No such thing as the Big Society? Not according to media mentions, anyway
After the Conservatives lauded the creation of a ‘Big Society’ as one of the goals of their government at the beginning of their term, the phrase itself has all but fallen off the media’s radar, according to exclusive data on media reportage of Big Society.
The Big Society was always a difficult term for the Tories to convey, but data produced by communications software company Cision for civilsociety.co.uk finds that after a massive spike in media coverage of the Big Society in February last year, online media mentions of the phrase have plummeted.
The Big Society was mentioned in online news reports more than 7,000 times in February 2011, but this fell to just over 700 times in February this year. The July just past has marked a new low in online media coverage of the Big Society with the phrase being included in news reports just 301 times over the entire month.
The data measures every time the phrase ‘Big Society’ is mentioned in an online news report. While limited to online coverage, the data provides a good insight into the level of media interest in Big Society issues and reflects the coverage of the concept from national media outlets such as the BBC and Times, to smaller regional publications and specialist publishers.
The picture over 18 months of coverage is one of a solitary significant spike, and otherwise bubbling, though waning, interest in the subject. The peak in February was a result of CSV chair Dame Elisabeth Hoodless claiming that public funding cuts were undermining the Big Society goals, anger from councils over the cuts and a raft of coverage after Prime Minister David Cameron wrote an editorial in the Observer entitled ‘Have do doubt, the Big Society is on its way’.
Cameron started his piece by stating: “Naturally, I would prefer to see more positive headlines about the ‘Big Society’, but I am very upbeat about the torrent of newsprint expended on this subject.”
Used in retort, rather than promotion
He must now be disappointed. Positive or otherwise, coverage of the idea has plummeted since. It would appear that ‘Big Society’ is a phrase most used in attacking government policy, rather than expounding it, with opponents of cuts and policy shifts claiming that government actions are undermining its stated goal of creating a society in which volunteerism is rife and people work together, without coercion or state interference, for a better local community. Indeed, civilsociety.co.uk revealed earlier this year that it is Labour politicians, not Conservatives, who most refer to the Big Society in Parliament.
Following the massive spike in February last year, the second most-active month for media talk of Big Society was last June when Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols told the Sunday Telegraph that: "At the moment the Big Society is lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth."
A minor spike again in April this year was the result of the charity donation tax relief cap mooted in the Budget, and also discussions about the Big Society Capital funding.
The charity sector had cautiously welcomed the government’s focus on Big Society, seeing it as an appreciation of the work of volunteers and civil society as a whole, but many also have expressed concern that it was a cover for spending cuts; that government would withdraw from funding social programmes and expect Big Society to step in to fill the gaps. Others still, both inside and outside the charity world, felt it was a concept so amorphous and inaccessible that it was always due to peter out in time.
Big Society was of course the new-look Conservatives' attempt to claw back from the infamously contracted Thatcher quote “There is no such thing as society”. But with the Big Society now being used much more in retort than in policy promotion, it may well be that there is ‘No such thing as the Big Society’. At least as a policy, or phenomenon, that people pay attention to.