Tuesday, 5 January 2010
Cardboard guns and a babble of bias
As we UK citizens surfaced through the ice into 2010, British politicians began wheeling out and firing their heavy artillery. Actually, that’s how they want to make it seem, but isn’t really the case. What’s happening is, the politicians wheel out big, gun-shaped tubes of cardboard and the media take turns to shout “bang!” Then you get a long shrapnel crackle of voters jabbering on the radio phone-in shows.
Can we stand four months (or more) of this? Of Punch Brown and Judy Cameron stertorously and inanely claiming and counter-claiming, maligning and counter-maligning, with intermittent yaps from Toby Clegg? Four months (or more) in which the media collude and pretend that all this meaningless vapour is real smoke and ordnance in a textbook case of what Jay Rosen memorably described as the “lame formula” of “he said, she said journalism” – as opposed to reporters and commentators saying “look, the economy is prone and blue, so it doesn’t matter who says what or who wins, because whatever the outcome of this election, all that lies ahead is a long, long spell of pain and destitution”?
It’s now 36 years since John Birt and Peter Jay wrote a thesis arguing that there was a “bias against understanding” in the media – that journalists hastening for the biggest headlines under the cosh of tight deadlines put honest analysis to one side to “go with the story” via exaggeration, simplification and the conflation of often artificial and misleading conflicts.
You might have thought that the vast proliferation of media in the subsequent decades would have found a means to correct the bias, somewhere, somehow, but it seems instead that the bias has gotten even more entrenched – that almost every area of public discourse, in Britain, at least, has been infected by the bias and has become a game that’s orchestrated by what might be called White City, Canary Wharf or Wapping rules.
Could it be possible that if you take away the bias, the journalism can’t function?
Example one: on October 22 last year Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, appeared on BBC Question Time, an event which occasioned fulminations and demonstrations from professional fulminators and semi-professional demonstrators. And the actual appearance? As soon as the man opened his mouth you thought, ah, that’s what happened to the Fat Owl of the Remove; infuriated years before by the wit and charm of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur, humiliated by the ease and rank of Harry Wharton and Bob Cherry, poor old Billy Bunter turned into a middle-aged bigot, intellectually shallow and hopelessly out of his depth. Griffin hadn’t concluded a single sentence before you knew there was no possibility that he could ever arrive within distant sight of any public office in the UK. End of programme. Except, we had to plough on for another dreary forty minutes or so of spurious “controversy.” I doubt if John Birt as director general of the BBC would have tolerated this weird and nonsensical jamboree.
Example two: this week a man called Anjem Choudary announced that radical Muslims would be staging a protest by carrying empty coffins through Wootton Bassett, the town that regularly memorialises the return of British soldiers slain overseas. Cue outrage, banner headlines, phone-ins, protests.
Mr Choudray is described as UK leader of an organisation called Islam4UK which apparently plans to make Britain an Islamic state, introduce sharia law, convert Buckingham Place into a mosque, and ban alcohol and publicly flog people who get drunk. Pigs might also fly, if they weren’t proscribed as well.
Virtually drowned out in the media pandemonium were the voices of British Muslim citizens telling Mr Choudray to go boil his head. The Times, however, did note that Islam4UK “has a history of announcing inflammatory events and then cancelling them” – in other words, this was a stunt, cleverly confected to whet media appetites.
A FOOTNOTE about honest analysis... on New Year’s Eve Cardinal Cahal Daly, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, died aged 92. An apostle of peace in Northern Ireland, he once famously asked (I paraphrase slightly) who in their sane senses thought they could bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland. Only rarely in contemporary journalism do we see the same unanswerable reasoning adapted and applied to, say, Western policies in the Middle East or Afghanistan.
Freya Gräfin von Moltke died the next day, aged 98. Herself a dissenter within Hitler’s Germany, she was the widow of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Christian and pacifist, whom Hitler executed in January 1945. Ben Macintyre’s piece about Moltke in The Times was superb. Perhaps it is only outside – well outside – the theatres of news and news comment that bias subsides and honest, perceptive journalism survives.
Update, January 12: As you might have predicted from The Times report, yesterday Islam4UK cancelled its proposed march through Wootton Bassett.