The politics of the newsroom is no way to run a country

The politics of the newsroom is no way to run a country

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 3, July, 2017

An aspect of the Queen’s speech intrigued me; the monarch was made to use the terms “a deal” and “Brexit” rather than “arrangements” and “withdrawal from the European Union” – and no-one appeared to see this as strange.

Accuse me of being starchy, but language matters when our constitutional head announces important constitutional events.  She is our protector and adviser for the stability of the nation; should she be made to dabble in the echoes of conflicted campaigns?  I think not.

That these terms slipped through tells us a lot about the ferment within the political class. But that no-one commented on their use also tells us something about the media frenzy within which we now live.  We are not living in period of calm debate and earnest conversation; we have become a shouty nation.  

This week, for the third time in a month, someone told me that they have stopped watching the news. The reason given was not bias or a disagreement with opinions, but rather that it was puerile and meaningless; “a waste of a nice evening” was suggested.

What struck me as interesting was that in each case these refuseniks felt guilty. They are wrong about that; of course we should try to be informed in a democracy, but we also have the right to hold our own counsel; and choose the information that informs us.  

A free press is important, but just as important for the health of our political economy is a free and competitive press.  Competition is a process that generates knowledge through change and information delivery has changed massively.

Competition between mass market news providers has always relied on speed and directness. We all know the result; the sound bite, the shock horror headline or pictures, the adversarial “knock down” interview. Above all, there is the ever present demand for a “fix”, a quick outcome somehow plucked out of the air by authority, so that the reporter can head off home, job done.  It never happens, life is too complex and problems too intractable for that.

The shock and horror of recent events have offered fabulous reporting fodder; with lots of updates coming through rapidly.  Analysis and reactive opinion layered on top of this torrent produced a ferment of speculation; almost all of it useless, and much of it damaging, or delusional. A lot of it is also intrusive, insensitive and almost careless in the way it has sprayed emotionally charged reaction into our homes. No wonder people turn away; it’s all just too much.

Turning away from a cacophony that overwhelms our curiosity is natural, but what if this reaction also takes hold in our observation of political debate?  

When news room immediacy enters public debate, democracy begins to falter. A tenet in broadcast journalism is that broadcasting tends to reinforce audience prejudices; it is extremely difficult to change people’s understanding about their world.  A picture may well equal a thousand words, but those words will come from the lexicon of opinion within a particular world-view.  If it is true that the Corbynista left have been stoking working class resentment in North Kensington; they do this with full knowledge of the power of reactive opinion over dispassionate analysis. False news is a more subtle form of propaganda than mere fake news.  In Scotland, the neverendum tendency has pushed a plethora of ideas that are firmly held or rejected in a swamp of swaying opinion stumbling around trying to find “facts” that do not exist.

Which takes us back to the effect of the news cacophony on the body politic in general when topics like the Brexit negotiations or an IndyRef2 triggered by Brexit are dealt with. We’ve had a year now of conjecture and groundless opinion; the chatteratti banging away on their drums, based on whatever world view they want expressed,  but not based on any evidence one way or another, since that evidence simply does not exist.

This game of claim and counter-claim is not valueless; it’s part of our free speech culture that lets hotheads let off steam, but it isn’t terribly productive.  Rather, it is reactive, social analysis with added prejudices, discarding the roots of conservative adherence to cultural tradition, or the principled stance of liberalism. Political debate edges closer to a permanent Marxist style rolling critique; in which its participants are so engaged in their positioning that they forget themselves and ask their constitutional monarch to read out tracts tainted with their own prejudicial opinions.  

In this environment, the BBC struggles. There cannot really be balance and impartiality when no-one knows what a balanced view is. I find it interesting that the BBC web site has brought forward a regular series of reports described as a “Reality Check”. These are essentially summaries of the “on the one side, and on the other” approach to news which the BBC uses to meet its impartiality obligations. For me they hide a deeper truth; that the BBC knows that its need for news immediacy opens it up to unintended bias based on the inevitability that the news machine operates from a shared media consensus about ongoing events.  Unfortunately when the consensus is not firm, but rapidly shifting, impartiality becomes temporarily partial, and can add to audience confusion.

This is why reporting of Mrs May’s offer about the status of EU citizens in the UK started the day as a story almost about a clever coup by the PM at a EU dinner, but ended up being shredded into a series of contrary statements  being reported eight hours later.  The media needed its fix, it needed to express opinion, and it ended up producing neither, just conflicted parties battering each other with paper tigers, political posturings played out as news room barracking.

It’s also why Nicola Sturgeon’s havering over IndyRef2 creates little more than hardening attitudes. The First Minister is herself changing a consensus of her own invention; caught in the back wash of other events and trying to find a coherent political position based on foggy economic logic. Again, people turn away as “the story” trumps any real insight.

Does this matter?  In one sense, no, if you believe the media have a role to report, uncover and expose havering and confused thinking; that their very presence in the marketplace for information and ideas is what matters, and you as an audience member can keep your emotional distance; but it does seem to me to matter when many of the choices that politicians make are skewed not by logic and understanding, but by the need to keep the media on side and at bay; sharing a language of deals and soft/hard Brexits that devalue the objective firmness of our constitutional core.  

And in another very real sense, it does matter. If the news game begins to adjust the language of debate, to devalue politics into a bun fight between immovable world-views, we lose valuable ideas and insight in a public debate that becomes a pastiche of House of Commons style rowdiness. Worse, if politicians themselves begin to see their dealings with the media as merely a promotional game for personal political gain rather than helping to improve the nation, then we risk political decision making being moved into back rooms and meetings of secret cabals; where quiet technocrats decide what is good for us as citizens and pull power in to themselves to make sure their opinions are adhered to.

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