There is a very telling moment in Owen Bennett’s account of being spat at at an anti-Tory demo in Manchester yesterday. It’s not when the Huffington Post reporter is actually spat at. There are always aggressive lunatics on protests. They don’t indicate anything wider about their movement except that it, like all other movements, has its fair share of idiots. It comes afterwards, when police had separated him and fellow journalist Kate McCann off from a section of the crowd.
As Bennett recounts:
“I shouted out that we were journalists, and flashed my National Union of Journalists issued-press card. They didn’t leave us alone, apparently we were fair game. I deserved to be spat on, according to more than one person in the crowd. The police told Kate and I we needed to move out of the area or we would ‘get lynched’. I didn’t doubt it. The crowd was getting larger, and angrier.”
Similar accounts came in from a variety of journalists attending the conference, most of them not writing for publications which could be called right wing.
Journalists should not fool themselves into thinking that this is just a phenomenon on one side of the political divide. A day spent on Twitter will show you that Ukip supporters are every bit as viciously against the media as their counterparts on the left. As much as they hate the comparison and each other, the hard left and right share many of the same psychological instincts.
And it’s not just on left and right, but across political campaigns. The last Israeli bombardment of Gaza provided an absurdist portrayal of protestors’ priorities. When the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire fell apart, where were the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and the CND? They weren’t at the Israeli embassy, or the Foreign Office, or the American embassy, or tsome arms manufacturer’s HQ. They were blockading New Broadcasting House.
Their press release attacked the BBC for interviewing Tony Blair about the issue. The idea that the interview may be aggressive or critical did not seem to occur to them. In a parallel of the way some identity politics campaigners treat people’s right to speak as an act of violence, the very presence of someone on air is considered unacceptable, regardless of the context in which it takes place or the questions they are asked.
The media is increasingly treated as a hostile force. And it’s not just anti-war protestors and Ukip cyber warriors. The distrust and agitation towards the media is increasingly mainstream. Alex Salmond’s campaign against the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson has been a case in point. First the BBC reported about a possible relocation of RBS if Scotland voted Yes during the independence referendum. Salmond attacked Robinson in public and soon 4,000 people with Scottish flags were marching to the BBC’s headquarters. The attacks on Robinson were particularly personal and aggressive. As many noted at the time it was akin to Putin’s Russia. The fact a democratic leader was encouraging it was particularly revealing. And indeed, Salmond was still going on about it this August. Far from calming things down, he was beset by the same fever.
You see a similar attitude from Jeremy Corbyn, who does not seem to recognise the distinction between broadcasters, websites and tabloids. The Labour leader is understandably agitated at the deranged viciousness of the right-wing press attacks on him. But his response has not just been directed at the Mail and the Telegraph. He has cancelled interviews with regional press at the last minute. He refused to give interviews to the BBC after winning the election. And he returned to the theme of the hated media several times during his conference speech. It was the closest it had to a theme.
Conservatives are no different. Every single morning, without fail, they take to Twitter to lambast the BBC for its imaginary left-wing bias. This is a phenomenon which touches every part of the political debate.
What do all these groups have in common? They are all motivated by the sense that everyone would agree with them if only the information they received were not filtered through a biased media machine. This is a direct result of social media. The deafening echo chambers people have surrounded themselves with make them increasingly outraged to discover that not everyone agrees with them. They must somehow explain away people’s inability to grasp the reality of the world as they do, so it follows that the media must be responsible.
People’s anger about the the press is not completely misguided. Political journalism is often a trivial failure. The reliance on advertising and a market-failure proprietorial model reliant on a handful of very wealthy owners means the press is inevitably skewed towards the status quo. After all, the people funding it have done rather well out of the status quo and have a lot to lose from it changing. That political instinct does affect the BBC. Even though very few people read it, the press still forms the political agenda which the broadcasters follow. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s old school Marxist analysis – a function of a system in which the wealthy own the means of production.
Political journalists are far too often interested in tittle-tattle about leaders than they are the consequences of their policies. They also engage in political compromises of their own, in which they give average ministers good write-ups in expectation of stories in return. It’s all part of the machine. But the key to understanding it is not conspiracy, but economic and personal incentives.
And those warped incentives do not just lie with journalists, but with readers. The brutal truth is that stories about policy failure – the effect of welfare cuts, the reality of life in prison, the hardship faced by asylum seekers – does not get anything like the attention of a piece about the latest ministerial faux-pas or whether it’s still OK to say 'first world problems’. The web offers editors unparalleled information about what people choose to read. If they read more investigative journalism – the kind which takes time and money – more of it would be written.
There is much to be critical about in the British media and British readers. But the way to fix it is not to succumb to some raging conspiracy theory about evil media manipulation. It’s to take an honest look at the structures around media ownership and our own behaviours as reporters and readers of the news.
Of course, it’s much easier to engage in angry paranoia about media conspiracy. And indeed that is what people seem intent on doing.