Thursday, July 21, 2011

today : I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.

One of the things, as a Labour supporter throughout the period of the last government, that I was always reluctant to do was to openly criticise them. This, on the the grounds that I knew what the alternative was, and Labour plus imperfection and mistakes always always trumps the Tories.

There were three main areas where I thought they fell down. Iraq, obviously. You can argue they had no choice but to follow Bush but in the end the whole thing was monumentally stupid. Then there was their puppy-dog overenthusiasm for things like databases (I always think the plural should be databii), surveillance cameras and all that stuff. Not only is it ideologically dodgy to go all Patriot Act on the asses of the innocent public, but these things always cost stupid amounts of money and rarely succeed. The NHS database, as an example, was a lovely Utopian idea but was ill-executed and ended up as a hideously costly failure that everybody but the people in charge could see coming a mile off.

But even in the heady days before Iraq, I was always critical of the way New Labour seemed to pander to the media. There was a desperation to control the news cycle which led to many hasty policy ideas and, ultimately a scatter-shot approach to policy that left too much important stuff undone or half-finished. It also seemed to be that lots of more radical and interesting policies were put into turnaround or watered down at the behest of the media. In some ways they can be let off the hook by dint of inexperience. New Labour were the first government to operate in the 24hr media world and also the first to live in the internet age. As the media world expanded so explosively, it looked like they were trying to corral it all. It ended up looking like someone trying to herd flies or someone trying to catch a thousand ping-pong balls and hold onto them. And after 20 years of relentless attacks on the left by the press, who could blame them if they convinced themselves that they needed to court the newspapers.

Recently, some people have been saying that this wasn't necessary, that the Sun never wot won anything on its own. But when you have 6 major newpapers against you and only one consistently for, then perhaps you have to try something to reduce the effect.
In this climate the power of the press expanded to fill the gaps in competence and experience. The problem was that nobody said "Enough", the more the media tried to undermine, the more Labour tried to pander. More than once they back-pedalled. More than once they looked weak and foolish.

The 24hr news media still rely too much on the newspapers. Despite TV having 70% of the news market and the Beeb having 70% of that, even the BBC uncritically follows the front pages of some of the most agenda-driven and politically biased papers. It's not often that the Beeb creates the news agenda anymore. Occasionally they'll do a Panorama that enacts some small change, but even Rough Justice is long gone. Turn on News 24 and there is almost no investigative element to the journalism. They read out the same newswire reports, recycle the same stories as everyone else, and use the same small coterie of experts and commentators.

Knowing that nobody else is stepping up to take the lead puts power in the hands of the newspaper proprietors, whose ultimate job is to sell newsprint, and not really be custodians of balance and democracy.

A great example of this is a kind of non-political story: the MMR/Autism controversy. The newspapers went crazy over the story without ever checking the facts. They know that fear is an easy selling tool. It served their agenda of attacking the government and pressuring Tony Blair. on MMR they could attack at will because no government was going to change their vaccination policy in such circumstances. The Mail and The Express lazily live off health scares and/or miracle cures. But this time, even the broadsheets and TV jumped in, middle class journos caught up in the paranoia of not producing perfect offspring. The result : almost an entire generation of middle class kids unvaccinated and an pointless surge in measles. It's killed some of these very children, whose parents are, in the end, little different from those who swallowed the evangelism and fed their kids the Kool Aid at Jonestown.

The other thing that has happened is that the papers as a whole have enjoyed free reign to bully whosoever they please. Politicians are wary of criticising the papers because they know that the papers have files on them, or might stop at nothing to relentlessly smear them - smears which echo unchallenged across TV and radio channels. Therefore their only option has to cosy up. Keep your enemies closer.

On the surface it seems that recent events have cracked the press/police/politician nexus wide open for all to see. People are calling left and right for reform. But even if Murdoch's influence declines (after all he will retire/die eventually) let's remember to revisit the media/politics/police relationship in a few years time and see what reforms have been successfully enacted, and how things have changed.
After all, three years later and the banks have paid themselves 14 billion quid of bonuses out of our pockets. Whilst surviving on our cash, they still believe they are so clever that they have abolished debt liability, still poise themselves to feed like vultures on the very economies their actions put in peril, and still celebrate their imagined profitability at the end of each day with bottles of vintage Bollinger. Root and branch reform was mooted, and then promised. To qoute George Carlin. We put a dollar in the change machine and nothing changed.

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