I think it must have been about 2004 that the penny dropped. But habits are strong things, and it probably wasn’t until around 2008 that I had modified my behaviour. Following the news makes you less informed than reading history. I still watch the news when something is going on that has caught my attention. Who wouldn’t want to hear Barak Obama’s first speech as president? And long running events like the Arab Spring and the financial crisis have a sort of soap opera like ability to keep you tuning in to see what happens next. And it pays to know the name of the head of state of countries in Europe. But I no longer feel that I need to consume the news every day or follow every twist and turn of what is going on with any great degree of attention. Instead, I have increased the amount of history I read. As a result, I feel better informed.
How can this be the case? Surely reporting is the first draft of history and if I want to be a good citizen I should keep up to the minute with current events? I don’t think this has ever in fact been true, but it certainly is not true in the age of 24 hour news and always on internet connections. The trouble is that close and continual observation does not increase understanding. Biologists don’t find out more about animals by watching them around the clock for years on end. Economists don’t get any better an idea of how markets work by checking on the latest market index every few minutes. To really know what is going on you need to step back and get the bigger picture, which is exactly what the news media doesn’t do and in its current format does even less well than it used to.
There is no category of news story that undermines your true understanding of events than opinion polls. Political junkies, of whom I used to be one, study these with great interest. Small changes in the figures are talked over, analysed and discussed. Whether a particular politician is doing well or badly is often debated purely in terms of how well he is perceived to be doing in the polls. But how much do they really tell us? When I look at polls in the UK (please excuse my UK bias here) over the last 40 years it is interesting just how little they really tell us. At any point in that period I would probably be able to give you a pretty good estimate of the standing of the two main parties in the polls, and most of the time of the minor parties as well. But really there have only been a few occasions when the polls have shifted. Labour lost a huge chunk of its support to the centre party when some of its MPs changed party in the early eighties. For the next 15 years Tory support was pretty solid and they won all the elections. In 1992 the Pound was forced out of the exchange rate mechanism and Tory support took a huge dive, within days. It stayed low until 2007. In 2007 Gordon Brown took over from Tony Bair as leader of the Labour party. This had no effect until the party conference of that year where he hinted that he was about to call an election and then did not do so. This simple enough bit of political gamesmanship seems to have really cheesed people off and Labour’s poll rating plummeted almost overnight. It hasn’t recovered yet.
Or has it? The most recent polls have shown a sudden drop in Tory support following the budget. This is just the pattern that I have seen before. Something triggers off people to consider their political allegiance. This is leads to a large and very rapid change in the poll numbers. Once changed, it stays changed for some time – a time measured in years.
So my prediction is that the Tories may have a real problem. From now until the next election the media will make the poll rating the story. Small changes and statistical variations will be pored over. Meetings will be held by party leaders. Initiatives will be launched. Columns will appear in newspapers. But none of it will make the slightest difference.