Sources close to the goose

There’s been a longer than usual gap between this blog and the last one and the reason is that I’ve been studying lots and lots of game theory. But during that time I’ve occasionally looked up from the equations and watched a little politics. There have been a few internal Labour rumblings, most notably a “Labour source” criticising Ed Balls’ most recent parliamentary performance before the debate had even finished.

Game theory is a branch of economics that tries to precisely state and predict how people will act when their future is partly determined by what they do, and partly by what someone else does. Game theory has been applied situations from nuclear war to used cars but this incident made me think of a new one: the relationship between party spokespeople and political journalists.

If you are the only person representing a politician, you have a choice. If you act like an automaton, the journalists are likely to be less keen on you and less keen on your boss. If you become friends with them, have a pint and a mild gossip, things might work more smoothly. But if your employer reads “sources close to Bob McBackbench said ‘he never buys his round’”… well it won’t take long before you are tracked down. Whatever happens, you find the balance and you live with the consequences.

When people see critical “sources” in the media, they often assume it is because of some internal factionalism. The interesting thing that you get from game theory is that there doesn’t have to be factionalism: everyone can believe in the leader, everyone can believe that they will be personally better off if only the signed-off lines are spoken and still you can have newspapers full of secrets and stories that only undermine your party.

Take the situation where it’s a two-player game. Suppose the boss is now the party leader and they have two people talking to the press on their behalf: a Lord and an MP. Now these two really do believe in the Leader: in this example, everyone belongs to the same faction. If the party gets a good press and wins the election, all they have to do is divide up Downing Street between the two of them. While that sometimes means giving a favoured journalists a carefully selected secret, most of the time it means sticking to the agreed “line to take”.

So why would either of our players gossip? Firstly, it’s just an easier life. There is no easier job in the world than being the spokesperson that doles out party secrets. By contrast, asserting, hour after hour, that Ed Balls’ speech in the Autumn Statement made you certain of Labour’s imminent electoral victory becomes quite tiring if the journalists aren’t buying it.

Secondly, there might be some personal advantage in a little briefing. My imperfect rule is always that the more and better coverage a campaign guru has, the less committed they are to the campaign they are working on. After all, if you think you’re headed to Downing Street, why would you go out of your way to ensure there’s a flattering profile piece in a Sunday newspaper? But if things are a bit ropey then perhaps you would like to see your name listed as the one the party leader most relies on. The fastest way to get that kind of coverage is to give a few insider details or colourful source quotes to a newspaper or blog.

Finally, and this is how you might justify it to yourself, those indiscretions build up relationships with the journalists that make you more effective. If, in a month’s time, Sophy Ridge is assessing an Ed Balls speech and her source says “actually, this time it was quite good” she will weigh that as far more meaningful than if her source had stuck to the line all along. This makes the party ever more dependent on the person who briefs – and makes the “line to take” ever more irrelevant.

One of the classic findings of game theory is called the “prisoner’s dilemma”: the MP and the Lord would be both better off cooperating but they both know that if one of them sticks to the line, the other would rather be gossiping. If they assume the other one will act on that incentive then they would be a fool not to do so as well: source quotes for the goose can be source quotes for the gander.  In the end, both Lord and MP end up revealing far more than either of them wanted to.

Another more complicated finding is this: suppose the Lord and the MP manage to work together. They realise that getting a big profile in the the lifestyle section isn’t worth it, because while they would enjoy one hit of good media coverage, after that they wouldn’t cooperate and this would hurt their chances of election. The system is working. But then add another adviser to the mix who is also allowed to talk to the press. Now the gains of cooperation are going to be spread thinner: only one of them can be the leader’s main press adviser once they win the election.

In the end, if you rearrange the equations a dozen times, the finding is this: as you add more and more people who can talk to the press, the chances of someone gossiping increase. From that, we can say other things, at least in theory. More spin doctors do not mean better media coverage. A press adviser can be lionised in the media even when the campaign they are working on is headed for disaster. And even a united party can produce pages and pages of briefing against itself.