Photo: Invasion of the dinosaurs from Chris Blakeley flickr photostream

Last week, Boris Johnson claimed to relax by making model buses in his spare time, which were met with some incredulity. It was widely reported, and the general reaction seemed to be it was yet another bizarre interview, with commentators arguing it once more demonstrated Johnson’s sense of entitlement, where he can say whatever he wants, no matter how absurd or questionable, and get away with it. The absurdity of his comments were certainly what grated, they did not appear to have any relevance or make any sense. That was until a possible explanation was offered two days later. Rumours began to appear on the internet that Johnson’s statements were a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) strategy, intended to bury previous comments he has made about buses (most notably the Brexit bus). If this is the case, and the modelling and crafting never happened, then there are real questions about the relationship between politicians and the media, and how it is ‘fake news’, rather than buses that are being modelled and crafted by politicians.

If this is true then it marks a very clear strategy of using the media to set a specific news agenda. In and of itself, attempting to influence the news agenda is not anything new, the novelty here lies in what this story from Johnson does, through a process of indirect, rather than direct, influence. In terms of understanding issues of direct media influence, we might consider Johnson’s 2013 ‘dead cat strategy’;

“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”

In one sense, this would appear to be what he has done. Faced with claims about his private life, his lack of public engagement and so forth, he has sallied forth with a purportedly relatable story about his private life, designed to directly impact upon the news agenda and make him appear personable and human. But, in a twist, Jess Melia, posted a blog stating that rather than a dead cat strategy, this story was all about internet search rankings. In this sense, the action and intention are much more indirect, and much more subtle. Prior to the heart-warming tales of wine crates, dividing things and modelling (watch the video) and internet search for ‘boris bus’ brought up stories about the claimed £350 million a week that could be spent on the NHS instead of the EU, (a claim widely discredited), or stories questioning the success of Johnson’s campaign to revitalise the iconic Routemaster bus in London.  Now, post-modelling revelations, search up the term ‘boris bus’ and you are inundated with links to the interview. On the top page, of course the search results continue to report the other stories as well, but they are not the top stories, the top stories all relate to the interview.

Again, none of this is particularly remarkable, were these processes not a feature of how the media works (and indeed how it has always worked) there would be no need for media strategists in the employ of political parties, or indeed any organisations seeking to influence the news agenda. However, what is worthy of note, in the current internet age, is the apparent transparency of the process in relation to the idea of ‘fake news’. Steerpike, the gossip columnist at the right-leaning Spectator magazine, reported this story under a “Boris bus conspiracy” strapline. It is all dealt with in a spirit of conjecture, whereby Johnson is credited with not just controlling the media narrative, but ‘practically rewriting it’. If true, Steerpike concludes, “perhaps there’s some hidden genius in the Boris campaign after all…”. This statement is the point of my post here, it is this element that I feel is novel. Because what we see here is the lauding of a process of (indirect) manipulation of the media, where the indirect manipulation is plainly self-evident, but (and this is pivotal) also patently unprovable. It could be a clearly calculated strategic action, or it could be a dead cat, or it could be both (I am reminded here about Jeremy Vine’s recent blog about the crafted persona of Johnson, whereby Vine outlines how this appears to be an effected persona). And this is the point. Over the years, the number of dead cats that Johnson has thrown mean that even if this is a more long-term SEO strategy, it is easily discounted as a yet another dead cat. In this sense the foil and counterfoil of political debate become part of a wider game. It marks another instance of the rather febrile ‘post-truth’ politics which make some kinds of information easier to put into the world than others.

The subtle use of one positive association with model buses to bury other more negative associations
stories about actual buses can be seen to be both direct and indirect attempts to influence the news agenda, in ways that do much to denigrate the concepts of truth and accountability in contemporary politics. A telling insight (and perhaps even a damning inditement) on these processes, is that as I write this in preparation for publication on Wednesday, I am conscious that by then the story might already be out of date, that things will have moved on, that more ‘dead cats’ will have been thrown on the table. In this sense I am reminded of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. All there is now is spectacle and representation and the only political action is to interfere in representation. The spectacles get faster and faster, so are instantly forgotten – 6 million people sign a petition or 1 million+ march through London. Parliament holds a vote which rules out a no deal Brexit. These stories seem to make headlines for a day before things move on to the next spectacle, and nothing seems to change except the increasing sense of horror at watching it all unfold. And it seems that those on the right are really good at this – maybe those on the progressive/liberal left need to start getting a whole lot better at interfering in representation and producing ‘spectacle’?