Britain’s media are threatening to make viciousness and spite the hallmark of our society, rather than humanity and fair-mindedness. The process has been under way for decades, but suddenly fair play and decency are in retreat before the urge to tar and feather whatever scapegoat, at whatever cost. Whether it is the vilification of disabled people during the pursuit of welfare scroungers, or the cartoon jingoism that has landed Britain in a series of expensive and unhappy wars, the modern British media have become a destructive force.
The implications go well beyond the long-standing conservative bias in our press. The quest to excite and dramatise – a great feature of any journalism – has transmuted into a reflex tendency to portray any issue in terms designed to allow only immediate and emotional condemnation. A combination of newsrooms hollowed by growing media poverty, lack of a tradition of journalistic professionalism, proprietors careless of their wider responsibilities to British mores along with intense competition for sales has proved toxic.
Every sphere of life is touched by the consequences. The trial of Levi Bellfield for the murder of Milly Dowler, leaving the family traumatised by the experience, may have raised fundamental questions about the criminal justice system – but there are also tough questions about the role of the media and how they are pushing at the very limits of the judicial process. The demonisation of the working class as chavs, the inability rationally to discuss the difficult trade-offs over criminalising even recreational soft drug use, or the widespread belief that Britain is engulfed by crime when crime rates have been dropping for at least a decade all fall into the same category. There are two realities: one lived and one constructed by our media.
An instinct for generosity, the presumption of innocence and a willingness to see all points of view used to feature prominently in Britain – however imperfectly. Now it is vanishing. In its place is a new meanness, a presumption of guilt and the quest to find a single scapegoat who can take responsibility for every fault – and whom we can collectively hate. For example there was no doubt that Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of Haringey Social Services, had to take responsibility for the scarcely credible failings that led to the death of Baby P. But the affair became more of a contemporary witch-hunt than an exercise in proper accountability – with the then education secretary Ed Balls succumbing to the pressure to burn the latter-day witch. He summarily sacked her. She later won a case, appealing to the Supreme Court, for unfair dismissal.
In this atmosphere we are collectively infantilised. In every area of public policy complexity, humanity, fairness, expertise and notions of enlightened self-interest are under assault. The quest is on to find someone on whom we can vent our venom, and whose removal will resolve every problem. Public sector unions defending “gold-plated” public sector pensions or Ken Clarke advancing “soft on crime” reforms of the criminal justice system are just the latest in a litany of issues reduced to a Manichaean and juvenile view of good and bad. David Cameron blocking his justice secretary’s proposal to create more headroom for guilty pleas – saving time, money, stress on witnesses and reducing the risk of injustice – in the name of “law and order” was giving in to exactly the same pressures as Ed Balls. Clarke was the scapegoat: the prime minister his willing executioner.
Democracy’s great asset is the capacity for deliberative debate and dissent, and for its ability to call upon impartial expertise and act on its advice. Governments are held to account and so hopefully make fewer mistakes. But the media are both the forum and conduit for public argument. If legislators and governors cannot argue or present their case, if the full range of facts is never disclosed and expertise traduced because of how the media conducts themselves, everyone is the poorer.
Britain, for example, has a labour market that manages to be both highly deregulated while offering sufficient workplace protection in which exploitation and discrimination are relatively rare. It ranks number one in most international scorecards – and is surely one reason why the private sector has managed to create some 400,000 jobs over the last 12 months despite the weakest economic recovery since the 19th century. Yet the Department for Business is engaging in an exercise to assess options for further deregulation – hardly a policy priority. Meanwhile, public sector unions, threatening to strike to protect pension rights, add further yeast to the brew. The media are presented with another scapegoat for the lack of recovery and Britain’s record public sector deficit – Spanish practices, over-powerful unions.
But it is surely hardly a surprise that, confronted by a triple threat to their pensions – a meaner inflation index, higher contributions and lower benefits – public sector workers resist. Nor do a few highly publicised perverse industrial tribunal rulings mean that workers are living high on the hog. The reality – enfeebled unions, a lightly regulated labour market – is disguised. Instead, a lot of intellectual and political effort is going to be spent solving a second-order problem. And when the battles are won and new deregulations put in place, be sure that the British economy will still be in the doldrums. Unions and labour market regulations may make good media scapegoats – but that does not mean they are the problem.
Righteous vengeance – today’s media stance on everything – is rarely good public policy. Perhaps Britain, with the US and Germany, might not have persuaded the IMF, France and the EU that imposing post first world war-style reparation payments on Greece is self-defeating. When Greece defaults, with the wider disastrous financial shock waves, Britain will not escape the consequences. But Cameron did not even try: the media discourse – not a British penny for spendthrift, corrupt Greeks – prohibited an act of enlightened self-interest.
There are solutions: higher and better regulated standards, insistence on plurality, clearer definition of the responsibilities that go with ownership, and more acceptance by editors and journalists of proper boundaries along with the division between news and comment. All require honest recognition of what is happening, and then brave leadership, from both within the industry and from our politicians. Left to themselves, the prospects of change are minimal. Ultimately it will only be readers and viewers registering their dismay and disaffection, perhaps just beginning to become evident, that will trigger reform. Until then we will get the media we deserve.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010