Saturday, July 23, 2011

Crisis? It's the worst crisis since the last crisis...

Since the start of the month the headlines have been full of crises. Greek debt default; then the risk of Italian debt default; now the risk American debt default. In other words, the civilised world is running on default settings.
Funny that. Except it isn't. Or maybe it is. It depends on your perspective. And that's something which some in the media have long lost sight of.

Speaking of the media, the perspective of the media has been turned on its head in the UK recently. The revelations about the extent of routinely illegal practises at News International, and the emperor-without-his-clothes grilling of Rupert Murdoch and his heir apparent infront of MPs, make for fine 24-hour media saturation.
Which is all quite ironic in a couple of ways. First of all, this whole scandal reeks of Watergate-style corruption at the highest level, but with a 21st century twist. Whereas Watergate was all about abuse of power and contempt of the law by government in the USA, in this case we have abuse of power and comtempt of law by a private company in the UK that treats government, the police and the lives of innocents (and even the dead) as a plaything of the rich and powerful.

Perhaps nothing much changes in politics after all, but what is doubly ironic is the hypocrisy of the current media circus over the News International scandal is that there is strong evidence to suggest that some of the other UK papers were doing the exact same thing for years - hacking into phones to get headlines.
For example, hearing a recent Alistair Campbell interview, he quoted Tony Blair as describing the Daily Mail as "representing the worst of British values masquerading as the best". That sums up much of what is wrong with the British popular print media. The Daily Mirror are also being investigated.

As a reminder, this is the third great "institutional crisis" to hit the UK in the last few years. The financial crisis showed how bankrupt the banking system was (and still is, morally as well as financially). Then the expenses scandal showed how British politicians made massive claims from public expense to pay for anything from cleaning their moats to buying pornography (!). That they did so partly because the media also enjoyed trying to demean MPs as being "over-paid" (inspite of British MPs being a mocked profession, they earn less than headmasters or doctors in the UK), leaving them with little other option for everyday expenses.

But back to current crises. "Default" is the buzz word this month, because the Greeks, Italians and Americans are all talking about it. They said that a Greek default would bring down the Euro; so the other Europeans bailed them out. Although no-one seems to knows how many bailouts would be enough. Strange, and also shows how pointless economic theory is when no numbers make sense. The Italians were terrified that they might have to default too (which would be more serious as they contribute far more to the EU than marginal Greece), so they made massive spending cuts to stave off the panic. Then there is America, the empire of commerce to the world. Over there, the President is trying his best to stave off a default (a previously unthinkable idea, which everyone think might have apocalyptic consequences) while the opposition Republicans seem hell-bent on destroying their country's economic credibility and standing in the world simply because they don't feel like being helpful.

Then there is the famine in the Horn of Africa, a heatwave in America (though the latter hardly compares in human misery to the former), home-grown terrorism (the horrific attacks in Oslo)...and that just about puts us up to date, more or less.

So crises are happening every month. Though, we only know this because it's reported in the media. And the media have to choose what they deem "newsworthy" and what isn't. So maybe there are crises we don't know about because they're not that high up on the newslist - such as the continually melting ice caps in the North Pole, continually rising food prices, and so on.

Which kind of puts us nicely full circle. Looking at the media, and default settings. Maybe the media should focus more on its "default" setting: telling the truth, telling the facts; like good old-fashioned investigation that revealed the Watergate scandal, rather than the systematic, illegal, misuse of its influence to promote rumour and character assassination for its own ends.

This vicious media culture in the UK has taken many years to germinate, but has grown into a real cancer in the last ten to fifteen years; more or less coinciding with Tony Blair's rise to power as Labour leader in 1994, and his subsequent genuflecting to the icon of sanctimony, St. Rupert of Murdoch.
That's the other, final, irony about the media scandal that grows day by day. After the years of virtual terror that the Murdoch press put into British politicians and even the police, when thrust into the cold light of day, the eighty-year-old Murdoch looked a strange figure; seemingly out of touch, sometimes hesitant, at one moment claiming omnipotence over his empire, while at another time claiming ignorance of the activities of his senior staff. His son, James, seemed much sharper, but also was pleading ignorance. Which begs the question: who is really in charge here? Or, like many multinational corporations, is it a multi-headed hydra that is out of control?
Time will tell; it will also tell us how far the rabbit hole really goes into this particular "crisis".

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