Friday 19 February 2016

Media wars

It's good to be reminded that sensationalising media spin is not reserved for anti-SNP propaganda. The habit of dishonest representation is deeply ingrained in the culture of the British media.

To say that I am no admirer of Margaret Thatcher, or the unsavoury gang of sycophantic puppets with which she surrounded herself, would be a planet-sized understatement. The woman was maliciously stupid on her best day and a borderline sociopath on her worst. But I am nonetheless struck by yet another gross mismatch between the headline and such facts as are presented in the story.

For pointing this out I will doubtless be vilified as an apologist for Thatcher. Regrettably, there are all too many who are open to having their buttons pressed by a media always keen to flex its manipulative muscle in even rather trivial ways. They do it because they can. So long as people let them, they will continue to spin and distort in order to provoke a reaction. The manipulative power of the traditional media is honed in all manner of throw-away pieces which desensitise the audience to dishonesty in order that this power might be more effectively deployed in important contexts - such as elections and constitutional referendums.

There was an example of this just yesterday evening. Somebody posted on Facebook a link to a story about a pay increase for MPs. The story was, of course, spun for sensational effect. And pretty much all of those responding duly obliged by launching themselves enthusiastically into an orgy of righteous indignation.

I commented that MP's did not set their own pay and that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) had instituted a system whereby increases were now tied to public sector pay. I further pointed out that there had been a great deal of misrepresentation on this issue and that the previous substantial increases laboured by the newspaper story were, in fact, parts of years-long process of reform by IPSA which had made MPs' remuneration package considerably less generous than it once was.

Cue a shit-storm of abuse. Almost exclusively from people who clearly hadn't read beyond the headline. The facts were irrelevant. Politicians are hate-figures and you better go along with the pack mentality or you become prey just as much as they are. The reality of the issue is of absolutely no consequence. Prejudice rules! No thinking required!

You get the picture.

Why do I mention this? Why is it important? Why do I not just dismiss my abusers for the credulous fools that they so evidently are?

Allow me to explain.

It is in the nature of things that most of those castigating me for contaminating their Two Minute Hate with factual material were pro-independence. I'm a 'Facebook-famous' member of the SNP and activist in the campaign to restore Scotland's rightful constitutional status; as well as a champion of what we may, for convenience, refer to as progressive politics. So most of my followers are people who are sympathetic to this agenda.

The media is, inevitably, a major battle-ground in the fight between established power and the forces of democratic dissent. And the lines are these days drawn, not between different sections of the mainstream media, but between a mainstream sector all but undifferentiated in terms of support for and obedient service to the British establishment, and a nascent, but rapidly developing, alternative media in the virtual realm.

In this battle, it is crucial that people learn to be active consumers of media messages. In particular, they must become consciously aware of the way the mainstream media operates. Only then can they hope to avoid the manipulative traps by which the media captures their minds and disables their critical faculties.

I find it deeply frustrating that there are still people who have learned no lessons from the first referendum campaign and the dishonesty of the British nationalist campaign to deny the sovereignty of Scotland's people. The media can still press their buttons with a headline about MPs' pay. Or about the Thatcher regime.

But there is more. I am firmly persuaded that it is not enough to win the media battle simply in terms of statistics for circulation versus unique visitors. The alternative media is clearly winning in that regard. Although there may be still some way to go. Just as important, however, is the effort to win the public's respect. Counter-intuitive as it may be when we see journalists held in such low esteem as to be ranked with bankers, the traditional media yet retains considerable authority.

If alternative media is to pose a meaningful challenge to established power then it must capture the authoritative status once associated with the 'quality' newspapers and the BBC.

It's all relative. There is no absolute measure of authority. All sources of reporting, analysis and comment are assessed relative to one another. Even as the status of the mainstream media declines, it is essential that the online media come to be regarded as the authoritative alternative. This means they must not emulate the habits and practices of the old media, but should offer something different.

As a very small cog in the machinery of the alternative media, I believe it is important that we should demonstrate a capacity for dispassionate critical scrutiny that is generalised, and not restricted to British establishment propaganda attacking the independence movement, or the SNP, or political progressives in general.

If the alternative media is to have credibility, it must stand ready to point out the facts and/or the reasoned arguments even where these relate to emotive trigger topics such as MPs' pay or the Thatcher regime.

If we want people to listen, we should seek to win their interest with the quality of our presentation and the force of our message, rather than try to grab their attention with lurid headlines and prurient content.


  1. Many good points made and I agree with your fundamental point.

    Unfortunately, I think you'll be shouting yourself hoarse about it. We live in an increasingly sound-bite driven world where headlines are what count (Stu Campbell did a good article on this the other year).

    Keep up the good fight.

    1. I know Stu shares my frustration with the "sound-bite driven world". But I like to think articles such as this get through to at least one or two people.