Conservative strategy on what we now call The Ashcroft Affair has often been to use the Wombat Diversion. So when a journalist asks about Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom tax status, a well-briefed MP will point out of the window, shout “Good lord! A giant wombat is attacking parliament!” and try to change the subject.
The Wombat Diversion is a long-standing interview technique, and not just in politics. The one time I got ask Bill Gates a question, he answered it by saying, “Actually what you should be asking is…” and answering an entirely different question, which I recall being along the lines of “Why is Microsoft so excellent?”
Of course it’s not usually giant furry critters that get the blame when politicians are misdirecting; single parents and economic migrants are much more compelling as diversions from their own faults. Also, pointing at your competition and saying “Look at them! They’re just as bad as we are”, then doing a runner, is considered a good way to change the story – and one which I note the Tories were still using yesterday.
Over the last few weeks there could be an entire battle group of oversized marsupials munching on Big Ben, cheered on by feral hoodies, and it still wouldn’t have helped the Tories escape the Ashcroft day of reckoning. If we look at the amount of coverage of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status over the years, the trend is firmly upwards. With only 2007 as a break, the proportion of political stories about the Conservative Party that mentioned him kept going up for half a decade. I speculate that this is because the dissimulation became the story – a sort of wombat feedback loop:
Labour has found a similar problem. The political interviewer’s party game in the last few months has been to try to make a Labour politician say the word “cuts”. MPs have tied themselves in entertaining linguistic knots in an attempt to avoid being associated with this word. When Evan Davies is doing the interviewing on Radio 4’s Today programme, he sometimes exhausts an entire week of the BBC’s exasperation budget when trying to get Labour ministers to say “cuts” even once.
On one hand, the political machine is winning. No one has stepped out of line, in case Gordon Brown throws a tangerine at them. But the number of articles discussing the Labour party and spending cuts continues to climb. Often the articles are not about cuts, but about how the politicians refuse to talk about those cuts: more wombat feedback. The graph is a bit more up-and-down, but mostly up, with a spectacular result last September when a quarter of all political articles about Labour mentioned the “C” word:
It’s my theory that Wombat Diversions – not just for politicians, but for anyone in the media – are becoming ineffective. We are more comfortable than our parents were with the idea of leaders (that’s CEOs and football captains as well as MPs) as liars and cheats who are cynically manipulating us based on little more than their lust for wealth and glory. On second thoughts, maybe “comfortable” isn’t quite the word, but you see what I mean. And so, at that point, we stop looking for what they are saying, and start looking for what they are not saying, and discuss that instead. The longer they keep not saying it, the harder we look.
Second, it’s much easier to spot evasion and misdirection when you can Google it afterwards. Even the BBC had good sport yesterday by stringing together a series of interviews in which senior Tories tried the Ashcroft Wombat Diversion in all its forms: strung together, the spluttering evasions were comedy gold. A Wombat Diversion might keep the story off the front pages in the short term, but thanks to internet reporting there are an unlimited number of other pages where it can incubate.
Foolish media trainers still consider this type of misdirection to be useful, but times have changed: whether a you are a product marketing manager or you’re Baron Ashcroft, it’s not up to you any more to decide what peasants talk about. For example: if people hate your set-top boxes you can’t get away with saying that you’ve got a new one coming out soon! if you have 109 one-star reviews on Amazon for the one people are buying today. Politics is going through the same process.
A sad consequence of this is that, when mutant Wombats really do attack the Mother of Parliaments, it will take us by surprise. “Why didn’t the powers that be warn us?” we will ask as giant furballs chomp their way through the House of Lords. It would be ironic, at this point, if Lord Ashcroft escaped death because he was in Belize, filling in his tax return.