Saturday, April 4, 2015

Politics, the media, and the 2015 general election: the establishment's "dirty tricks"

The Leveson inquiry a few years ago delved into the sordid underbelly of the relationship between politicians, the media and the police. I wrote an article discussing how the media in the UK is in reality more of an oligarchy of individuals whose views are espoused through the mouthpieces of their own newspapers (and - in the case of Rupert Murdoch - media outlets as well).

We talk about a "free press" existing in the UK, but the major national newspapers are owned by what we could easily call "media barons". Murdoch is the most famous, of course; the Australian owns the "Sun" and "The Times", as well as the media (and news) outlet, Sky. The "Daily Mail" is ran day-today by its autocratic editor, Paul Dacre, but has been owned by Lord Rothermere and others for over a hundred years. These are the two most popular newspapers in the UK, both of which are instinctively conservative-leaning (though the "Sun" was more left-leaning back in the 1960s). There is also the "Daily Express", whose aim appears to be to out-do the "Daily Mail" at headline-grabbing scaremongering, and shores up the remainder of the conservative press, albeit with smaller circulation numbers. It is also the only national newspaper to be publicly supportive of UKIP.
"The Daily Telegraph" - casually known as the "Torygraph" - is effectively the editorial mouthpiece of the Barclay brothers, whom are tax avoiders and own the Channel Island of Sark. You'd be hard-pressed to find a newspaper that more symbolizes "the establishment" that this

By comparison, the "Mirror" is the most popular left-leaning tabloid, while  the "Guardian" is the newspaper of choice for the "mainstream" liberal-left. Lastly, there is the "Independent", a newspaper that was only established in the 1980s, and is (also with the London "Evening Standard") now owned by the Russian liberal Anglophile, Alexander Lebedev. This shores up the remainder of what could be called the "liberal left" segment of British society.

Fighting against the tide

It is fairly clear from this summary of the media environment in the UK that British newspapers are mainly owned by people who are rich and naturally have conservative beliefs. It can also be said that the most popular newspapers are owned by people who are rich and naturally have conservative beliefs; the same is true of their editors, and many of their journalists. These people have come from privileged backgrounds, have gone to public schools and top-class universities, mainly live in London, and thus have priorities that are completely different from those of ordinary families in the UK.

The problem is this: most people in the UK don't share those views. If they did, then British politics would be much more dominated by the Conservatives that it actually is. In effect, the majority of the British media is controlled by conservatives, and it is their views that are reflected in their newspapers. Anyone who believes that newspapers are there to reflect the views of their readers is living with a dangerously-naive view of the world. 
This point was made clear when Rupert Murdoch answered questions to parliamentary committees, and the Leveson inquiry. There is a clear "line of communication" explaining how a newspaper ought to explain a "story"; this often involves having a headline that reflects the views of the editor/owner (any sane editor matches his view with the view of the owner), and having the facts of the story fit around the headline. This is not "news" in the conventional sense of the word, but "spin" (or propaganda, to use the old-fashioned term).

Now this is nothing surprising, of course. Newspapers are businesses, and thus need to make money: this explains why some of them use sensational (i.e. misleading) techniques to grab readers' attention. But this is only one part of it. If newspaper owners were only there to make money, this would at least be understandable. But many of them are clearly interested in much more than money: being human beings, they crave power as well as financial success. Rupert Murdoch is the easy example to use for this, with his seemingly-insatiable appetite to buy more and more media outlets (and thus more and more influence). 

In this way, it can be argued that newspaper owners, their editors, and their high-flying journalists, are effectively another wing of the "establishment". The difference with the "establishment" in Westminster is that media "wing" of the establishment is un-elected, and (as the many recent scandals have shown) effectively unaccountable. When the Conservative government talked about possibly implementing reforms to hold newspapers to account, they screamed blue murder; as though they had been stabbed in the back by one of their own. And so the sacred "free press" were preserved from statutory intrusion.

Now that the election campaign has got underway for real, the "establishment media" have been using all their "dirty tricks" to undermine the Labour campaign. From the Telegraph's publication of top business leaders backing the Conservatives (really? who'd have thought, given that the newspaper is owned by tax exiles?), to the relentless message by the Telegraph, Mail, and the Sun that Labour is "anti-business"
In some ways, this election campaign is being played in the media as a repeat of 1992. The Tories use a negative (and narrowly-focused) campaign to scare people against "Labour chaos" and another tax bombshell; at times, it seems the media are "triangulating" their attacks in conjuction with CCHQ. Ed Miliband, while certainly not the most charismatic person in the world, is certainly not the "weirdo" the media make him out to be. In recent days, he has been seen giving interviews and explaining his ideas in a much more natural and straightforward way than before. But this has barely had a mention in the media.

What's worse is that Cameron's real record as a Prime Minster, and that of his government, is one of failure, That was clearly shown in the seven-way debate, where is abjectly failed to defend his record, gave (at best) misleading answers, could only revert to repeating the same negative points, and was (rightly) attacked by the other party leaders. His performance was one of the least convincing of the seven leaders. Yet somehow, polls in the media were showing him as either leading in the performance stakes, or coming a strong second. Who did they ask? 

For these reasons, we can expect more of the same over the coming month: a co-ordinated attack on Miliband a la Kinnock in 1992, from the Conservatives and their media allies. It is for this reason why the London press are now fixated on building-up the threat that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pose. As Labour look very unlikely to gain a majority, the best method of attack is to go after those who may prop them up, and thus shore up the Tories as a safe "anti-SNP" block against the insurgents north of the wall.

Will it work? Well, it has before. And while no-one is seriously expecting the Tories to get a majority, if they can indirectly depress the Labour vote in Scotland through the SNP, and scare enough English voters from voting Labour, the Tories will have done what they always do: divide and rule. 

And then, post-election the media barons will have another "scapegoat" to threaten their readers with: the "Queen Beyond The Wall"...



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