MANUFACTURING DISCONTENT : BEHIND THE LEFT'S MEDIA MASK
1st June 2020
Tate. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
When public dissatisfaction with the mainstream media’s relentless centre-left bias reached a high pitch around 2016 it was very old news to me. Many intelligent observers had spotted the trend but I’d had the privilege of seeing the media from the inside out. More than ten years before I had warned friends that a perfect storm was coming, that if they thought lockstep journalism was bad now it was going to get much worse. Some rolled their eyes and stifled a yawn. Years later the same people would buttonhole me in pubs and rant about how decaf Marxism and globalism had conquered the BBC and almost every newspaper, how free speech was dead and how England, their England, was being destroyed by meretricious crap about Brexit, gender politics, race relations and climate change. Then it was my turn to roll my eyes and stifle a yawn. Tell me something I don’t know.
By then I had been a journalist for more than ten years. I drifted into the job in my early thirties after discovering I could sell news items. I sat various NCTJ exams and entered the trade in the time-honoured route of joining a local paper, first as a reporter and then as a sub-editor. I switched for no other reason than sub-editors were paid £2,500 a year more than reporters, and I was hard up.
I worked in an office which put out more than ten weekly newspapers, some free, some paid for, covering a large area of London. I was thus well positioned to notice what the future of the media was going to look like: graduates regularly arrived in the office to do a couple of years on a local before moving up the ladder. This was when I realised the extent that left-wing thinking had penetrated the millennial generation. Climate change, racism and homophobia were now the things to fight, and criticism of New Labour’s immigration drive was ‘racist’. The editor was obsessed by climate change and therefore saw fit to bombard his readers with stories relating to it. On the other hand the readers were, judging by their letters, more interested in crime, public spending, local history and, perhaps most of all, dog excrement on pavements.
This was the era of Tony Blair as prime minister, Ken Livingstone as London mayor and the rapid social fragmentation that their neo-Marxist social policies caused. Knife and drug crime were soaring. Almost everyone in the office was a member of the National Union of Journalists, which had guidelines, many of them perfectly reasonable, for the reporting of race, religion, sex and gender. Since a high proportion of knife and drug crime in the newspapers’ patches was being carried out by members of minorities, this could pose problems for the doctrinaire. The NUJ’s broad advice, while not an open call for politically correct censorship, could have a bowdlerising effect which wipes out important nuances. When carried out assiduously by a reporter or sub, this effect can sometimes make news copy absurd, as when one of the country’s high profile papers managed to print a huge report about the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, southeast London, without any mention that his killers were Islamic fanatics. ‘Non-judgemental’ terms were required, even for maniacs smothered in blood and ranting on the TV news. These neutral terms are common in news reporting if you look carefully. The word militant is a standard way of denuding stories of their associations with the spikier end of Islam, for example.
One of the big differences between my generation and the millennials was their lack of interest in reading newspapers. That’s right: people who had entered the newspaper trade had little or no interest in the product they were producing. Eventually reporters in my office were ordered to read the day’s national papers (lest a story with a local angle be missed), and even then some whinnied and demanded that a system of turn-taking be introduced.
Despite honourable exceptions it was obvious that many reporters had little interest in hard news, their ‘apprenticeship’ clearly serving in their minds as an entrée to writing features, interviewing pop stars or, the grail, getting on TV. Television, one realised, was virtually the sole conduit of news, knowledge and opinion. American television serials, which have been saturated for decades in standard left-liberal tropes, archetypes and caricatures, were the main vessel of moral and social instruction and criticism. The real world according to this view was, therefore, a Manichean battle zone where nasty old, straight, rich and right wing men oppressed everyone else.
Local papers were a great way to learn the nuts and bolts of news – if you wanted to. Many top flight journalists, particularly on television, have never been near one and it shows sometimes: there are several household names I would not trust to make a decent job of reporting a cat being rescued from a tree.
When I left local news and moved on in my career I saw a great deal more of this new PC outlook, regardless of the political stripe of the newspaper I was working for. For example, papers with a centre-right agenda were loathed for ‘spreading hate, fear and lies’, even if the person holding the opinion was collecting pay from said paper. Newspapers and television news which blatantly arranged coverage and evidence to suit a left-wing agenda were judged to be ‘fair and balanced’. Organisations, persons and governments ‘lurched to the Right’; a swing in the opposite direction was never a lurch, it was just an event.
Certain political fanatics could be attacked though. For example, it was righteous to demonise British branches of fascism populated by white people (the BNP, National Front etc) but not British branches of fascism populated by non-white people: Hizb ut-Tahrir etc. This of course is a characteristic hypocrisy of a wider liberal left that believes it is honest, open and crusading when it is in fact often furtive, devious and cowardly.
It was not appreciated when I pointed out to certain colleagues that the loathed, high-circulation papers that ‘spread hate’ were in fact publishing stories that in large part came from official sources: government departments, the National Health Service, the Office for National Statistics, proceedings from magistrates’ and crown courts and police press releases. You realised that a huge number of young journalists were in conflict with the basic idea of journalism itself, in other words a record of a continuing chronicle of unfolding, spontaneous human events and actions. Their idea of the trade was what I call social justice warrior public relations, underpinned by self-censorship. This deviation from the true nature of the trade is what caused the growing fury and dissatisfaction directed at the mainstream media and has led in part to the fake news debate.
Tricky, unpredictable, empirical reality: this is where left-wing idealism and dogma runs into quicksand, and explains why the Left has taken shelter for so long in what I call news abstraction: reports that fall back on ‘peer reviewed’ science or social science opinion, anodyne press releases with a hopey-changey flavour, projections, computer modelling or speculations that happen to suit the viewpoint the reporter is trying to put forward. A huge part of the Brexit debacle and ongoing climate change charivari are conducted on these terms. Even their beloved science fails them, but when it does it is simply censored. If science finds, or rather predicts, that climate change is going to melt Antarctica that fact is flashed across the world. But when science shows there are two genders, or that humans have a variance in abilities, it is pushed out of reports. Reporters on television increasingly offer opinions, or affirmatively offer certain opinions of others, in hard news reports. We all will recognise the BBC reporter slipping their own view into a report by saying something like: ‘Many experts think . . . ’ This behaviour is another deviation which is used to ‘game the narrative’.
But how did it become this way? In the mid-noughties social media, now an important artery of Left-wing public relations, was in its infancy. However, the Left have had a stranglehold on education for decades, and the influence of writers such as Noam Chomsky has taken a strong hold in universities and colleges. Edward S Herman and Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent and many others like it have been a huge influence in the developing media landscape in the West despite events proving its analysis to be at best flawed and at worst plain wrong. The book’s main gripe is that because the media in America is not controlled by socialism it is therefore manipulated by financial interests and a de facto censorship by advertising power. They claim that these powers uphold government policy through propaganda, thus manufacturing consent for government wickedness. Sorry, but didn’t Pravda do that in the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics?
Chomsky and Herman’s take is of course the peevish whine you will hear in every dope-scented bedsit from San Francisco to Brighton: the public are brainwashed by media, maaaan. However, my time in newspapers has taught me that you cannot sell the public something it does not want to buy: papers are far more a reflection of their readers than the other way round.
There isn’t the space here to go into the various contradictions arising from Chomsky’s views, but even a cursory look at American culture shows that his idea of an elite WASP media preventing ‘social justice’ via its own propaganda is nonsense: diversity, affirmative action and, heavens, even a black president have all happened in the US. Under Chomsky and Herman’s thesis, these things would be stopped by media manipulation. Those interested in further reading should invest in The Anti-Chomsky Reader (Encounter, 2004) edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, which contains lengthy, indeed exhaustive, investigations, rebuttals, allegations and claims about Chomsky misusing sources in his writings and assertions about various issues going back to the Vietnam War. It will also make Chomsky fans hate you in five minutes flat as you drive a wrecking ball of pregnant questions through their certainties: in one Chomsky discussion I had with a Guardian columnist who held impeccable left-liberal views about being humane and compassionate, I was told to ‘fuck off, fuck off, fuck off, c*nt’ in very short order. I love a detailed and intellectually searching response, don’t you?
‘Postmodernism’ and critical theory have also played a critical role in the making of the modern media landscape and indeed in the wider culture: the shaping Foucaultian idea that all forms of culture are a mask for authority, repression and social control has, I believe, led to the creation by the Left of a ‘counter mask’ to fight one that was largely imaginary: this new mask is the arrangement, display and dissemination of art, film, theatre, literature and news that relentlessly pursues and pushes the new Establishment’s agenda, a potage of globalisation, supranational government, open borders, social and economic liberalism and hardcore cultural Marxism: writers and journalists behaving in the way that Chomsky and co claimed shadowy far Right media had always done and feeling justified in doing it.
For example, evidence recently cited in the Times suggests that countries that do not have the kind of heavy population density that has been visited on Britain, London especially, by successive governments via uncontrolled immigration, have better outcomes with Covid-19, Germany being a leading example. It may yet turn out that grossly overcrowded cities such as the English capital are in fact tinder boxes for viral infections of the future. If such a view is shown to be correct you can be sure that the drone and blare of pro-immigration journalism in the serious papers will be turned up a few notches. Mass immigration serves the interests of both the Left and a large section of the nominal Right (for the former it provides a desirable cultural fragmentation the better to render the nation state meaningless; for the latter it provides a near permanent inhibitor cap on wage inflation and armies of affordable domestic servants. The public are left to deal with the fallout on services and housing).
None of this is to say that I want to see an end to the free press in Britain. On the contrary, I think it is vital and capable of reform. A few seconds’ consideration of its rivals in the vast, dingy online hinterland of foil hats, extremists, Nazis, Islamists and conspiracy theorists should be enough to make any intelligent person realise its worth, flawed as it is. However, the Press is under attack from many areas, plummeting circulations and the parasitic social media which disseminates journalists’ work for nothing thus destroying the paying audience. The future looks uncertain.
The positive thing is that, as I said at the start of this piece, a big section of the population of the West see through the façade the Left have created. For example, the public remain highly sceptical about transgenderism despite several years of the issue being pushed down everyone’s throats. In the face of an enormous and relentless propaganda drive aimed at keeping Britain in the European Union, the Brexit vote went the other way. The barely concealed rage from some broadcasters and journalists was good to see: the mask had slipped.