The “status-quo bias” in politics, and the power of the new media

Perhaps one of the most damaging influences in modern politics is the unwritten rule that law-makers should, if in doubt, do nothing. This hurts policy extensively, and prevents daring reform in key areas where it is desperately needed. As ever, though, there is a good reason for it, and, as ever, this reason is the media.

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Modern media consists of the traditional old bloc of relatively centre-ground organisations and the newer bloc of far-right and far-left rant media. These extreme outlets are not fringe groups anymore. Rather, they wield huge power and political sway, and influence decisions being made by our politicians.

One great example of this new relationship between the media and politics is Rebekah Brooks, an incredibly powerful “journalist” and former newspaper editor. During the UK coalition government especially, she would meet with ministers and make demands about policy, and threaten to disparage them in her “journalism” if they didn’t cave.

In his memoir Kind Of Blue, Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative MP and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, writes:

“The Prime Minister sent word to me that he thought I should meet with Rebekah Brooks, who was … evidently a figure of great influence with my young friends who were running the government. She [Brooks] was obviously accustomed to meeting with Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries and having her advice taken seriously.”

Another example of this new media-politics complex comes from the US President. With Fox and Friends as the pirate, and Donald Trump as the parrot, the President seems to compose his tweets in line with the stories on the daily morning show.

In a Vox Strikethrough episode, Carlos Maza explains how the President has on several occasions echoed Fox and Friends segments in his tweets, including the NFL protests, DACA, and his own mental state — the latter of which led to this memorable tweet:

In this Strikethrough video by Vox, the sway Fox and Friends holds over Trump is on full show

The overwhelming power that the media now possesses is rather scary — especially when it is used to directly affect policy. However, the media’s worst impact upon politics comes from its psychological impact upon both ministers and MPs alike.

Whenever there’s a scandal or problem, the media, understandably, look for someone to blame. However, they almost invariably find that a politician has in some way caused the issue, and attack the reform that they implemented.

For example, when there’s an issue with schools not being funded properly in the UK, the media always turn to Michael Gove as the scapegoat. It is sort of irrelevant whether his reform caused the problem or not — and it is more often the latter.

In the US, even the more liberal media organisations such as CNN regularly look to blame Hillary Clinton for issues that simply weren’t caused by her. Just because someone has made mistakes as Clinton has, it doesn’t mean that they’re to blame for every problem remotely to do with their past work.

This leads to politicians being scared to change anything or implement any reform at all, causing the “status-quo bias”. This prevents politicians from making vital, small changes to systems for fear of being blamed for every problem thereafter — that is, until the media find a better scapegoat.

One good example of this is in the convention that the Speaker of the House of Commons always votes to maintain the status quo in the event of a tied vote.

As politicians are afraid of implementing reform, the media becomes yet more confident of its strategy. The longer an area of policy goes without widespread change, the more reform becomes necessary — but the less likely it is to be done.

Politics nerd, policy wonk | Founder, medium.com/politics-fast-and-slow | Editor, politika.org.uk | twitter.com/dave_olsen16 | Policy Paper: https://rb.gy/7coyj

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