Sunday, December 11, 2011

Government in the UK: of the media, for the media, by the media.

The role of the media in Britain has been discussed to death in recent times. The hacking scandal and the long list of celebrities and ordinary families that were the victim to the Murdoch (and other) press' casual attitude to ethics and the law has been the ironic focus of the media itself. Navel-gazing has become the British media's recent obsession.

But this also brings to the surface the role that the Murdoch press and the media in general have in the decision-making process at the governmental level. The UK is not alone in the world in having an influential media, and this is in so many ways a great service to democracy.

But there is also a darker side to this. I wrote a short while ago about "Demarchy", and in that article I talked about something called "Ochliocracy", more commonly called mob rule. Mob rule is also another way of talking about decision-making by interest groups; when governments make their decisions simply based on the reaction to pressures by groups of people with special interests.
In the modern world this includes lobbyists and corporate interests, but in ancient and mediaeval times this was any number of periodic bouts of public hysteria, often engineered by populist demagogues eager for power themselves; in the Roman Empire, this was often how Emperors rose and fell from power; in mediaeval Italy, this was how city-states like Florence changed government; in modern Italy, it was how populist demagogues like Silvio Berlusconi were able to stay in power for so long while allowing the country to fall into financial ruin.

This is how riots start; in a dysfunctional society, this is how government policy is made. The modern term that spin doctors call it is "policy-on-the-hoof", but for successive British governments over the last twenty years, it was one way of trying to maintain their popularity.
The most important way that people in modern society get information is through the media; in Britain, this means news media like "The Sun" and "The Daily Mail"; the first is the most popular tabloid in the country, the second is the most popular "middlebrow" newpaper. As a result, much of the British public obtain their information from these newspapers. The newspapers would reply that no-one is forcing them to buy them, and that whatever viewpoints they share must therefore be reflected by their readers; this may be true.
But there is also another angle to this; by thinking about if the amount of column inches these newspapers spend on dicussing certain issues (such as violent crime, moral issues, celebrity intrigue, Europe, and so on) is a reflection of the relative concerns of their readers. By this measure, what comes first: the chicken or the egg? Do the media spend so many column inches on violent crime to reflect their readers' concerns, or are the readers so concerned about violent crime because they read about it so much in the media? Or is it a combination of both?

What has been proven by surveys is that compared to issues such as the economy and other immediate concerns, Europe is not a major issue for the average person on the street. They do not spend sleepless nights thinking about what bureaucrats in Brussels are doing.
It seems that the editors and journalists of "The Sun" and "The Daily Mail" do, though. Which brings us back to the point: where do people get their points of views from? If the media are there to reflect the public's concerns, why do some of them spend so many column inches talking about things that the average person has been proven not to be so concerned about?
"The Sun" and "The Daily Mail" are the two most Euro-sceptic newspapers in the country; they are also the two most popular. Of course the editors of these newspapers are entitled to their opinion, but I seriously wonder if their readers would be quite so sceptical of the EU if the editors of those newspapers spent a little more time focusing on what people can do to improve the British economy and less time on how bad the EU is for Britain.
There is a famous quote from Hitler: "If you repeat the lie long enough, people will believe it as truth". The problem with some sections of the media is that their journalists spend too much time on opinionated (and factually inaccurate or misleading) comment, and not enough on furnishing their readers with the ammunition to allow them to think for themselves. But it would be naive to think that this would change: newspapers are a business, after all.

So this means that news coverage by the likes of "The Sun" and "The Daily Mail" is fuelled by nothing more than profit. In theory (according to free-market proponents), this should mean that newspapers will be in a competition to tell the most factually-enlightening stories. Ha-ha, don't count on it. Newspapers are more often in a competition to sell stories that will either entertain or reinforce to people what they already think. In other words, market forces here act more as a dumbing-down mechanism rather than a way to encourage the spread of information. Who decides what "news" is? The newspapers, of course. In an open society, it is practically impossible to ignore what's happening in the world completely; in other other hand, media outlets are perfectly free to prioritise as they wish.
By "prioritising", newspapers like "The Sun" and "The Daily Mail" are deciding for their readers what is important and what is not, which brings us back to their reply that people are perfectly free to choose another newspaper if they don't like what they read.
But that's a simplistic argument. There are not an infinite number of newspapers, and it is true that most people in the UK, like everywhere else, buy it more for casual entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that, as much as those who would consider themselves "intellectual" might think so: it's human nature.

These newspapers know this, of course: that's how they remain so successful. But this media "prioritisation" also has an effect on government. The term "moral panic" is as old as the hills, and one about paedophiles was famously engineered by the tabloids ten years ago or so. The panic about Europe has been in the media for around twenty years, and has been consistently engineered by these same two newspapers. As a result, successive governments have been eager to pander and appease these sentiments.
We saw the partial result of that on Friday morning. Not wishing to seem "weak" on Europe, and eager for good headlines with the key newspapers, David Cameron pandered to the worst elements of the popular media. This is what happens when you allow the narrow interests of a few newspaper editors to dominate the affairs of government. This is the meaning of "Ochliocracy": the subversion of the democratic model through the media, moving from one moral panic to the next.
Alastair Campbell once described "The Daily Mail" as the worst aspects of British society masquerading as the best. In that sense, at least "The Sun" has the decency to be honest about its motives.

1 comment:

  1. So true, I'm sceptical of the media all time, if i read anything its The Guardian or The Independent, but mostly most of the information i get from mouth on twitter and make sure i get both sides of the story if i see BBC News. It's always wise not to accept spoon feeding and be critical and make sure you pay attention to the smaller stories. As for Rupert Murdoch, he is one creepy man with too much power.