In media management, celebrities often fall foul of what’s known as the Streisand Effect. This is when an attempt to keep something secret ends up inadvertently publicising it even more widely than before – the effect is named after Barbara Streisand’s backfiring efforts to censor photographs of her home.
We see this in action all the time – a form of public relations jiu-jitsu by which anyone who appears to be the victim of suppression by a bigger, richer, more powerful opponent instantly gains a boost in terms of publicity and public sympathy. This is an accustomed script and role which is now instantly recognisable: the brave underdog, the David and Goliath battle, “the person/campaign/video/book they tried to ban”.
The Streisand Effect applies in politics, too. Think of David Cameron’s dismissal of UKIP as “fruitcakes”, or, John Major’s attack on “the bastards” who opposed the Maastricht Treaty. Those insults became a badge of honour, and ended up helping not harming their intended targets.
No-one minds a bit of political rough and tumble – but even leaving aside what’s true, right or fair, it’s obviously bad strategy to go too far, to the extent that the speaker appears to be a bully. Which is bad news for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, which have labelled those Tory MPs who are considering rebellion on the EU Withdrawal Bill “mutineers” and “traitors”, respectively.
The Telegraph‘s splash earlier this week has backfired particularly badly. Various of those MPs involved have turned “mutineer” into a term to be proud of, and are in the process of milking their new status as victims of a bilious press for all it is worth. There’s nothing wrong with doing so – Eurosceptic MPs subjected to similar treatment did so, and anyone in the position of rebellious rump would be wise to follow suit, given the opportunity. Senior Leavers, like Steve Baker, have rushed to limit the damage done by the headline, publicly welcoming proper scrutiny and robust debate from parliamentary colleagues.
Of course, it’s not untrue to identify various of these MPs as would-be rebels. The last couple of days of debate in the Commons have shown that various of them do indeed intend to vote against the Government on one or more amendments to the Withdrawal Bill, though we shouldn’t get overheated and start imagining that they will bring down the Government and put Corbyn into power. It’s even not unreasonable to consider that some of them might privately believe that if they do all they can to make it theoretically possible to delay Brexit (for example, by rejecting a specific date on which we leave), then the flame of possibly staying in the EU after all can be kept alive, however marginally.
The question remains, though: why do two of the giants of the centre right press think this response is the best way to challenge the rebels? While they might have stirred some satisfying sense of outrage among a portion of their readership, that is outweighed by the way their words have strengthened the position of their targets.
To an extent, this is just another incidence of the ongoing Eurosceptic struggle between self-indulgence and self-denial, the dilemma between doing what makes us feel good or what actually works – a division exemplified by the split between Leave.EU and Vote Leave. Firing up the Outrage Bus, as the papers are doing, no doubt appeals to the gut instincts of a sizeable share of their core readership, and in this instance doing that won out over the urge to actually succeed. It might be that this is a deliberate choice – a strategy of actively prioritising short-term reader satisfaction over long-term political success – but the blunt alternative is that there might not be anybody putting that much thought into it from a strategic perspective at all.
Unfortunately, this is also a symptom of declining power. There’s still a great deal of life in the giants of Fleet Street, but their influence is no longer as overwhelming and uncontested as it once was. One traditional response to a shrinking voice is to increase the shrillness of one’s pronouncements (see Farron, Tim). Incidentally, that relationship doesn’t always work in the opposite direction – as the new Corbynite blogs become more influential, there has been no sign of them becoming more responsible, sensible or accurate. But an inverse link between influence and reasonable tone certainly seems to be at play in the case of the newspapers.
The question for Conservatives – at any level, and of any perspective on the EU or other issues – is what to do to prevent future backfiring attacks like this by supposed allies. Better communication with the centre right press couldn’t hurt, by Downing Street and by the Conservative Party as a whole. But they also need to take a careful and concerned look at the media environment which makes problems like this more, not less, likely. A weaker and weaker Tory press is a problem – due to the support it can no longer provide, and due to the increased likelihood it will act in a way that harms, not helps, the cause.