Updated Mar 16, 2019 | 12:00 IST | Pete North
Politically I am in a highly unusual place at the moment. Y’see I just don’t give a damn. I should, but I don’t. Too much is happening that is beyond my control and beyond my capacity to influence. On a subject like Brexit everyone has an opinion, everyone thinks they are expert and consequently the debate is incoherent noise. When it gets like this the best thing you can do is step back from it all and watch from a distance.
Part of the reason I’ve stopped caring is that most of the media has long abandoned its obligation to inform and is simply in the business of getting readers to react to it. Modern media is now so utterly debased that it takes no responsibility for the damage it does just so long as it can collect the advertising revenue from viral pieces. To that end they will invent narratives to suit that bear no resemblance to what is actually happening.
This, though, is as much to do with the fact that political journalists in the UK lack the experience to realise what is happening and why. They are all too used to reporting on the daily ins and outs of Westminster which is generally inconsequential and only very occasionally important. Their job is to make the unimportant seem important so when something that is actually important comes along, they have no idea what they are even looking at.
Brexit more than anything has confounded media It deal with complex regulatory systems and it changes things which haven’t been under any serious scrutiny for more at least twenty five years. This stuff is well above their pay grade. Worse still, it’s pretty boring stuff and to understand it you have to be at least interested in it. And that’s their problem. They are simply not interested. They are more interested in the personality politics and daily gossip.
Being that the politicians are in a similar state of bewilderment, there is no functional use tuning in to watch and read clueless journals reporting on the misapprehensions of equally clueless politicians. For a time it had some residual entertainment value but it gets old real quick.
This is something of a problem for our democracy. For democracy to work you need informed public debate. This we do not have. We have noise and we have propaganda and very little in the way of informed scrutiny from the media. We cannot then expect intelligent decision making from our politics.
There are times when I lament the fact that so many people tune out of politics altogether. A healthy democracy depends on public engagement and participation but just lately I’ve started to wonder if they might have a point. It seems you have a choice of being uninformed or misinformed. Most people are busy trying to earn a living to try and find out what is going on so they become passengers of events. Notionally we pay journalists to carry out that function but the whole basis of journalism has been utterly corrupted.
That is not to say that good journalism does not exist. You just have to hunt to find it and you have to look in ever more obscure places to get to the good stuff. Again, most people don’t have the time or energy. They have to take what is served up to them on trust and what is served up to them is wholly inadequate.
This dynamic is not unique to the UK. A similar debasement is happening in the USA where US media has also abandoned its obligation to inform and instead seeks to shape opinion and will tell virtually any lie if the ends justify the means. We are told that Donald Trump’s attacks on the media mark a sinister development. Traditionally tyrants and dictators blame the media but in the in the internet age, when Donald Trump says the media has become the enemy of the people, he does actually have a point.
The problem is that most of the big names in media and news existed long before the internet. They are trusted brands with pedigree. Generally audiences assume that these outlets have higher editorial standards than independent media and better fact checking processes. This is not the case. As the internet has challenged the revenue streams of newspapers, they have axed experienced journalists and senior editors and increasingly their news desks are run by inexperienced young people who naivety often shines through.
Most of these newspapers rely on their brand prestige. The Times of London, for instance, uses the crow mast head with an old style font to project authority, so you would assume its output would be of greater accuracy and overall merit. There’s a good chance, though, that the lead editorial on any given day will have been written by a twenty-something not long out of university when most people imagine they are reading the wisdom of elders.
Now that I’ve gotten wise to this, the time I once would have spent reading the newspapers I now spend perusing Twitter where I’ve mainly engineered by feed to show me aeroplane pictures and animations of cats playing table tennis with Steve McQueen. If I have to choose between uninformed or misinformed, I’d rather remain ignorant.
The upside to the internet, though, is that we no longer have to rely on the media. We now have multiple sources. One thing way in which the internet has improved things is that it has brought about demands for greater transparency from government, where often if you want to know what’s happening then you have any number of oficial primary sources at your fingertips. Why wait for it to be discovered by a journalist when you can go right to the source?
Any time you choose to be informed by a mainstream media source you are choosing to have your news curated, prioritised and filtered by powerful interests who, without hesitation, will lie, distort and smear. For all that governments and politicians complain about “fake news”, some of the worst offenders in the business are those considered to be newspapers of record.
The sad truth is that we can no longer take anything at face value – and I doubt we ever could, and there’s no reason to think it’s not going to get exponentially worse as new technologies allow fakery and fabrication to grow ever more sophisticated. It is then up to us to react to news with more care and greater scepticism. There are forces only too happy to weaponise our fury and misdirect it.
I now take the view that it is we who have to take up the role of guardians of our democracy and to step up to the plate where our media has failed us. Only by seeking the truth for ourselves and teaching media literacy can we create a herd immunity to dangerous propaganda. We have to make ourselves aware of how we are manipulated each and every day.
The apathy that I presently feel is only temporary. Sooner or later reality will creep in where the propaganda of the media is so brazen that even the most trusting of us will start to ask questions. That will be the moment when people are the most receptive to answers. On that day I will make it my business to make sure they get the right answers. We cannot rely on our politicians and we cannot trust corporate media. Educating ourselves has become a moral obligation and a civic duty. It is our best defence against tyranny.