The level of discourse in the media in the UK is taking a worrying turn for the worse. Not only is it having an impact on policies, but also on cultural life as arguments are framed in increasingly one dimensional ways. What future is there for democracy when the media fails to effectively challenge the Establishment?
The political discourse in the UK has become worryingly one dimensional. As Chomsky once pointed out, in order for the establishment to retain the consent of the population, you allow vociferous discourse across a few, very narrow subjects. These subjects are, of course, carefully chosen and controlled. By allowing the population to become very vocal and active in these subjects areas, they feel they have been listened to, validated and that they have been given a fair opportunity to air their views. Meanwhile, the real issues affecting the world are ignored or played down.The sum of this is that issues that do not matter as much to the interests of the Establishment are played up and made to seem important, and the issues that will profoundly affect how the Establishment maintains control will be played down and de-emphasised.
This is happening with the full complicity of the mainstream media industry, and points to a worrying future for the democratic process. Without real challenge from the press, how can any government be held to account? If a complicit media fails to inform the public of the real issues, how can anyone make an informed decision? And if a complicit media drip-feeds lies and mis-information over a sustained period of time, when does that lie become a truth, and lead to poor decision making at every level of society?
What is ‘The Establishment’?
It’s very hard to actually pinpoint and define the idea of an Establishment in the UK. Formerly, the Establishment was defined by social status – privilege, Oxbridge, old Etonians, and this paradigm is still heavily represented in institutions such as the media, Government, the City, and large corporations. However you choose to define the Establishment, it is best defined by a blatant self-interest, often at the expense of the well-being of the wider population. For example, when politicians talk about ‘protecting British interests abroad’, they are talking only about the Establishments interests, but will use the wider population’s resources to service that agenda (the armed forces for example) and manufacture consent through the media via spurious stories and propaganda.
In short, the Establishment can be defined by a level of self interest that does not take into consideration the wider consequences of its actions in pursuit of profit.
The Failure of the Media
Much has been written about the UK media’s pursuit and persecution of Jeremy Corbyn. For me, witnessing the level of bias directed against one man from the mainstream media, has been almost surreal to behold. That this has happened should come as no surprise, as many of the UK’s newspaper titles are owned by Establishment figures, but the level of bias from institutions like the BBC and Channel 4 has been particularly surprising. Of course, the BBC and Channel 4, have never been objective – no news channel is – but the BBC’s fall from grace as a legitimate channel for reporting has been swift and spectacular.
The media’s main responsibility is to hold those in power to account. Failure to do so, and on the scale that is happening right now in the UK, is fundamentally undemocratic. Democracy requires that all parties and peoples from across the entire political spectrum are given equal weight and favour in terms of expressing and articulating their views to the general public. But too often in the UK of late, these debates have been purposely narrowed to focus on the threats to the Establishment view. The recent overturning of the public’s wishes in Lancashire concerning fracking by Theresa May’s government, has attracted a peculiar lack of criticism from most mainstream news channels. May touted in her recent Tory party conference speech that she would strive for a ‘fairer Britain’, but almost the next day overrules public opinion on what is a serious matter for anyone living next to the fracking development. There was no challenge at all from the press on this matter, instead the majority turned their focus on criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s first cabinet reshuffle as the re-elected leader of the Labour party.
The result of this kind of wilful ignorance on the fabric of public opinion is huge. It serves to play down the significance of important Government dictates, and amplifies trivialities that do not warrant the scrutiny given. This is, of course, done on purpose. But as the recent Brexit catastrophe has shown, if you do this on a consistent basis, you get punished in ways that are not favourable.
Standing Rock protests in the US – completely under reported in the West. Picture from Reuters.
Brexit – A Media Omnishambles
For me the most significant moment of the Brexit vote was when a jubilant Nigel Farage, in the early hours of the referendum night when it was clear that the UK had voted to leave the EU, stated that all the promises about reinvesting the money saved from EU membership into the NHS was basically a lie and wouldn’t happen. It was a perfect example of the lack of due diligence undertaken by the media in the run up to the referendum. None of the claims made by the Leave campaign were ever scrutinised or challenged, instead the media was focused on personality battles between key political adversaries and narrowing any discussion to a few emotive subjects such as immigration and how much we pay to be a member of the EU.
None of this debating actually informed the public of the consequences of voting leave, or choosing to remain. It was a spectacular failure of journalism under a democracy that will have a profound and far reaching effect on the country over the next few years. But why was this allowed to happen?
The Daily Fail spreading the good word.
The Rise of Opinion as Fact
Perhaps the most worrying and concerning aspect of modern media analysis is the rise of opinion as fact. Expert analysis is often played down or trivialised, and pundits and talking heads will often use figures that will underline or reinforce their perspective, rather than introduce impartial facts to the dialogue. An example of this is when a politician will often quote or use a business leader as a bulwark for their views on the economy as opposed to an economist, who will often have a very different perspective. I once witnessed Paul Krugman arguing about the effects of growth under Osborne’s austerity on Newsnight, against a Tory politician and a stool pigeon business leader, who refused to listen to anything that the Nobel Laureate said. Instead they just continually restated their own opinion on the subject in hand – no evidence was ever given by them to support their views, it was all based on conjecture. Krugman backed all of his claims with research. It was an uncomfortable thing to watch.
Michael Gove very famously stated in the run up to the Brexit referendum that, and I paraphrase here, people were ‘sick of listening to experts’. I still shudder every time I think about that statement. Gove’s statement though is merely a reflection on the level of discourse allowed and facilitated by the media in the UK and also the US. The recent presidential debates between Trump and Clinton have been nothing short of abject. And the hosts have been complicit in allowing that to happen. Politicians need to be held to account, they need to be challenged and experts need to be given the airtime to put forward alternative points of view. But this never happens.
It’s ironic that in an age where there is more information available to the average citizen than at any point in human history, that so much political discourse is still consumed via traditional mainstream news sources.
It is perhaps an apocryphal story, but the most searched term following the Brexit vote was apparently “what is the EU?”. Whether true or not, it serves to illustrate an important point – that the population still places providence on traditional media channels as their primary go to source for information, above searching for the relevant information online from a wide range of alternative sources. Searching online requires effort, and it requires a certain level of knowledge about which channels and sources to ‘trust.’ It’s easy to see why then, most people will just pick up a newspaper or switch on the 6 o’clock news and watch that instead. The Establishment is fully aware of this and relies on a population’s inherent laziness and scepticism in order to continue its policy of narrow debate. It is also aware that people will seek information that confirms their beliefs or experiences rather than challenge them. And when faced with an increasingly uncertain world, where threats are perceived to be everywhere, an already squeezed population, suffering from economic uncertainty and cuts to key services, will seek to find the most convenient reason or excuse for their predicament.
Social media has done little to undermine traditional channels, which is perhaps surprising. Although social media has facilitated a new wave of citizen journalism, allowing anyone to document an event and publish immediately, as a direct challenge to mainstream dominance, it has been surprisingly ineffective as an information resource. This may change with time, as other platforms and social channels emerge, but for now, social media has not had the impact on alternative media consumption that many industry experts had previously envisaged. This may be down to the fact that social media is primarily used as a social and entertainment channel, rather than a serious news and fact finding channel. But this may change in time, and there is evidence that in places suffering from conflict and oppression that social channels are becoming platforms for sustained dissent. In the UK, social channels devoted to alternative news and information quickly disintegrate into troll-fests and opinionated ranting, further muddying the discourse in question. It’s no wonder then that people stick to what they know with traditional channels.
The Rise of Alternative News Channels
Whilst it is heartening to see the rise of channels like Common Dreams, Electronic Intifada, Truth Out, Truth Dig and the Canary, they still (for now) sit in their own echo chambers of consent – ie, they are preaching to the converted. I doubt very few regular readers of these channels are mainstream readers actively looking to have their views challenged. This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing alternative news channels, the challenge to overcome perceptions and appeal to a broader audience. It’s absolutely vital to the future of democracy that they succeed in doing so, otherwise the population of the UK and US will remain sat in the echo chamber of the Establishment, and that’s not a future that I find particularly appealing.