Those that spend time actively analysing the British news media often discuss the problem with the way newspapers select and mediate news to promote its own business and political agendas. In the run up to the election it was clear to anyone paying attention that Miliband was almost no one’s favourite (apart from in The Mirror and The Guardian) and the personal attacks and the mocking tone used to discuss Labour’s leader shaped the ‘political’ debate where the general election became less about policies and more about personality. It is easy to take the position that newspapers are manipulative and that their audience is an unthinking mass who are easily led. This is a huge simplification and this summer has provided us with lots of evidence that the news media may often try to lead public opinion but when public opinion is strong, the press (regardless of their previous political stances) will often change their points of view in order to ensure that they reflect dominant public opinion.
As the summer began (and as it ended too) ‘identity’ was high on the news agenda. The contemporary focus on identity is a signifier of the individualistic age we live in and it also taps into the psyche of the social media-led, selfie-taking, ‘look at me culture’ that surrounds us. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, identity politics has the potential to lead to a lot of confusion. When Caitlyn Jenner was transitioning from male to female, the paparazzi hounded Jenner and the tabloid media wrote prurient articles that barely covered their ‘disgust’. Once she presented herself on the front cover of Vanity Fair, she became a symbol of bravery and much of the reporting on her transition was supporting and expressed admiration.It seems unlikely that the illiberal mainstream press took a close look at its attitudes and decided to turn over a new leaf. It is more likely that the press saw the way the public was responding to Jenner’s transition and decided to step in line. Shortly after the Caitlyn Jenner story broke, the US provided us with a very complicated story that challenged some of the positive responses to the idea that someone should be able to choose and construct whatever identity they want. A US woman who had self-identified as black was shown to have been born a white woman. Rachel Dolezal was highly criticised as her adoption of a ‘black look’ and the fact that she described herself as a black women was seen to be cultural appropriation from a position of white-privilege.
The problem for the media here is that the two stories are very similar- a person who does not identify with the body he or she was born with chooses to create a new identity for themselves. Public opinion on these two individuals was contradictory – Jenner was brave whilst Dolezal was either culturally inappropriate or mentally ill. This clearly caused a bit of confusion for the British press who were suddenly in a position where they could potentially enrage large sections of their audience whichever way they turned on this story.
(Russell Brand calls TMZ out for its transphobic bullying here. Never let it be said that gossiping is something only women do. Check out the TMZ guys – like Loose Women on steroids.)
Identity is such a complicated idea that even pop-divas are confused. Were the VMAs racist as Nicki Minaj claimed or was Nicki anti-feminist for calling out skinny girls as Taylor Swift assumed? There are suspicions that many of the Twitter-spats and arguments between these celebrities are PR constructions. Narratives need conflict to progress and if you are a celebrity with no narrative, the press will ignore you and being ignored is death to a modern celebrity career. Many of these public arguments centre on clashes around identity whether its gender or in the case of Iggy Azalea, race. Azalea Banks is confident in her assertions that Iggy Azalea is guilty of cultural appropriation even if Ms Azalea seems less than certain what that means.
As a pop post-script, Andy Warhol muse, model and 80s art-pop legend Grace Jones has a few things to say about today’s pop music stars – and little of it is complimentary. She accuses them of having no originality and following a path she has already been down. Could she have a point?
The Refugee Crisis and Divide and Rule Politics
More evidence of the mercenary nature of the news media’s ‘opinions’ was the response to the awful images of the refugees attempting to escape to Europe from war-torn Syria. The latest events are part of an incredible long and complex narrative. As with many complex stories, the media tends to simplify stories taking them out of their global and historical contexts. Refugees had previously been lumped together by the mainstream press with economic migrants, anti-EU sentiment and low-level racism. Things hit a particularly low low when Katie Hopkins described the refugees fleeing Libya as ‘cockroaches’ and she claimed in her Sun column she would sooner see drowned bodies than have ‘more of them come to our country’. Just days later she got her wish as lives were lost in catastrophic boat disasters. Desperate refugees lost their lives attempting to flee a state that has all but collapsed since the removal of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi from power in 2011 and where human traffickers are preying on and profiting from their desperation. Sadly their plight had become confused with inter-EU economic migration and so Hopkins and The Sun must have felt emboldened by public opinion to allow them to promote a de-humanising, racist and anti-humanitarian set of ideas. Other papers have been happy to tap into the ‘us’ (British) and ‘them’ (immigrants) narrative over the past couple of years. They were happy to move the point of conflict to ‘us’ (English) and ‘them’ (Scottish) in the general election when it looked like the election may have led to a left-ish coalition between Labour and The SNP.
The Daily Mail, The Express and The Telegraph have adopted UKIP type attitudes blaming immigration for housing problems, the benefits bill, unemployment and our current low-pay culture amongst other things. However, the viral communication of the awful image of a toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach changed the narrative. People raised their voices via social media in outrage at the government’s limited response to the refugee crisis. At this point the press had to change tack. They had to acknowledge that refugees were not the same as economic migrants and they had to start to call for Government action. Not to respond in this way would have put the mainstream press out of step with public opinion and, however much they may want to lead and influence, sometimes they simply have to accept that the people have spoken.
The divide and rule politics in terms of class divides hit peak cruelty in the US this summer with a reality show called The Briefcase. The UK has had Benefits Street (BBC), On Benefits and Proud (C5) and We All Pay Your Benefits (BBC) that have pointed the finger at the ‘underserving’ poor and judged their lifestyle choices whilst in America poverty and morality have been even more closely aligned in the reality show that offers struggling people a cash injection but – there’s a catch. Watch the trailer to see how low it can go.
The Impact of Digital and New Media
The NME is becoming a free-sheet, abandoning the idea that you can persuade people to pay for a music magazine. Print is, of course, becoming a semi-redundant media form but the music press had held out longer than other print genres. This was largely down to the nature of their audience. Music fans had been more loyal and print sales for the music press dropped but not as dramatically as for lifestyle and other specialist titles. There have been casualties of course, Melody Maker and Sounds are long gone and The NME had radically rebranded to attempt to stay relevant in the digital age. This looks like a final attempt to survive and sadly is a concrete indicator that not only is print on its way out but music as a cultural definer is too.
For those interested in the history of how identity relates to music culture, this documentary, Too Much Fighting on the Dance Floor from Radio 4 gives a brilliant overview of fan behaviour and the tribalism associated with musical culture in the past and discusses the importance of the music press to fans in the pre-digital age.
Also in entertainment news – Chris Evans is taking over Top Gear and the old Top Gear team have found a well-paying home at Amazon. It does raise an interesting issue though as Jeremy Clarkson had survived many controversies as a BBC employee where, as a ‘motoring journalist’, he had been accused of racism, sexism and even declaring that a unionised workforce should be ‘shot’ for daring to strike. None of these events were deemed enough to let him go and his sacking came only after he physically assaulted a junior member of staff in the workplace. On the other hand there are currently calls to sack Chris Packham - he of Springwatch and The Really Wild Show fame. A very influential pressure group aligned to the Conservative party, The Countryside Alliance, are demanding the BBC sack Packham as he has voiced opinions the CA claim go against the BBC’s riles on political impartiality. Packham has been accused of ‘propaganda’ because he has spoken out against hunting as a sport. Under normal circumstances the Alliance’s beef may not have seemed to be anything to worry about but in the current environment where the government is making the BBC very nervous indeed about cuts to funding and the imminent charter renewal, the BBC are currently showing very little backbone in standing up to their paymasters. It is no secret that the Conservatives don’t like the BBC – this ‘nationalised’ service goes against their privatisation agenda that sees private industries as being better and more efficient than public services. There are rumours that the government wants to see a much-reduced BBC where mainstream programming is left to commercial operations like ITV and Sky. Lets hope Chris Packham doesn’t become a victim of the BBC trying to keep the government happy. If they sack Packham – does that mean they would also have to sack the ‘journalist’ of the hideously biased and horribly patronising Panorama hatchet job of Jeremy Corbyn transmitted this week? If that wasn’t breaking the rules on impartiality, nothing was.
The Big Summer Story
The big news story of the summer of course, was the Labour Party’s leadership contest. Immediately the news took a partisan stance with Toby Young of The Telegraph urging Tories to join the Labour Party so they could vote for the ‘outsider’ Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to sabotage the opposition party. Young assumed that Corbyn winning would ensure a Conservative government in the next election as he offered a non-neoliberal political viewpoint that ran counter to the austerity of the Conservative Party and the austerity-lite of Labour. Some weeks later, with Corbyn the frontrunner, The Telegraph and all the mainstream press were responding with shock and disbelief as Corbyn inspired Labour’s biggest new member recruitment in years and he attracted more and more enthusiastic supporters than any of the other candidates could muster. The Corbyn campaign has seemingly encouraged a lot of people who have been put off politics by the distant career politicians and the lack of choice between parties but it has become clear that the media have been taken by surprise. The Telegraph have done an about turn, made clear by the headline Jeremy Corbyn Must be Stopped. The paper moved away from the juvenile playground politics of Toby Young, The Telegraph now seems to see Corbyn as a real threat.
During the campaign, the BBC often took a mocking incredulous tone when speaking of Corbyn and his supporters. In order to smear him the press have accused Corbyn of being anti-semite, a friend of terrorism, an anachronism and being ‘hard left’. Corbyn’s politics may be left of current mainstream politics but he is economically and socially centre left (see below). When the left/right position of all other political choices in the UK is considered Corbyn will now be offering an alternative politics. New Labour’s focus group politics, emulated by the Conservative party, has led to both parties offering very similar policies. This may go some way to explaining why Corbyn’s campaign has struck a nerve with a lot of people as a lack an alternative has often been cited as one reason for low voter turnout at elections – only 66% of the population voted in 2015. The current government holds a slim majority after receiving 37% of the vote in May 2015 (Labour received 31%).
The ideological position of UK political parties in 2015
The British press are all right wing (with The Mirror and The Guardian being closer to the centre than the other papers) and so, unsurprisingly, the consensus in the press is that Corbyn can’t win a general election. Only time will tell of course but it is unlikely that Corbyn will be given anything close to positive coverage in the press as the opposition leader. What is interesting is that for the first time since the 1980s, the British electorate will be offered an alternative type of politics and a different type of politician. For the first time since the 1990s an alternative to neoliberalism is on offer and, for the first time since the economic crisis of 2007/8, an alternative to austerity will be bought into the mainstream political narrative. The Corbyn campaign has shown that the press needs to be careful as concerted negative campaigns can sometimes backfire. Corbyn will be bringing a new conversation to British Politics and may force the media to engage with political debates they would sooner ignore.
Many people are quite blasé about the fact that digital services collect our data and use it for marketing purposes, sell our data for profit or pass on information to security services. It is argued that we are a culture that is happy to trade privacy for the free services the digital age can provide. Every now and again though, digital privacy makes the news. For example some comment was made when Spotify changed their terms and conditions to include the statement:
The backlash to this didn’t seem to last long. After all, people are remarkably not bothered by Snowdon’s expose of governmental spying on citizens so it is unlikely that they would be worried about a music streaming services collecting photographs but, when the data is likely to out you as a cheating philanderer people get a little more bothered. The Ashley-Madison hack generated countless articles about fidelity, monogamy and the sexual politics of relationships. This wasn’t really the story though. Sadly, men and women have been cheated on through the ages. The difference now is that an internet service has been provided that stored customer details without the necessary security that would stop them being hacked and published on the internet. We are free with our information and shouldn’t be surprised when things we thought were private turn our to be far from it. The company hid the fact that some of their accounts were fake deep in the ‘terms and conditions’ – probably banking on the fact that no one reads the terms and conditions. It is still a little worrying that people were surprised that it was relatively easy to steal and publish their data and trusting a corporation to treat its customers fairly seems pretty naive.