is that the government mostly gives up on trying to control public opinion, and instead starts changing what it is doing. There is even a parody Steve Hilton character who is trying and failing to reform a stodgy bureaucracy. And much like in real life, the younger characters get a lot more power than you would expect before.
I don’t think the writers of this show intended to create a period piece illustrating Martin Gurri’s hypothesis about how the internet and broadly media choice is reshaping government. It’s a really cynical and mean-spirited black comedy, and usually I can’t really enjoy stuff like that because of my fairly positive view of human nature. It’s also a bit of a boring show about bad suits and stodgy bureaucrats, even though it is often funny. However, nearly 15 years after it first aired, the social media revolution has made it fascinating in retrospect.