The problem of journalism as entertainment and entrapment.

 

The political imbalance and prejudice of MSM (mainstream media) have been well documented over the years by media analysts (e.g. in Glasgow and Cardiff), and questions of who gets air time and how they are treated when reported or interviewed remain contentious issues. But never mind the evidence, Nick Robinson, former BBC political editor, chooses to characterise all those who find fault with MSM as extremists (Right or Left) (‘Silencing the disagreeable won’t work. Put them on air’, The Guardian, 28 09 2017). He casts the BBC and traditional media as blameless victims of social media and “the increased polarisation of our society” (cited Graham Ruddick, ‘Alternative news sites in “guerrilla war” with BBC, says Robinson’. The Guardian, 28 09 2017). This is worse than ingenuous, and combines ignorance and casual insult in a way that has become all too common, notably since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

Guardian letter writers point out how MSM (including Robinson himself and Andrew Marr) have colluded with climate breakdown deniers (30 09 2017). But the track record of MSM also includes choosing not to report significant events. For example, you would have thought the BBC, set up as a public service broadcaster, had a special duty to report on the fragmentation and privatisation of the NHS over the last 7 years. Not so. Apparently this was not ‘a great story’ worth chasing. Instead, information was withheld, leaving David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt in particular to carry on regardless: denying and lying as they smiled their way past any opposition. Campaigners across the country were left tearing their hair out at this mainstream media silence, having to resort to the street, public meetings and social media to spread the bad news. The consequence is that, until very recently, too few people (beyond the workforces themselves) had any idea of what was going on and how serious the consequences already were.

The neoliberal orthodoxy internalised by media moguls and too many journalists, commentators, academics and politicians has left them bewildered by recent political events, for example, the EU referendum result and the 2017 general election. As news values have shifted, and facts, values and opinions have ended up in the blender, they have visibly lost control of their own professional field of ‘expertise’. For journalists and commentators, their practices have increasingly morphed into ‘entertainment’, and worse, entrapment as entertainment. Three journalists in action this week around the Labour party conference in Brighton,  provide evidence that Robinson’s defensive complacency is misplaced:

Jo Coburn, of the Sunday Politics show, interviewed multiple award-winning film director, and now the official film-maker for the Labour party, Ken Loach, after the LP conference this week. She suggested that to describe the Austerity policies and actions of the Tory government as “conscious cruelty” was extreme, ridiculous even, as it implied that all Tory politicians were cruel people (she thought this was unfair). She argued that instead we should be celebrating the rise in employment levels. Loach, who has a long track record of political activism and artistic production that focuses on poverty and social justice issues (most recently his film, I Daniel), drew attention to the poverty of much of that employment (such as low pay, insecure and unsafe jobs, zero hours contracts). And he denied that “conscious cruelty” was a misnomer.

Not only does Loach care passionately about these social and political issues as an artist and human being, he is also eloquent in their exposition, and has the stats on child poverty, hunger, food banks, housing, homelessness, for example, at his fingertips. He cited these, to justify the “conscious cruelty” verdict, simultaneously ascertaining that Jo Coburn did not know the answers to his questions about these damning features of our society. She had implied that his statement was just a flamboyant, personal opinion. He demonstrated that it was a judgement based on hard, incontrovertible evidence. “I know what is going on”, he said quietly.

As a film maker (documentary and ‘fiction’), his work is rooted in extensive and careful research. Coburn showed herself not so thoroughly prepared, not least perhaps because in her media role she expects to challenge and interrogate, to be in control. She does not expect to be challenged (and shown wanting). On this occasion, both her humanity and her professional competence as a political journalist were left quietly in tatters.

In the same week, Jon Snow, interviewing Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that perhaps the Labour party is now “the nasty party”. Again, the form of questioning and the chosen issue of racism in the Labour party, seemed to be about trying to catch Jeremy out, to gain control, to overpower. Not such a ‘new man’ after all, Jon.

And something similar happened in Laura Kuenssberg’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn this week, where, as a senior political journalist, she pretends (surely) not to know what the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, had meant when he spoke at a LP fringe meeting of those individuals and institutions as “they” who “will come after us” in government. Of course she knows what he means. She was trying to turn it into an attack on Labour’s credibility, as well as a way of implying or creating friction between these two long standing best friends and allies.

These are examples of modern journalistic practice as entertainment / entrapment: a power struggle that leaves the ethics and purpose of broadcast and public sector journalism sorely damaged. Less fit for purpose than we, the people, have a right to expect. And therefore less likely to be trusted. On the evidence.

val walsh / 30 09 2017

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Jeremy Hunt and his problem with ‘evidence’.

Correcting Jeremy Hunt (The Guardian, 26 08 2017, ‘Why won’t Jeremy Hunt come clean?’) Stephen Hawking, an eminent director of research, as well as someone with considerable personal experience of the NHS as a patient over many years, points out that “record funding is not the same thing as adequate funding”, and cites the damning verdict of the Red Cross, that “the NHS is facing a humanitarian crisis”.

British foreign correspondent Mark Austin and his daughter Maddy provided harrowing evidence of this humanitarian crisis, the variable inadequacy of mental health services across the country, and the catastrophic consequences for the lives of those affected (Wasting Away: the Truth About Anorexia, C4, 24 08 2017). It was clear from the testimony of would-be patients (those waiting for an appointment or a bed), patients (many being treated huge distances from home), family members (many travelling from one end of the UK to the other to visit and support their offspring because there was no local provision) and specialist mental health practitioners, that not only are services patchy, inadequate or inappropriate (barely even a postcode lottery), but that this vacuum has been created by widespread and deep government cuts to the funding of public services since the Tory-led coalition in 2010. Over the last 7 years, those with disabilities and/or mental health issues appear to be favourite Tory targets for brutal funding and services cuts, that put our society to shame.

Mark and Maddy came face to face with Jeremy Hunt at the end of their measured but grim report. They presented him with their findings and attempted to question him. He dealt with them as he deals with every other person who questions his behaviour and government policies: first disarming them with ostensible agreement that there is a problem, followed by disingenuous platitudes, about how long it will take to fix. These things cannot be rushed, and apparently everything will have improved by 2020/2022. By which time, he forgot to acknowledge, many more young people and children will be very ill indeed, or dead, as a result of the lack of appropriate and effective services now or when they needed them.

With Hunt, there is always the sense that anything that is going wrong in the NHS is the fault of the NHS, its staff or even patients (more older patients, or others not looking after themselves properly), rather than funding and staffing numbers being inadequate as a result of government policies. The Tory break up and privatisation of the NHS purports to be a response to a health care system that is not working. This is, after all, the politician who, before being put in charge of health, described the NHS as a “failed experiment”. Was this, I wonder, a Tory requirement for his new job?

At no point did Hunt appear to feel uncomfortable or inadequate to the task of responding to the questions of Mark and Maddy. Father and daughter had done their important bit, researching the issues and filming people’s personal and professional testimony. But staring at him in disbelief at the end of the interview, demonstrated their defeat at his practised political hands. I only hope they didn’t thank him as they left. I imagine they were gutted.

Austin’s learning curve as a previously uncomprehending father had informed their TV narrative, but faced with Hunt, it fell short of what was needed: the honed, guerrilla determination of a long term public health or mental health activist who, previously thwarted, at last had the enemy cornered. The sense of urgency Mark Austin and his daughter Maddy had brought to their investigative report was dissipated by Hunt’s dismissive reassurances. Little comfort that their treatment echoed that meted out to the scientist Stephen Hawking (see The Guardian, 26 08 2017).

Faced with Hunt’s refusal on camera to acknowledge the brutal consequences of his government’s policies, as well as his own considerable role, this was not a moment for polite decorum. Where was the anger, where was the rage at Hunt’s impervious arrogance, his refusal, as accused by Hawking, “to come clean”? Again.

val walsh / 28 08 2017

 

 

The UK general election result (06 2017): Labour as a progressive alliance.

Labour MP, Clive Lewis and Green MP, Caroline Lucas, have made no secret of their hostility to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour project; Lewis forecast “’an existential crisis” if [Labour] failed to embrace progressive alliances” (Matthew Weaver, ‘Tactical voting: Corbyn could have become PM in landslide’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017). But who are the (“frustrated”) “progressive voters” of which they speak in their most recent joint statement? And does the “best placed left-of-centre candidate” referred to by Compass, in its push for tactical voting and a progressive alliance, mean every candidate or voter who is not Tory-inclined can be identified as “progressive”?

Based on recent historical evidence, many do not see the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens as progressive, left-of-centre parties. And the GE result has brought a diminution of political heft and influence for all three. But certainly these small parties are all infinitely preferable political allies to the DUP, even given playwright James Graham’s cautionary reflections on what a hung parliament is likely to mean (‘A hung parliament? It’ll be the 70s again, and people will die’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017).

However, tactical voting in this GE did not find favour or success, as seen in Wells, Somerset (Steven Morris, ‘People went for security in the end’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017). Suddenly, across the country, people saw Labour as the most compelling and realistic repository of anti Austerity values. Conversations on doorsteps, street corners, trains and buses, in families, at political meetings and open air rallies, gave expression to this rejection of more of the same punitive authoritarianism, and a burgeoning desire to do better, be better together. Old and young discovered common ground. Confidence was forged. What followed – increased voter registration and turnout, and the size of the Labour vote in ‘unexpected’ places – was a form of civil and political disobedience.

At the same time, those of us venturing out beyond our own constituencies, to support Labour campaigns in seats identified by Momentum as Labour or Tory marginals, became aware that there were candidates being underfunded by LP HQ (see Dan Hancox, ’24 hour party people’, 14 06 2017, G2). And where Momentum could not fill that gap, there were negative outcomes for those candidates. This needs independent investigation.

But doesn’t Corbyn’s inclusive Labour campaign, conducted with passion and dignity, and the stunning GE result, show that the Labour party is now seen as the only serious repository, not just of hope, but of realisable economic, social, environmental and political transformation, which has not previously been on offer from any political party? So for Lewis and Lucus to warn (threaten?) the Labour leadership that “progressives will desert the party if they cannot see a change in the way politics is conducted” combines ignorance and arrogance.

To caution the leader, who has engendered the most open, honest and participatory political process the country has ever seen, and which has led to this Labour breakthrough, confirms that there is still a lurking desire within the Labour establishment, to denigrate Corbyn’s achievement as leader and to topple him in the name of a progressive alliance. By ‘progressive’, they seem to mean themselves, those who have actively opposed Corbyn’s Labour project of diversity, unity and campaigning, against the apparent odds, to put Labour back on the political map, not just as the largest political party in Europe, but as a radical and representative party, fuelled by a new participatory politics that has activated members and supporters, old and new.

The post election resistance and disbelief that Lewis and Lucas represent, mean they still don’t get it. They don’t welcome this opening up of our democracy, this people-powered campaign (as opposed to machine politics). They don’t see the unity of purpose, across so many social and cultural differences, that Labour’s unique campaign and astonishing result demonstrate. If they cannot see this electoral process and result as a new politics, is it perhaps because their part in it was so reluctant? Like the media George Monbiot castigates (‘The biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media, who missed the story’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017), Lewis and Lucas (and Compass?) missed the story. So instead of rejoicing, they feel gloom and a sense of defeat.

val walsh / 16 06 2017

[This is a slightly revised version of the letter sent to The Guardian, 15 06 2017.]

Personal, political and professional misjudgement. Being wrong, being sorry, being contrite. . . . in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s game-changing general election campaign.

Since the UK GE (08 06 2017), a number of MPs and media commentators (e.g. Louise Ellman, Lucy Powell, Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Robert Peston), stating the obvious, have admitted they “underestimated” Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and his ability to inspire and steer a widespread and burgeoning campaign rooted in Labour values, based around a manifesto that addressed the circumstances, concerns, hopes and aspirations of all sections of our society, across differences of age, ethnicity, social class, dis/ability, gender, sexuality and geography.

Some (e.g. Owen Jones and Owen Smith) have gone so far as to explicitly apologise. But in the main, the expressions of approval at this extraordinary achievement fall short of acknowledgement of their own role since Corbyn was elected in 2015, in opposing and denigrating him and his supporters: they merely, they say, made a mistake. They now smile, many Labour MPs having achieved increased majorities on the back of Corbyn’s incredibly successful Labour campaign. And those they derided are also expected to smile, now we are all on the same winning side. Corbyn’s supporters are expected to overlook, for example, the damage the PLP inflicted on the Labour party by forcing a second leadership election, and sustaining hostilities and attempts at sabotage, throughout the period of Corbyn’s leadership.

But what will stay with Jeremy’s supporters is not the neoliberal ‘mistake’ of these MPs and commentators, in finding themselves on the wrong side of history. What will be remembered are their venomous bile, their relentless spite, aggression and contempt towards Jeremy and his supporters – possibly the worst personal, political and media attacks on a public figure, an elected MP, in living memory. Their seeming need to destroy, not just to disagree, was shocking. As well as instructive: exposing themselves to public scrutiny (intellectual and political). We know them better now.

As Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn never responded to or descended to, personal abuse, and there were those who saw this as ‘weakness’, a sign that he was not a proper leader, not ‘manly’ enough. Following his example, can we now move to outlaw extremist forms of communication in the pubic sphere – in politics and the media – where shouting, verbal dominance and mocking abuse seem to have been normalized as signs of ‘success’, the behaviour of a ‘winner’. Both Theresa May’s relentless personal abuse during the electoral campaign, and Jeremy Paxman’s loudmouthed recent media performance surely show us the way not to go if we are to engender the social and political conversations we need, to come together in respect rather than competition. These are the old ways. Parliament and the media need to learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s example and strength.

val walsh / 12 06 2017

 

 

 

Shacking up with the DUP: reckless, wrong and dangerous to UK democracy.

Alarm and revulsion has been variously expressed at the prospect of the UK parliament being held hostage to Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic and Unionist Party), on the basis that it wants “to allow people to discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds, opposes liberalizing abortion rights in Northern Ireland, has repeatedly vetoed marriage equality and counts a number of creationists and climate change deniers among its senior members” (Esther Addley & Caroline Davies, 10 06 2017).

If that isn’t enough, there is the constitutional inappropriateness and risk to the peace process and power sharing at Stormont, posed by the UK’s role as mediator being severely compromised if the DUP and the English Tories join together to impose their values and policies on the UK following the GE result. As Alastair Campbell, Shami Chakrabarti (BBC Question Time, 09 06 2017) and others have warned, the Tory party and its government are no longer neutral agents in this vital process, if they are overtly in bed with each other politically, exerting mutual influence.

In addition to these two serious social and political objections to the DUP acting to guarantee the survival of Theresa May’s damaged Tory government, there is a third factor which should cause more than hesitation: the role of Robert Mercer, US billionaire hedge fund owner (Trump’s biggest donor and close associate of Steve Bannon), and his organisation, AggregateIQ, the data analytics company based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

“A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign influenced the result of the EU referendum” (Carole Cadwalladr, ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked’, 07 05 2017).

Mercer owns Cambridge Analytica, which funded several of the Leave campaign organisations in the UK; its vice-president during the UK EU referendum period was the infamous white supremacist, Steve Bannon (close associate of Trump inside Whitehall, and friend of Nigel Farage). The DUP spent £32,750 with AggregateIQ as part of its Brexit campaign (Cadwalladr). In February 2017, “the DUP Brexit campaign manager (MP Jeffrey Donaldson) admits he didn’t know about its mysterious donor’s links to the Saudi intelligence service” (Adam Ramsay & Peter Geoghegan, opendemocracy.net, 16 05 2017). Ramsay & Geoghegan note that, “Being forced to return a donation of this size [£435000] could leave the DUP at risk of bankruptcy”.

May’s reckless desperation to remain Prime Minister and keep the Tories afloat as the party of government, is further evidence of Tory indifference to matters of legitimacy, corruption and democracy. The craving to hang on to power overrides ethical considerations, and by extension, the best interests of the country, as opposed to short-term party political advantage.

val walsh / 11 06 2017

Democracy and the problem of slippery journalism.

This is the unedited version of my published Guardian letter, 13 05 2017:

Jonathan Freedland (‘No more excuses: Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’, The Guardian: 08 05 2017) continues his excoriation of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. It makes for slippery journalism.

He cites the election results as “evidence” and “proof” of Corbyn’s failure as leader, but notes the collapse of UKIP, “its programme swallowed whole by the Conservatives. Ukip voters transferred en masse, reassured that Theresa May will give them the hard Brexit they want”. Many working-class anti-EU voters, he says, feel better represented by May than Labour. Well yes, because Labour’s stance towards Europe, the EU, other nationalities, the world, is not the same as Ukip or the Tories. Generational and educational factors, as well as social and economic experience and circumstances, have influenced voting behaviour.

Few of the participants in the two focus groups Freedland observed ever bought a paper and seldom watched a TV bulletin. “So blaming the media won’t wash,” he proclaims triumphantly. Nor could they name a single politician, other than May, Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Freedland ignores the significance of where/how participants get their information, and the role of closed circles/echo chambers on social media, concluding: “They had formed their own, perhaps instinctive, view.” What on earth does that actually mean? As journalism it’s beyond poor. Is it disingenuous or just sly?

Freedland quotes Dave Wilcox, the Derbyshire Labour group leader, who refers to “genuine Labour supporters”, who will not vote Labour while Corbyn remains leader. “Genuine”: well what does that make the rest of us, those out campaigning for a Labour government? ‘Fake Labour voters’? And what of all those young people ready to vote Labour because Corbyn is leader?

Theresa May exults in her identity as a “bloody difficult woman”. Her bluster seeks to disguise the fact that, as Professor of European Law, Michael Dougan (speaking as a panel member on Brexit Britain, at Liverpool’s WOW [Writing on the Wall] festival, 06 05 2017) insists: “There is no plan”. Freedland would serve democracy better by calling to account a prime minister “nervously pinballing from one stop to the next, with apparently no idea of where she is going or why” (John Harris, ‘Today there are three voter types: the disconnected, deceived and dismayed’, The Guardian: 06 05 2017), but determined to take us with her.

val walsh