“Each decade we declare that we buried class- each decade the coffin stays empty.” Richard Hoggart, 1989 introduction to George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.
Lately, rather than sitting down to BBC Breakfast or Sky, I’ve been watching the previous nights American chat shows; Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Myers, or news from CNN or MSNBC. The chat show hosts shout, laugh and smile opening monologues that expose newsworthy political stories and question their political system and representation, nightly. It is satirical comedy as polemic. Mr Fish says of it, “a slide whistle and a pair of cymbals for the consequences of a safe that is being pushed from a 10-story window above a crowded sidewalk will not alter the physics, of gravity sufficiently to temper the tragic consequences.” But hey, it is a daily pointer to the falling safe that we don’t have. We really don’t have an equivalent here, daily, on our screens in the UK. Our media continues to trivialise and demean us by being a wall to wall OK magazine of xenophobia, mysogyny, racism and love of the GOOD (not foreign) Royals. These American channels are openly centrist, or their hosts are openly centrist or centre left, unafraid to talk about socialism, spit in the eye of the right and quip on how awful the Republican Party is. It really is the nearest thing to clear eyed truth I have seen on current affairs “reportage” type TV for years, as, of course, The Trump Republican Party is awful and even those channels which would have reported non partisanly in the past, seem like rabid Democrats. The Trump Republicans are so hellacious, we would have been at war with them 1939-45.
Perhaps post Trump we can return to a culture were every aspect of accumulated thought is accessible to anyone in a conversation about anything. A return to a bubbleless culture where your blocklist and isolation from other views don’t stop you from experiencing alternatives. And access to reasoned argument and philosophical reasoning in magazines, on tv, in comics, prose, poetry and research is taught to everyone and is never, ever again mistaken for reading facebook, twitter and watching YouTube (though these things will have their place of course).
We really aren’t post Trump by a long chalk, if Trump signifies the bullshit mountain our culture has become. In Scotland, we have our own Munro of bullshit… Ben Bullshit. And currently the bullshit landslide from the mountain is enveloping the left, the right, the unionists and the pro-independence groups. The origin of the avalanche of shit, is of course from the right. Right, narcissistic and stupid just about covers it, and that shit starts building. A world were shitees confirm the shit of other shitees, roll in it, spread it as truth from their shit satellites and printing presses, and employing more and more shitees and shitee progeny, fucking each other and producing more shitees… Well, you can see how that mountain of shit builds, and covers and captures us all. That is Trumpism. The epitome of every Oxbridge consanguineous marriage. The epitome of the partisanship of America. The epitome of a patriarchal, engorged, racist base camp on bullshit mountain.
The thing is, American TV nowadays is always partisan. These channels have openly cheered the Democrats. Stephen Colbert heroises Bernie, the Obama’s and AOC (and experts and intelligence – commodities attacked by the right and the TrumpAnon anti intellectualism of Fox), and all of them, for years, attack Trump, since he of course, launched a shit war on them. On the right, America has the absolute wide, gapingly empty arsehole abyss of Fox News; a channel so dedicated to falsifying, exaggerating and obfuscating, to watch it as a middle-aged, reasonably educated “brit” (small b, and certainly not stereotypical brit) who was brought up on Not the Nine O’clock News, On the Hour, Action Comic, 2000ad, Mad Magazine, protest music and movements for change, lefty “alternative comedy,” etc, its hard not to find it hilarious. My hilarity at its knowing espousal of dumb, of course, will be attacked by some as elitism. Remember, it takes a smarty to play the fool, and fools are being played by Murdoch and the shitees stuck to him… At least those with an unfortunate and untaught lack of critical thought.
At present, the weakness of a totally politically partisan /sectarian/ biased media is showing – again- in America as the Andrew Cuomo sex and care home covid deaths scandal gets deeper. If you aren’t familiar with it, well, thats really how many on America’s left felt until relatively recently. It seems to be hitting the CNN/MSNBC audience very hard, as their media bubble have almost until lately, been playing down the reports of Governor Cuomo’s misogyny and awful covid record etc, as he is a Democrat. If you don’t know what I mean, think about it like when last week Boris Johnstone’s Government, were found guilty of lying, pilfering and of bullying, in courts and inquiries, while we all raged about Megan, held our breath for Philip and shook our fists at Nicola/Salmond.
News/information bubbles, isolate and polarise. Commentators on the US media understand the Fox effect. Chat show host Seth Meyers, in a monologue during the run up to last years US election said of Fox and their coverage of Trump, “Just goes to show you they can’t actually campaign on their records, so instead they’re trying to concoct an alternate universe where coronavirus is over, the economy is back, and a president who brags about arms sales is anti-war. If that doesn’t work Trump will probably just try to convince people that he’s Joe Biden.” In America, that parallel universe envelops just less than half of the adult population.
Here in the UK, the weakness of our media is also an open sore for different reasons.
During my formative years in Northern Ireland, the British media’s strengths and weaknesses were clear to be seen. The BBC, publicly funded, has been a political football between the Tories and Labour since its inception, and capitulation to the ruling party has always been a problem during years when the Director General has swung one way or the other, or has been weak. It has, on occasions, had “Reith-ien” DG’s who have upheld its brand of impartiality, and during The Troubles, especially during Thatcher’s tenure, this was sometimes clear. Reports regarding the British intelligence officer’s biography, Spycatcher and exposés of Thatcher’s part in the sinking of the Argentinian ship Belgrano and the BBC moving to employ voice over artists to give voice to “banned” Sinn Fein and IRA spokes people, showed that there was, regardless of the military attempts at control of journalism, a healthy group of investigative journalists and managers who would not be silenced across our media. Death on the Rock, a documentary about Thatcher’s shoot to kill policies, and how they led to the SAS shootings of unarmed IRA operatives in Gibraltar, and a dreadful cycle of tit for tat atrocities at the time, was not a BBC programme. It was Thames TV. Academic Christian Potschka described “Death on the Rock” as part of a decade of “unprecedented conflict between government and broadcasters over… investigative documentaries” Lord Thomson, chairman of the IBA, believed the dispute between the government and the authority had a “very substantial influence on Mrs Thatcher’s attitude towards broadcasting policy”, which led her to the belief that Thames’ franchise should not be renewed. The 1990 Act abolished the IBA, which Thomson believed was directly related to the authority’s decision to permit the showing of “Death on the Rock”.
Government’s with political and military things to hide, attack those who expose. And of course, some in the media moved to help demonise strikers like during the miners strike and the Liverpool Dockers strike, but there was at least, some who lashed out within the confines of much more politically deferential organisations. The media’s impartiality has always been attacked or stymied, especially in war time or during times of political strife. But there was a period of this being questioned, when the grammar school /new university’s working class flattened the social barrier, for a short moment.
Trying to steer a non partisan furrow, in a society skewed between a tiny powerful upper class and the rest, is hugely politically difficult. Our media is owned or controlled by management almost totally coming from elitist universities. And power tends to replicate itself, especially when that power only understands those who share the same experiences. Our “top political reporters” are _almost_ invariably from upper middle class, or inherited money/power families, or have political, personal or familial connections to the Tory Party.
Any compromise or attempt in neutrality or impartiality becomes skewed by this failure to pull down the British class system.
This, more than the political interference of power in the more socially mobile sixties, seventies and even eighties of my younger days, is the bigger problem. Social mobility in the UK is next to zero. Gone are the days when our media had working class voices, and stories, eloquently and accurately represented. Nowadays, working class voices are feigned by Public School and Oxbridge educated poshos in TV, film, art, pop and reportage. And reportage is seeped in daddy’s money, school ties and a small intimate circle that is part of a small, intimate posh circle of friends of a certain class.
New Labour (working class) ex-spin Doctor, Alastair Campbell tweeted this week,
“We are governed by crooks and liars but because they have the posh accents of Eton, Winchester etc, and because most of the media is basically in league with them, they are for now getting away with their crimes and lies. It cannot last. If it does the country has had it.
If Parliament does not do a better job of exposing the truth and driving change and media a better job at holding power to account then I don’t see how this carries on much longer without serious disorder. There is so much anger out there with nowhere to go right now. “
Of course, this class skewed media has exposed fault lines in the Tory Party. Cracks that have meant that the aristocratic and ultra rich families presently in Number 10 (or sitting around the cabinet table) are defended by, or bad behaviour covered up by, those who sit in the boardrooms of our media organisations. Brexit, of course, was a Tory class war between an old aristocratic ascendancy, and the middle class intellectual conservatives. The Aristocracy won (with the help of a few “edgy” Disaster Capitalism types) . The grammar school or lower middle class/working class tories, who by way of actually sweating their way into their jobs rather than unpaid internships sponsored by inherited money and promotion to the board to keep it in the family, are angry. This split is very different from the Trump and Trad Republican split in the USA. The split is between inherited power and those who educated themselves to cross classes… the latter now a dying breed as, as i have said, social mobility in the uk is almost zero.
By the way, contrary to the belief of some, the BBC is not the worst corporation for replicating this zero social mobility within its ranks. Sky has a worse record. As have some of the print media organisations. Social mobility in the private media sector, is far worse.
Our media also wears the pretence that it steers a middle path between political poles. Rather, it pretends to steer between extremes of political statements. If one political side lies, then it is treated as fact, especially when that lie or mistruth or alternative fact comes from a Government source. The truth then becomes the other extreme. Brexit and Scottish Independence are prime examples of when our media does not challenge fake news/lies/political hyperbole … instead, it treats them as valid political narratives, and truth then is negated as it is questioned in the same way lies are. Polar “truths” are also easy. It is easier to tweet about absolutes. It’s easier to write headlines about absolutes. To actually reason over complex problems takes time, and our media, with its 24 hour show time agenda and pithy condensation of themes into three word slogans, really isn’t up for that . The business model doesn’t suit real dialogue and enquiry.
Post truthism is partially because of our system moving towards a Fox/CNN model, but with the particular problem that our media veers towards the obfuscation and fakery of its circle of school friends in Downing Street.
Scotland suffers no less than the rest of the UK from these problems. In fact, truth and balance is buried further within media organisations that mirror an unequal political union. Scotland is viewed as a small population within a larger mass, overshadowed of course, by the political priorities of England and the Westminster leadership. And Scottish Independence will, this time, be a fight the aristocracy will use every ounce of “hidden legality,” hidden money and hidden influence to win. Think Brexit, because that is the shitslide about to pour down on us from Ben Faeces.
At present, a section of the Scottish political, polarised over a former First Minister, are minute by minute posting pithy comment that confirms their pole, when an inquiry and a trial really needs vast amounts of words. The press play on this interest in poles, and play to the stalls.
Is it necessary for the UK to move to a more political sectarian, simplistic media… One in which Fox News promotes the latest proto fascist leader and policy 24 hours, and one in which something like Channel 4 news becomes 24 hour news from the centre/centre left? One in which we choose to watch Unionist or Nationalist telly? That way, at least reading into the reports becomes easier for those educated in how to read a biased media (not as easy as many educated people might think…And not as easy as many educated politicians absolutely rely on) . We can KNOW and we can educate people to know which news source is promoting which political point of view. Many on the right are pushing to change impartiality laws to make this so. Though, as we’ve seen, truth suffers as much as it does with our present aristocratic model. And as we see in America, polarisation into two political bubbles can be hugely dangerous – we aren’t there… Yet.
Or rather than continuing the present dystopia or creating a new one, do we find a way to ensure the UK truly tackles inequalities, stalled social mobility and equal treatment between truth and untruth that has led to our media board rooms and news programmes nodding along with Boris, Farage and Rees-Mogg? In an independent Scotland, will our media be free to poke fun at our political leaders, but also will our media be free enough to report the open sores, sewers and stench of bullshit mountain?
Mr, Fish said about the Daily Show (of, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and subsequently of Trevor Noah),
“So minus the existence of a well organised, well informed, deeply passionate and viable peace and anti-establishmentarian movement in this country, what will usually end up happening is that contemporary satire will often convert our rage at dominant culture into whimsy and transform us from a threat to the social structures that berate us into complacent idiots. Political comedy, without practical application within a political strategy, will merely satiate our hunger for real change with a punch line and rob us if our sensitivity to any number of social and political injustices. “
We can laugh at the shit, but without the tools and will for change, we’ll continue to be covered as we guffaw.
Photos (and two quotes) from “Nobody Left; conversations with famous, radicals, progressives, and cultural icons about the end of dissent, revolution, and liberalism in America,” by Mr. FISH.