It’s Time to Question a Declining Media

4574919147_08d97cb039_oI didn’t make it through all of Thursday night’s instalment of Question Time, it seems I was not alone in this. I switched on to find talk of Nigel Farage’s plan to have ‘a grammar school in every town’. I also caught a bit of a ruckus in the audience about whether disliking immigrants was racist or not. As has been widely noted the episode played host to two very different radicals: one with big ideas and a twitter following, the other with no ideas and a well resourced political machine at his back. This was the high camp rehearsal for a tipping point in British politics: the full scale farce is destined to take place in six months time.

The programme presented an odd picture, certainly, in addition to provoking a more mundane sense of disconnect. Living in a part of the British Isles with a declining, rapidly ageing population, one of the lowest population densities in Europe and an education system entirely independent of England’s, the programme has become rapidly more foreign. And, in case any UKIP types are reading this, that’s an observation, not a value judgement.

One panelist started talking about the 1930s: not with reference to cross-party support for austerity, but rather to contrast the rhetoric of Russell Brand with the rise of facism. It seemed as if the resultant disintegration of the show’s format presaged something darker. People heckled and didn’t wait their turn. A bit like the Nazis.

That said Question Time’s increasingly grotesque quality does demonstrate a wider post-crash divide, some have termed it a “culture war” (though class is just as important). The great big question that we face in Scotland is how to link up the demand for something more than the theatrics of polarisation with the vast significance of our recent referendum experience.

A decade ago, Question Time could still seem like the fulcrum of political debate in the UK. I have friends who once referred to Thursday as ‘politics night’. Great chunks of meaty moral politics could end up strewn all over Dimbleby’s bear pit, but it still seemed to hang together. Today, even the boozy after-hours quality of This Week, couldn’t save it from being the subject of scandal. In the hungrier, more divided country the UK has become since 2003 even the televisual equivalent of a pub lock-in becomes mired in partisan controversy.

To list the things that have changed in Britain over the past decade is too vast a task to attempt here. Though it should be noted that a post-Iraq crisis within the BBC is probably central to the predicament of a media that is, like Thursday night’s Question Time, unravelling before our eyes.

However, let’s not forget how fast that erosion of status has taken place. In 2005 Tessa Jowell proclaimed ‘The BBC is as much a part of British life as the NHS’. She did so off the back of a vast public consultation about the national broadcaster. 75% of some 30,000 responses were positive, with ‘high quality news programmes’ amongst the top three factors cited. Post-Iraq, post-Saville, everything has changed. That such decline dovetails with the final extinction of social democracy in British politics, is of profound significance too.

Seeing a nation state crumble is something that is bound to be played out in conjunction with the demise of its media. In large part, as sociologist Jürgen Habermas demonstrated, it was the emergence of mass media that created the public sphere in the first place.

The rise of the newspaper and various other new media over the centuries worked in tandem with the development of the nation state. In this sense the BBC’s tortured decline is telling. Britain, it could be argued, is the BBC. In a country with limited traditions of popular sovereignty, a highly contested, perhaps non-existent national culture, institutions take on an aggrandised, almost sacred, role. They serve an awkward and very British task that encompasses everything from the mundane day to day functions of dusty bureaucracy, to acting as the sole carriers of national identity. We think of the BBC and NHS as fair and virtuous, because Britain needs them to be.

Yet these institutions, like so many others at the heart of Britain, are all reaching a tipping point. Their reserves of social and economic capital are depleted, increasingly their defence has to revert to broad abstract statements of principle. Yet without them, there is little else for the realm to fall back on.

The gamble is (and to some extent always has been) that social cohesion in Britain can be patched together out of these institutional fragments. All the while the private realm continues to be favoured in policy, while corrosive debates about ‘entitlement’ at the extreme ends of the class system dominate political rhetoric, as does fear of the other.

Such an assessment is no longer radical. Newspaper editorials from across the political spectrum are warning that Britain could soon descend into chaos. As The Independent recently remarked on the possibility of a Green-Left bloc after the next election, ‘the work of governing Britain will become near impossible’.

Rather than the unions, or the working class, the enemy within in the coming battle of Britain will be plurality itself. Establishment hysteria treats that which is normal throughout Europe: the inability of any one party to form an overall majority, as a kind of doomsday scenario. Shorn of resilience, the patchwork collection of shared institutions ‘our BBC,’ ‘our NHS’ ‘our Queen’ are all likely to find themselves tested as never before. Given that memories of the 1930s are in vogue, pundits should also reflect that the rise of facism was facilitated by establishment complicity.

Will Scotland be a thrawn, reticent, onlooker to all these confrontations? The role of the SNP in particular in the coming election will be key. Here is a party that talks social cohesion and has advocated working with the Greens and Plaid Cymru (the only other parties entering the contest to be led by women). In that sense Scotland’s interim role within the UK can be one of leadership, unlocking a hung parliament and demonstrating the need for reform. To do that, as a country, we need more than just a single party in Scotland. We need a vast, mature and plural public sphere built in the spaces opened up by the referendum campaign. Think of it as Scotland’s latest export: mass political engagement.

The referendum then, becomes a demonstrable experience not just of people power, but also of a profound desire for our media and politics to be better. Indeed, other than the ten days in September when Britain was saved, there can be no better example of Britain’s ongoing democratic crisis than the BBC’s handling of leadership debates in the coming election.

The BBC’s partisan promotion of Nigel Farage to Prime Ministerial contender has opened up a pandoras box. We are now witnessing ossified media institutions desperately trying to adapt to a our new non consensual politics and failing. Big time. The institutional response to a pressing need for plurality is to shut it out. Should we be surprised that our media instinctively sides with the establishment? Well no, because it is a cornerstone of the establishment. Anyone who has ever take part in public protest will be well aware of that. The fact that it seems all the more blatant in that role, in the age of social media, demands nothing short of transformation. If it fails to do so, it will continue to haemorrhage legitimacy, eventually becoming just one contender in the culture war itself.

Leadership debates have become a kind of election time viagra for ailing news organisations. They provide spectacle and can generate a whole heap of additional content and stories premised simply on the ‘performance’ of each contender. Who best grips the lectern, who sweats, who stutters, who blinks, who delivers key soundbites with better intonation. All factors that are infinitely easier to fixate on than a constantly shifting landscape of a politics that has escaped from the neat, easily managed domain of the two horse race.

Such gladiatorial contests, complete with ring-side pundits and bizarre gimmicks (like Scotland Tonight’s straight forwardly surreal ‘word cloud’) are a symptom of this struggle to represent the post 2008 scene. Plurality remains something that the BBC clearly struggles to grasp, perhaps because it is so overwhelmingly lacking in the British media itself. Ever more elitist, squeezed by the PR industry and reliant on pre-packaged sources or ‘churnalism’, our news media, as a sector, is painful ill-equipped to respond to the politics that we are now living. This widespread emasculation of journalism is not something public service broadcasters are protected from. Robert Peston, noted earlier this year that the BBC is ‘completely obsessed’ by editorial agendas of an overwhelmingly right-wing press.

The favouring of Farage’s party over the Greens is relatively straight forward: his politics is not a threat to the British establishment (UKIP is essentially a Thatcherite home for eurosceptic Conservatives). As in the referendum, this is the real criteria for favourable airtime. The rise of the Greens and the SNP on the other hand, is about a more complex story. To explore the breadth of politics in the UK today takes time, investigation, analysis, rigour and an editorial courage that is more and more scarce in all but the most exceptional of news rooms.

A renowned journalist from a different era, Harold Evans, neatly summed up the lofty role the fourth estate once played in public life:

Governments as well as citizens need a free and inquiring press. With a volatile, pluralistic electorate, and a complex bureaucracy, a free press provides an indispensable feedback system from governed to the governing, from consumers to producers, from the regions to the centre, and not least from one section of the bureaucracy to another.

The public sphere in Britain, of which that free and inquiring press must be a crucial part, is broken. No one with the power to do so is talking about fixing it. But the above remarks do begin to provide some sense of a way out.

Evans, speaking in 1974, could never have guessed that the ensuing decades would see every category mentioned above (and the relationships between them) irrevocably changed.

As has been brilliantly argued here, a blanket rejection of the mainstream (or worse, trying to mimic its practices to smaller audiences) offers only regression. It’s as counterproductive as suggesting that Russia Today or Press TV provide viable alternatives to the BBC, because their coverage of the independence referendum was not explicit state propaganda. That simply changing the logo (and the state agenda) is somehow a recipe for plurality. The staff at Russia’s last independent TV station, currently reduced to broadcasting from a living room, would beg to differ.

In this time of flux for both politics and the media, the challenge is slightly more complex than simply making different consumer choices, but the answer is ultimately more rewarding. Firstly, Scotland must rebuild and reimagine its own public sphere, as Gerry Hassan has argued, in order to remedy our ‘truncated democracy’. A solution will not be achieved by endlessly contrasting Westminster gruel with Holyrood honey, or bad London media with virtuous, enlightened Scottish alternatives. While green shoots like The National, Scottish Evening News and Common Space are welcome: they are not saviours. But taken together, they can begin to demonstrate what a plural media might look like. Their success does not depend on offering up different brands, or indeed platforms: rather, this will be determined by whether they manage to provide vehicles for well resourced journalism.

The injunction to be the media is a complex one. It involves some weighty thought and a search for new formats, better suited to the complexity and variety of the world we inhabit.

The second task, then, is to work out new formats better suited to a world so different to that which Evans describes. A world in which bureaucracy is replaced with multi faceted private entities, in which the ability to differentiate between centre and region is altered, in which producers are consumers and consumers producers.

Thirdly we need to stop railing against ‘the media’ in general. Instead, we need to look at the institutions that constitute it, examine their politics, their decisions and make concrete demands of how they can be better. The role of the BBC in the coming General Election must held up to more public scrutiny than ever before, again, Scotland’s referendum campaign can provide a point for us to start leading. On top of that we also need a civic campaign that demands a better public service media, a grassroots alternative to gather stream ahead of the BBC’s charter renewal in 2016.

Our media is one big tired format: A Question Time with more and more noises off presented by the same man who fronted general election coverage in the 1970s. It’s time to relentlessly question such centralised, narrow and archaic media and to start mapping out ways in which we can re-make it for the 21st century.