Monday, 14 November 2016

Meet the Leader of the Opposition

The US media reaction to the Trumpageddon has been predictably solipsistic, ranging from angst over the misinterpretation of polling data to pessimism over the regressive sociology of newspapers. While John Cassidy's polite "Media Culpa" and Thomas Frank's polemic against "The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders" might not seem to have much in common, they both spring from an American belief in the institutional importance of the press as a pillar of democratic practice. Cassidy is painstaking in his attempts to prove that the media were sincere and diligent in their pre-election analysis, to the point of blaming deceitful voters who misled pollsters. In other words, "they" didn't play by the rules. Frank, whose 2004 book, What's The Matter With Kansas? helped construct the contemporary trope of a coastal elite in conflict with a small town middle-class, suggests that newspapers (The Washington Post in particular) have been captured since the 1970s by Ivy League graduates compromised through their social links with politicians and lobbyists.

Frank is accurate about the structural forces (the Ivy League takeover is real while the economics of the press have promoted opinion-mongering and clickbait to the exclusion of sober reportage) but he cannot resist conjuring a golden age situated somewhere around the pre-Internet era of All The President's Men: "The boom years of journalistic professionalization are long over. Newspapers are museum pieces ... no group knows the story of the dying middle class more intimately than journalists. So why do the people at the very top of this profession identify themselves with the smug, the satisfied, the powerful? ... This is a field, after all, that has embraced the forces that are killing it to an almost pathological degree. No institution has a greater appetite for trendy internet thinkers than journalism schools". While the sociology is on the money, it is shot through with nostalgia. Establishment newspapers have always preferred to support the powerful rather than hold them to account. Frank's claim that "every pundit and every would-be pundit identifies upward, always upward" applies to every era.

While similar claims for the institutional importance of the press can be heard in the UK, these tend to have less popular traction because of the dominant role of the BBC. Even before the Murdoch takeover of The Times, British broadsheets were seen as partisan. This in turn explains the near-hysteria that greeted Andrew Marr's decision to broadcast an interview with Marine Le Pen yesterday. Some liberals have criticised the decision to do this on Remembrance Sunday, which leads cynical old me to suspect a distraction: on any other Sunday the focus would be solely on the politics, not the appropriateness. In contrast, conservatives have insisted that "squeamishness should not be allowed to forestall a necessary debate". This is not just another example of how the concept of propriety has migrated from the right to the left, it's evidence of how the word "debate" has been corrupted to mean providing a platform. I can think of any number of people who would have been more effective than Andrew Marr at actually debating Le Pen's propaganda, and none of them are journalists. Frankly, Danny Dyer could have done a better job.

What this points to is both the systemic bias of the BBC's culture and the structural bias that arises from its claim to be the national broadcaster. Of the two, the latter is more problematic at present. The former is visible not just in the disproportionate coverage routinely accorded to business and professional elites but in the tendency to situate the middle of the political spectrum to the right of centre. This bias arises from BBC senior staff often being recruited through the same social channels at their preferred subjects: Oxbridge, journalism, politics etc. Though it is derided as cosmopolitan and liberal, this culture is actually just metropolitan and conservative. The bias is recognised in abstract terms by the BBC, but its attempts to mitigate this through "awareness" and positive discrimination are always going to be inadequate so long as senior roles at the corporation provide access to that elite milieu. Le Pen's appearance was made inevitable more by her speech to the Oxford Union last year than by Question Time's invitation to Nick Griffin in 2009.

The structural bias of the BBC is often reduced to the notion of "balance". In fact, the problem is not the corporation's tendency to give airtime to climate-change deniers, but its curation of a narrow political spectrum. This arises because it believes there are diminishing returns at the margins, which means debates are typically framed as a struggle between two positions in the centre. This is not a new tendency, even if it has been amplified by the economic and political pressures placed on the BBC since the 1980s. It made a lot of sense after 1945 shifted the political centre leftwards and 90% of the electorate identified with the two main parties, though its worth recalling that before the war the BBC, like most of the media, sought to marginalise Labour by preserving the traditional Conservative-Liberal duopoly long past the Liberal Party's sell-by date. In other words, it reflects the history of the UK Parliamentary system.

Now, at a time when the political centre is intellectually weak but the political left is barely tolerated by the establishment, this structural bias provides an opportunity for the far-right to intrude, essentially by recasting the centre as more "liberal" than it really is and by connecting small-c conservative elites, such as journalists and judges, with a network of more shadowy forces. Le Pen's remark to Marr that "Trump’s victory is an additional stone in the building of a new world which will replace the old one" hints both at the far-right's ambition (the totalitarian gloss of "a new world") and the complacent acceptance by the BBC of the suggested frame of "old" versus "new". For Marr, reflecting the BBC's own editorial values, the substantive issues were the Front National's electoral prospects and its propriety. Le Pen pere's dismissal of the Holocaust as "a detail of history" was predictably raised, and just as predictably dismissed by his daughter with practised ease.

One of the characteristics of the media's treatment of the far-right (from populists through nationalists to real Fascists) is the way that it abandons its usual critical tactics, such as the insistence on fiscal transparency. Few pressed Trump to put a cost on his wall and fewer still asked him how the US would fund it, knowing full well Mexico wouldn't. Farage was up-front ahead of the EU referendum in admitting that he'd rather the UK be poorer but with fewer migrants, but no one really pressed him on the implications, such as that an increase in relative poverty would not be evenly distributed across society. When Marine Le Pen rejected further Muslim immigration with "we're full up", and insisted her Islamophobia was a defence of secular values, Marr didn't ask how many Muslims France could continue to accommodate, nor how religion could fail to be a means of discrimination against existing citizens if Islam was defined as being at variance with French values.

One reason why establishment media like the BBC have traditionally done a poor job at challenging the far-right is that they simply don't believe that they are a threat. "How would you pay for that policy?" is what you ask a party you think might win an election. The approach has been to give the far-right a little airtime, to emphasise plurality and free-speech, but in the expectation that this modest rope will be more than enough to hang them, as Nick Griffin proved on Question Time. But that is no longer a credible explanation. If Marine Le Pen really could be the next French President, as Marr suggested, then his performance - the appearance of rigour and the total absence of pressure - was simply craven. The worry is that the structural bias of the BBC, which you can date from its behaviour in the 1926 General Strike, has become so much a part of the wider institutional fabric that it is now acquiescing in the normalisation of the far-right as the official opposition. And no - you can't blame that on Jeremy Corbyn.

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