Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Decline of Scepticism

More than in the January attacks, which focused on sites that were representative of self-identifying minorities (satirists and Jews), the recent Paris assaults featured sites that could be identified with by most people - restaurants, a football ground, a concert hall - as well as a random selection of victims that was an approximation of society at large. This allowed last week to be characterised as an attack on Paris en tout, and by extension on the enlightenment values that the City of Light is held to represent. Not just free speech and the right to be annoying, but personal liberty and cultural diversity: vive la difference. There was little scepticism about whether Paris really can claim to be such an exemplar of tolerance and integration, even when the action moved from the café terraces of the 11th arrondissement beyond the Périphérique to the chicken shops of Saint-Denis.

The celebration of the dead as martyrs to a collective cause, regardless of their personal beliefs or circumstances, is a common response. For example, Ken Livingston's reaction to the July 2005 bombings was to describe London as "our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another", which was a suitably multicultural update on the Blitz Spirit and "London can take it". This is understandable, not least as a way of expressing solidarity - an attack on you is an attack on us - but it quickly turns a set of personal tragedies into a catechism of values, intended to divide "us" from "them". Even the criticism of the terrorists' binary worldview, their rejection of the "greyzone", becomes a dividing line in the hands of a media.

The claim that the assault on the Bataclan Theatre was an attack on civilisation is not merely patronising to the Middle East, it seeks to conscript the entire French population - the "civilians" who embody this civilisation - into a total war. Just as the hyperbole after the January attack led many to say "Je ne suis pas Charlie", so there will be many now who will question what this "civilisation" is and why they should risk their lives for it. Unsurprisingly, this leads some to seek more eternal values, above the political fray and the pressure to pick sides, hence perhaps the popularity of Antoine Leiris's eulogy to his murdered wife, which evoked the Catholic ideal of the Holy Family: madonna, child and a stoic husband.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo did not lead to a greater respect for free speech or cultural sensitivity, merely a standoff between absolutists and relativists, the vast majority of whom were uninterested in the context of the magazine or the role of gouaille in French history. The attack on the Jewish supermarket prompted Benjamin Netanyahu to opportunistically advocate voluntary repatriation to Israel at a time when French secularists were demanding greater integration by Muslims. In all its dimensions, the "debate" arising around the January attacks was sterile and incoherent. It's early days, but the current debate does not look like it will be much better. France may have "declared war" on Daesh, but its objectives in respect of Syria are no clearer now than they were last month while the objection to random murder hardly needs emphasising.

The state response to last Friday's attacks does not look particularly enlightened, featuring limits on the freedom of movement, demands for greater communications surveillance, and the advocacy of a "shoot to kill policy", despite the lack of evidence that any of these measures would have changed the outcome had they been in place in France, and despite the sorry precedent of shoot-to-kill in Northern Ireland. The desire to find proof of both refugee involvement and the use of encrypted comms shows the extent to which the media agenda is now being driven by government briefings. If migration is once more in the mix in the UK, this is because Number 10 has decided to foreground it, not Nigel Farage. What was notable about the media response, particularly on TV, was not the stupidity or partisan bias but the lack of scepticism. That lack can be traced back to both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the development of the Internet.

The distrust of government that emerged in Western media between 1956 and 1976 (All the President's Men marked the apogee) was a paradoxical product of the Cold War: a realisation that liberal values had to be reflexive and sincere if they were to be preserved and ultimately prevail against Soviet communism. The fall of Richard Nixon was as encouraging to dissident morale in Eastern Europe as the Helsinki Accords. This critical stance meant the erosion of lingering pre-liberal norms, such as deference, and the revival of classical liberal attitudes to personal liberty, hence the renewed popularity of John Stuart Mill. The instrumentality of this in preparing the ground for neoliberalism, and the right-libertarian attack on democratic government, would only become apparent later.

While paying lip-service to classical liberal norms, the conservative reaction under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sought to restore the authority of the state in its dealings with the media. This explains both the pragmatic importance placed on advancing the commercial interests of supporters like Rupert Murdoch, notably in his acquisition of The Times, and the self-conscious attempt to restore a sense of dignity to official pronouncements, which became increasingly absurd as the years rolled by, e.g. Thatcher's "We have become a grandmother". The period also saw the start of the growing stranglehold of journalism and public policy debate by the Oxbridge/LSE elite, which narrowed the emotional distance between government and its frontline critics and normalised a metropolitan and upper middle-class agenda.

Though Reagan and Thatcher's neoliberal inheritors, Clinton and Blair, were often criticised for being overly sensitive to the media, this ignores the real dynamic. Media management did exactly what it said on the tin. Despite the increasing diversity of channels and the falling cost of content-generation, the coverage of politics was increasingly dominated by the fixed agenda of the "grid". Not only did the commentariat happily attack the contingent opponents of government, from the NUM to Brussels, they increasingly preferred to beast marginal social groups rather than risk antagonising powerful interests. Before 2008 it was rare to see any suggestion that business leaders might be incompetent chancers. Today, you are more likely to read a diatribe against the student transsexual enemies of free speech than the corruption of university vice-chancellors.

The commercial strategy for contemporary media is to stimulate a reaction that prompts consumers to cascade the content, and thus the advertising. This goes beyond mere trolling by opinion-mongers to provocatively calling the integrity of a news story into question. Circulating dubious claims (they were Syrian refugees) and government briefings (this is why we need more powers) triggers a crowd-sourced scepticism via the filter of social media, which saves the journalists effort and stimulates engagement. In their desire to generate clicks and retweets, journalists are outsourcing their quality control, but they are thereby losing the habit of scepticism. The problem is that social media are structurally incapable of advancing beyond scepticism to patient investigation. There's no Woodward or Bernstein out there, just evanescent trends.

What passes for investigative journalism these days relies on the heavy lifting of others (e.g. Wikileaks) or the Captain Renault-like archaeology of scandals that were in plain sight all along (Kids Company, TalkTalk etc). As the recently-published report into HBOS shows, this is a golden age for not holding the powerful to account. In the circumstances, the sight of Laura Kuennsberg berating Jeremy Corbyn for his lack of enthusiasm for summary executions is about more than partisan bias. For any journalist to use the phrase "shoot to kill policy" without acknowledging that it might not necessarily be a good thing reflects not only a lack of historical understanding, but a lack of scepticism about the operation of power.


  1. A great post in a sequence of excellent posts. Journalism isn't doing it's job. The only mitigating factor could maybe be the network effects of Twitter, etc. making the politico-media nexus more and more of an echo chamber - think of the same effects and teenage children, trolling, etc. But, you know, they are meant to be adults.

    And then I get to see Katie Razzall on Newsnight haranguing Johann Malawana, chair of the BMA's Junior Doctors' Committee, about some second job that he might have - supposedly demonstrating that junior doctors can't be that overworked - as if this was at all important and not just playing the man.

  2. I'd like to go further. What we have seen in not just a trivialisation of journalism, but a structural change in its content, and what is considered to be significant. There has always been a division in journalism between the reporting of what is happening, and what is being talked about. The balance has steadily moved towards more of the latter. Even within the former, which you could rephrase as life as it is experienced by real people. large proportions of those people are being written out of the significant world. This has always been the case, hence the shock of Cathy Come Home in the 60s but, for a time, there was a shift towards some meaningful reporting of the real life of the poor and the marginal. This trend is now reversed, or trivialised into voyeurism and cliche (Benefits Street).

  3. Well said. I couldn't believe it when I heard that they were going to play the Marseillaise at all the Premier League matches this weekend, it's almost getting to the stage where the powers-that-be are satirising themselves. I can't remember anything like that happening after 9/11, which was more shocking and 30 times bloodier, or after 7/7, which happened in this country. All part of the end of politics.

    As far as media goes, the BBC seems to be as decadent as any other outlet. They had a presenter (not just a reporter) specifically in Paris for days, yet were unable to provide us with any sensible information about what was going on, merely reinforcing the 'attack on France'-'attack on Civilisation' stance. And their insistence on saying 'so-called Islamic State' sounds like something Fox News would come out with.

  4. Case Study 57: the media reaction to the Spending Review. Mostly they seemed to want to "debate" whether this heralded the end of austerity. As if anybody with more than two brain cells would think this.