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First as tragedy, second as podcasts

Politicians keep launching podcasts. The medium’s veneer of authenticity only works to reinforce establishment discourse, argues Daniel Eales

5 to 6 minute read

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (left) and former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls (right) recording the pilot episode of their podcast Political Currency

Our political class has jumped on a trend – for some of them have decided to enter the noble profession of podcasting. Hardly a month can go by, without a Conservative and Labour politician announcing their new partnership – sometimes with a journalist joining them for good measure. This has not happened in a vacuum, and it certainly isn’t just because they want to have fun together. Instead, it is because they serve as a tool whereby politicians can engage with public discourse while avoiding the public.

Our politicians generally view engaging with the public as an annoyance. When challenged, they will do all they can to shut it down. Most will refuse to answer, maybe change the subject. Some, like David Lammy when confronted by protesters opposing Labour’s support for Israel’s crimes across Palestine, run away. 

Recent developments within the Labour Party are illustrative of this top-down approach to shaping discourse, where there has been a great effort to curtail support for Palestine – even to the point of Labour sources describing those who criticise Israeli war crimes as ‘fleas’ to be shaken off. This is often done in collaboration with traditional media, which even some of those entrenched within this political culture, like James O’Brien, can selectively admit to it.

But, this top-down approach requires tools to make it work. While often done in collaboration with traditional media institutions, the possibility of new ways to achieve this has a clear appeal to it.

Alternative media

And yet, for a long time, politicians were at a disadvantage. They could influence discourse but they have never had complete control. Instead, a delicate balancing act existed between the various factions of the bourgeois. Blair, and New Labour, showed us this through their deference to Rupert Murdoch, where a ‘deal had been done’ to ensure the media moguls’ support.

Since those days, there has been a rise of alternative media platforms. Bernie Sanders used these alternative platforms to push forward a ‘digital-first’ campaign to great benefit, becoming one of America’s most influential political figures – even if he failed to become President.

Despite the impact of alternative media, most UK politicians remained behind the curve. Although the launch of Reasons to be Cheerful, the podcast hosted by Ed Miliband and George Lloyd is one early example of an establishment politician jumping on the trend. Miliband and Lloyd have dealt with everything from interviewing Bernie Sanders to covering NFTS.

More important than what Reasons to be Cheerful covered, is how it provided Miliband with a sympathetic platform he otherwise lacked. Far from his defeat in 2015, he now enjoys near-universal approval amongst Labour’s membership. The role of a platform inherently sympathetic to him in this cannot be underestimated. 

New platforms, old problems

Such sympathetic platforms allow politicians to humanise themselves, and humanise rhetoric that, previously, was delivered at a distance through press briefings, or perhaps by an appearance on Good Morning Britain. But now, they invite us into a cosy studio, sometimes even into their homes, and repeat establishment rhetoric in a way that feels very much like a conversation you could be included in. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls’ Political Currency, owned by Persephonica, is a prime example of this. Both now journalists outside of Parliament, Osborne as London’s Evening Standard editor and Balls as a host of Good Morning Britain, they have created a veneer of being distant from ‘front line politics’, and simply want to focus on their noble aim of ‘help[ing] voters make better decisions about what’s going on’.

But, with their launch involving leveraging contacts across Downing Street for its video, coupled with a pre-launch appearance on BBC Radio 2, it is clear that their podcast simply functions as an ideological tool for the establishment – hiding behind supposedly uncontroversial terms like ‘better decisions’, a familiar call to an unchallengeable ‘common sense’, as Gramsci understood it.

Such sympathetic platforms allow politicians to humanise themselves, and humanise rhetoric that, previously, was delivered at a distance

This is clear when they discuss Israel’s crimes across Gaza, with a snide mention of the remaining left presence in Labour, or when Balls smiles along with Osborne’s anecdote about the Queen politically intervening against austerity – but only to save a military bagpipe school she was fond of. Indeed, this harkens back to how Ed Balls, as Shadow Chancellor, simply promised austerity-lite. Truly, this is all just an extension of establishment decisions of what is ‘sensible’ politics and what isn’t. 

Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s The Rest is Politics, owned by Goalhanger Podcasts, performs the same function. In one instance, they both lined up to praise Henry Kissinger, even deriding Stewart’s teenage questioning of his role in the illegal bombing of Cambodia as a ‘lefty phase’. In this, they immediately highlight the term, tone, and substance of the debates which they think are ‘valid’ – of which political narratives are worthy of discussion, and which to dismiss.

This is not new. Indeed, Campbell has shown his great disdain for accountability, declaring questions about his role in spinning support for the Iraq War as ‘boring’. In this, The Rest is Politics and Political Currency are the same. 

These platforms are even used to try and humanise those involved. In fact, Campbell reveals his great regret is ‘underestimating how 24/7’ his job was – while Stewart laments how he treated girlfriends when he was younger. For those of us who recall their destructive careers, these moments ring hollow. For those unaware, they provide a clear difference between where we usually hear establishment opinion and alternative platforms.  

The result of such a difference? A novel way of maintaining hegemonic political narratives. Those responsible for these podcasts are used to this – it is their own political function. Everything from Campbell’s role as a professional spinner to seeing how Balls reacts to Owen Jones’ – a man he shares a party with – acknowledgement of Israel’s war crimes highlights this.

Revolutionary podcasting

Ultimately, the ways The Rest is Politics and Political Currency have found success through alternative platforms demonstrate the usefulness of such platforms in creating political narratives. 

But, alternative platforms can be different. They can be used for revolutionary purposes instead – to challenge hegemonic political narratives and provide a space for education, agitation, and highlighting the struggles of the dispossessed. 

This is not optional; it is a necessity. The need to build a functional revolutionary press is more important than ever – to challenge the ongoing genocide of Palestinians, to agitate over the routine inaction we witness over the climate crisis, and to help us organise. This need, as Lenin understood, was not simply ‘bookishness’ – but ‘the most practical plan for immediate and all-round preparation of the uprising’.

Utilising these new, novel, alternative platforms can then have a revolutionary purpose. Revolutionary podcasting, if done right, would not just be a challenge to establishment use of alternative platforms – but a powerful way for us to challenge the hegemonic narratives they’ve built.  

Daniel Eales is an activist in the Northwest of England with a focus on ecology, political organising and political education

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