EU Referendum

Media: the dustbin liner of history


The end-of-year reviews which the media so love, providing opportunities to fill space in an otherwise sparse news environment, take on a special significance this year. This time round, we not only have the end of a tumultuous twelve months but the end of a decade which has not been entirely uneventful.

The short period until just after the new year becomes the point at which the rough, first draft of history gets locked in as the second and often final draft, as the hacks solidify their narratives.

By dint of multiple repetition, memes get translated into fact, then to provide the raw material for lazy researchers who will repeat them dutifully, representing them as a faithful historical record, often drowning out any proper understanding of the events that have occurred.

You can see how this works in this (mercifully short) review published by I-News, where political editor Nigel Morris manages to list factors "which drove the vote for Brexit", without once mentioning the Lisbon Treaty or its precursor, the Maastricht Treaty, which did so much to energise the Eurosceptic movement.

Thus, although he correctly surmises that the seeds of the United Kingdom's current upheavals were sown before the 2010s even dawned – an easy guess as history is nothing if not a continuum – Morris shows few signs of understanding the genesis of the events about which he writes.

Bearing in mind that this blog was set up in 2004, largely to compensate for the inadequacies of the legacy media in reporting EU issues, things clearly have not improved, pace yesterday's dismal effort when dozens of newspapers turned a routine response from Ursula von der Leyen in a boilerplate interview almost into a declaration of war.

It is this tendency – certainly in respect of EU politics – to turn almost every story into a conflict between the UK and the Community – which tends to distort that narrative so much, although this "biff-bam" tendency is by no means confined to this subject.

Long ago, a Brussels correspondent remarked to me that much of his copy was barely recognisable by the time it was printed, once the foreign desk had "Londonised" the politics, and "planted a Union Flag" on the issues. Straightforward reports that didn't embody a conflict between us and the "Brussels eurocrats" rarely saw the light of day.

But what has made this decade infinitely worse has been the emergence of social media, as noted in a long piece in the New York Times. Potentially an antidote to the distortions of what too many people insist on calling the "mainstream" media, it actually serves to amplify them, giving them greater reach, but at the same time driving the polarisation of opinion.

This, the NYT puts down to an acceleration of the "filter bubble effect", brought about by the development of algorithms designed to maximise user "engagement" (and therefore maximise ad revenues). These feed people customised data and ads that tend to reinforce their existing beliefs and interests.

In days gone past, when people were reliant on print newspapers, the radio and a limited number of television channels, these news providers tended to be "broad church" so that recipients tended to be exposed to a wider range of views.

But an unintended consequence of the explosion of information made possible by the internet, is a narrowing of scope, where content is pre-selected according to viewing histories and then further refined as recipients confine their own exposure to subjects and sources that no longer challenge their views.

Looking at this from an US perspective – as one might expect – the NYT suggests that this is why Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, increasingly have trouble even agreeing upon shared facts. It goes on to say that this development has undermined trust between different groups, fuelled incivility and sped up the "niche-ification" of culture that began years ago with the advent of cable television and the internet.

In addition, the paper says, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have enabled politicians (as well as advertisers, Russian agents and alt-right conspiracy theorists) to circumvent gatekeepers like the mainstream media and reach out directly to voters.

This, to an extent, is special pleading. It fails to recognise that the longstanding inadequacies of legacy reporting have driven the search for more reliable alternatives, and a relief from the torrent of trivia, conflict and personality politics that pollutes the daily news agenda.

Nevertheless, in the view of the NYT, "influencers" have replaced experts, scientists and scholars. Memes and misinformation have started to displace facts. What it doesn't say, of course, is that "experts, scientists and scholars" so often chosen by the legacy media for their "comfort quotes" have their own agendas and have long-since ceased to be dispassionate purveyors of factual material and reasoned analysis.

Nevertheless, the paper does have a point when it observes that, over the last decade, as the news cycle spun faster and faster, our brains struggled to cope with the flood of data and distraction that endlessly spilled from our phones.

In an era of data overload and short attention spans, it says, it's not the most reliable, trustworthy material that goes viral. It's the loudest voices, the angriest, most outrageous posts that get clicked and shared.

We see this almost daily on platforms such as Twitter, but it should not escape notice that, as they compete for attention, legacy media journalists are often those who are sending the "angriest, most outrageous posts" to their followers, who faithfully retweet them in their thousands.

For all that, the NYT delivers a passage with which we could not begin to disagree. It says:
Without reliable information, citizens cannot make informed decisions about the issues of the day, and we cannot hold politicians to account. Without commonly agreed upon facts, we cannot have reasoned debates with other voters and instead become susceptible to the fear-mongering of demagogues.
However, one only has to look at the hash that the legacy media made of Ursula von der Leyen Les Echos interview to realise that it is no longer a source of reliable information – if it ever was. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the wider realisation that much of what we are served up with is not worth the paper on which it is no longer written.

More so, we can look at the generality of the Brexit "debate" which intellectually – as Pete notes is still firmly lodged in square one. If Brexit has shown up the fault lines in our politics, it has also brutally revealed the inadequacies of our media.

But the NYT also has a few words to say about politicians. When they constantly lie, overwhelming and exhausting us while insinuating that everyone is dishonest and corrupt, it says:
… the danger is that we grow so weary and cynical that we withdraw from civic engagement. And if we fail to engage in the political process - or reflexively support the individual from "our" party while reflexively dismissing the views of others - then we are abdicating common sense and our responsibility as citizens.
There, however, the paper goes off the rails. Politicians have always lied to us, and in a democracy, blind trust should never be part of our politics. A healthy scepticism is an essential part of the civic toolkit and where, as seems to be the case, the political system is terminally broken, cynicism is probably the only adequate response.

What is actually different is the partisanship, where the lies of politicians from "our" party are acceptable – and even applauded – while no blemish of the other side is too small to be held up to the light. That's very much the NYT's problem which has never got over Trump's victory, but it's also the problem with the Telegraph over here, which acts as the fan club magazine for Johnson, applauding and preserving his lies.

If we are to understand this decade, therefore, we have to understand that history is more than a sequence of narratives bolted together to make a story. While the media excel at setting their narratives, as a first draft of history, their only real role is to line the dustbin.