As happens from time to time, Kevin McKenna has hit upon an interesting and possibly important point. Or half of one, at least. Some might say that it takes no uncommon perspicacity to discern that distraction is a strategy much favoured by political actors. But Kevin McKenna does us a service by pointing out the extent to which this strategy is now deployed; and the degree to which it has been developed. What he neglects, however, is something which might be considered a necessary corollary to the strategy of distraction. But which might also be regarded as a strategy in its own right. I refer to the power of actively ignoring.
It follows that if you – as a political actor – are creating a diversion by which to draw the public’s attention to an issue then you are almost by definition seeking to take attention away from some other issue. Presumably, an issue which might be embarrassing were it to be sufficiently attended to. In other words, as much as you want the public to attend to something you are hoping they will ignore another thing. This would be passive ignoring. If the distraction is successful then the general public isn’t even aware that they are disregarding another matter. At the very least, the distraction must alter the public’s perception and prioritisation of the issue the political actor is seeking to divert attention from. The distraction is, if it is to function as such, perceived as being of greater importance than the other matter – whatever that might be. If the manipulators of public perception – principally the mainstream media – do their dubious duty well, the manipulated are quite convinced that the perceptions are theirs and the prioritisation a product of their own reasoned assessment of the issues.
Obviously, the distraction isn’t going to be effective if the issue from which the public are to be distracted enters their consciousness. Ideally, the political actor would wish the public to be totally oblivious to the potentially embarrassing issue. To qualify as a possible embarrassment it must be a matter of some significance – such as might be expected to engage the public’s attention should they become aware of it. Attempts to forcibly suppress such issues seldom work because the very act of suppressing is enough to attract unwanted attention. Which is not to say that politicians can be expected to be above resorting to heavy-handed measures in extremis. But the safer approach is to actively ignore the issue. Particularly if the bulk of the mainstream media can be relied upon to follow suit.
Actively ignoring involves assiduously not responding where a response would normally be expected. It means not answering questions. Not acknowledging enquiries. Not commenting, refuting, rebutting or denying or dismissing. Not reacting to provocation. Total blanking. Or as close to total blanking as can be achieved. If enough of the right people treat a matter as a non-issue, that is what it will be – a non-issue.
It can readily be seen how active ignoring would aid any attempted distraction. The public’s attention is finite. The more attention is afforded to one matter, the less there is for any other issue. But the public’s attention is also fickle. It can switch from one issue to another almost instantaneously and quite unpredictably. Even to allow the potentially embarrassing issue to impinge on the public’s peripheral vision is to tempt fate. Actively ignoring that issue is a sensible precaution.
The political actor must also be very careful about what issue is developed as a distraction. It has to be something benign. Something that doesn’t itself have potential to become an embarrassment. What the media insists on referring to as ‘partygate’ (shudder!) illustrates these points. Some believe the story of parties at No10 during lockdown was leaked as a distraction from some more serious embarrassment. (Take your pick!) If so, it was self-evidently a very poor choice. To some extent, I suppose, the near-hysteria about these events could not have been foreseen. Mass titillation is a difficult thing to measure. Which means it’s a difficult thing to manage. When (if) the party pebble was dropped in the pond, the ensuing tsunami seems somewhat disproportionate. If this was intended to be a distraction, somebody tempted fate and fate has well and truly sunk its fangs in their arse.
Hell mend them!
It may not have been deliberate of course. In which case, there was a failure of active ignoring. The issue was allowed to peek out from the wings during the tragi-farce of the Johnson regime. The public promptly stopped watching the main performance and started obsessing about the scene-stealing ‘partygate’. A scandal is born!
When active ignoring is taken from the mundane tactics of the spinmeister to a level of near-perfection – almost an art – it serves or appears as a strategy in its own right; independent of any distraction. Arguably, this has happened. Kevin McKenna comments,
There’s a warning in this, too, for the SNP. The Tories will seek to get re-elected on a strategy of peak distraction. On past evidence, they have every chance of succeeding. It’s important that the wider Yes movement in Scotland doesn’t allow the SNP to succumb to the same subterfuges.Kevin McKenna: Strategy favoured by UK political elites is emerging
I fear Kevin’s warning comes too late. Too late by some years. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership the SNP has become the master of distraction. And when it comes to active ignoring, the SNP makes the Johnson regime’s efforts look amateurish. Announcements and initiatives are the party’s most favoured tools. Their failure to progress Scotland’s cause being the abiding issue from which they seek to distract us. It would be tedious to catalogue even a portion of the SNP announcements and/or initiatives over the past eight years which have ultimately come to nothing. Their only effect (purpose?) has been to prevent people focusing on – or in some cases even noticing or acknowledging – the dire lack of progress towards restoring Scotland’s independence.
Alongside these distracting announcements and initiatives there has been some seriously powerful active ignoring. Most notably, it is the voices asking questions, expressing concerns, submitting ideas and offering well-intended criticism relating to the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue which have been pointedly and obdurately disregarded. Observe Nicola Sturgeon at work and you would never guess that a substantial part of both the party and the wider Yes movement are at minimum uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the way she is going about what must surely be regarded as her main task. Those voices aren’t merely unheard or unacknowledged, they are erased entirely from political discourse. Sturgeon is impressively adept at making the discontent a non-issue by treating it as a non-issue. Actively ignoring it.
If you’ll bear with me, there is another aspect of the distraction/active ignoring strategy which is worthy of mention. What does the political actor do when that strategy goes wrong? The answer is that they play for time. They drag things out in the knowledge that the public will eventually weary of any topic. Somebody will come up with a better distraction. Or events will provide one. Fate both bites the bum of those who tease her and kisses it better.
People are already starting to find the ‘parties’ issue wearisome. By one means or another, Boris Johnson has managed to stave off the denouement he wants to avoid – no matter how much he deserves it. He has clung on tenaciously. And this final strategy may well work for him. With every day that passes without Johnson being toppled the likelihood that he’ll survive the ‘parties’ scandal increases. Not just survive, but thrive. Because if he’s unbearable now then wait until he’s emerged unscathed from a scandal widely considered to be a career-killer.
Sturgeon, too, is very evidently playing for time. She faces the intractable problem of both abiding by her declared commitment to the Section 30 process and honouring her promise to deliver a referendum – but do so without the confrontation for which she has less than no appetite. There is no way to resolve this dilemma that will be acceptable to anyone in the Yes movement other than those mindless Sturgeon/SNP loyalists with whom we’ve become depressingly familiar. And so she plays for time in the hope that something will turn up. Or that people will lose interest. Or that she gets to a point where she can step down with dignity and reputation intact – at least in the eyes of those whose opinions matter to her.
The combination of distraction / active ignoring / time wasting has worked well for both Boris Johnson. Both survive still and both seem likely to survive yet. For how long? Which will go first. My money would be on Sturgeon outlasting Johnson. Perhaps we might turn this into a gambling opportunity. What a great distraction that would be!
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