There was a nice surprise this week when this blog was named as one of the top ten humour blogs on Feedspot! Have a look https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_humor_blogs/ ! Yeh, I know! Thanks to all the lovely folks at Feedspot for that.
Now, having won this splendid accolade, the smart move would be to post something funny. It’s probably quite unwise for me to veer into satire or, the saints forefend, a humorously presented rant. But I’ve never been one to act wisely so here I am. Yes, heaven help me, I’m going to open myself up to all sorts of horrors by talking obliquely about politics. Well, not politics, as such, but our new and sudden blindness, as a nation, to editorial bias.
A long time ago (yeh, yeh, in a galaxy far away) when I was living in London I worked for a sponsorship agency which specialised in the arts. The arts are an amorphous thing that are difficult to justify – especially dance, which we did a lot of. It’s clear that a thriving arts scene is a sign of a thriving and healthy society but at the same time, I appreciate that not everyone thinks this, as did my bosses at the agency. Therefore a lot of the sponsorship work involved public relations efforts in making sure that The Entire World knew about the events we were staging.
As the office gofor, I used to go through the papers every day, cut out relevant articles mentioning our clients; sponsors or sponsees, so to speak – or news bites of interest – and make a cuttings sheet to be circulated each morning. Cuttings were also sent to clients to prove that we were Letting The Entire World Know about their corporate philanthropy. We also had a cuttings service for this and I would open the daily envelope from them and add their contributions to mine. Obviously, because it was me, I’d add an ‘and finally’ to stick on the end if I could find something silly enough.
After two years or so of doing this, it became very clear to me that different newspapers, radio channels and yes, TV channels would present the same news in wildly different ways.
As an example, I remember one particular article about some poor chap who left the keys to his car in a locked office. He climbed out from the window of the office next door and along a ledge to the open window of the locked room containing his keys with a view to climbing in and retrieving them. Unfortunately a gust of wind caught him and he slipped and fell to his death. He fell 30ft (The Telegraph), 60ft (The Independent) and 90ft (The Times) I may have muddled who said which, it’s a long time ago, but those were the differences. Obviously, though, the key facts in this story were that the guy fell to his death. Incidentally, all three newspapers agreed that the car was a Porsche.
This variance in news presentation did not strike me as wrong, or strange, since each news organ (phnark) reflected its own editorial bias and this did mean variations. In those days, most people living in Britain were smart enough to understand that news events are always going to reflect the bias of the journalist or news outlet relating them to us, even if the staff are trying to present them in a neutral, factual way. The closest to factual thing around at that time was Ceefax – the BBC TV text news service which was amazingly bald about stating the facts and not much else because it needed to be low bandwidth and there simply wasn’t room to extrapolate.
Recently, I was thinking about this in relation to a friend of mine, who gets a lot of his news from Breitbart. To be honest, I can’t read that site easily, partly because the articles tend to be a bit preachy and I don’t appreciate that, but also because the comments on some of them tend to leave me with a little bit of vomit in my mouth. BUT it did occur to me that for the main part, my mate who reads that site, is reading it as I would have read the newspapers in the 1990s, with a strong feel for the editorial bias in a way that, perhaps, I can’t. But it made me think. Where and when did we lose the ability to read editorial bias into what we see?
Thinking about it, I guess it may have sprung from the internationalisation of everything with the internet. Which, basically, if you’re English, means Americanisation. And the Americans are really weird about the way they do news. Most of it’s regional, there doesn’t seem to be the same breadth of national newspapers, for example, and it seems that everything has to be presented as right or wrong, there appears to be little room for grey areas. This seems to result in a very simplified, sound bitey version of events. Some channels also seem to like pointing out which side is right or wrong rather than leaving us to judge for ourselves. It is the antithesis of impartial reporting.
People like this, of course. They like simple. They like not having to think for themselves. Grey is a difficult colour. Right versus wrong is nice and simple. We Brits have taken to this sound bite reference system like ducks to water, and for some reason, in this process of simplification we appear to be losing our understanding of, and tolerance of, editorial bias. These days, that variation in the news story about the fellow looking for his keys would be used by the alt right, far left and religious nutters as a reason why mainstream media is run by liars and, therefore, not to be trusted because, look! They can’t get their facts right.
On top of that, we have marketing being applied to news, because it’s all driven by economics now because our nation’s leaders appear to believe the American way is best for everyone (because they have vested interests mainly). Nowadays, news services want customers, faithful customers, who source their news from one outlet alone. And people have less time and less cash, so they’re happy to pick one and go with that. They don’t necessarily realise they are missing the full picture.
There’s the internet. If you’re good at the internet, you can go a long way and the nutter fringers are very good at the internet. But the way the internet is constructed means we don’t usually see them. Our internet is our own little bubble of friends, relations and customers who all think like us. We graduate to others like ourselves and the way we believe becomes normal. More loss of balance, perhaps.
Meanwhile, the lunatic fringes gain ground – far left, far right and religious nutters – who are traditionally very good at propaganda and have embraced social media with open arms and a skill and precision that has caught the traditional world napping. Holocaust deniers, creationists, flat Earthers and other complete mentalists are finding like-minded crazies on the internet and creating social media bubbles of their own where everyone thinks like they do. They’re realising they aren’t alone that there are hundreds and thousands of people out there as crazy as them and their views are becoming normalised. They are becoming bolder about expressing them. People are expounding viewpoints that Pol Pot might have baulked at with fearless abandon; views that would have been considered so evil that it was laughable back in the 1990s when I was scanning the newspapers.
These folks are calling for ‘balance’ so that when there is a political debate, along with single issue parties who may well have a valid case for inclusion, we have, not only the main parties present but the Scottish and Welsh bits of the main parties and minorities, too, are given a platform ‘for balance’. This is clearly a two edged weapon, as, while many single issue parties have something valid to bring to the table, others, whose views would have been regarded as evil/laughable (0r both) are suddenly being given air time and with it, credence and credibility, which means people are starting to take them seriously in a way that we probably shouldn’t.
Then there are our laws.
If you are the BBC for example, you have to adhere to the law, which is that there are certain political stances which are regarded as hatespeak and you are not to legally meant to broadcast them. Therefore, no matter how much balance the BBC wants to present, inviting someone from say, the far left or far right or a religious extremist on to a panel programme is going to be dicey if they start talking about how refugees, Asians, coloured people, LGBT+ [insert name of minority here] and moderation in politics are the root of every single problem we have in Britain today. Hint, our problems are caused by our inability to get along with one another, as exacerbated by the far left/right/religious extremists and the intransigence of people with ‘strong views’ when they drift over the dividing line from strongly held belief to bigot (yes, bigotry and intransigence, self actualisation through beliefs so they can’t be rethought at any time, another thing that’s considered more OK nowadays).
And the result seems be twofold. First, we seem to be slightly in the grip of some kind of paranoia that ‘The Man’ is manipulating all our newspapers. I confess I think people like Murdoch do have more power than they are entitled to but at the same time, if you’re able to appreciate the editorial bias of what you’re reading, or choose to read more than one news source you can usually sort out the key issues. Second, idiots who think it’s OK to beat up people because they’re a different colour, sexuality or gender can suddenly pitch themselves as a persecuted minority when they aren’t allowed to propound their views on mainstream TV, thus gaining even more credibility.
Meanwhile our mainline news sources are ‘censoring’ and ‘gagging’ these poor unfortunates, folks like Abul Hamza (hook-handed hate-spewing cleric, I may have spelled his name wrong. I don’t care.) by not allowing them air time when originally, these folks wouldn’t have been allowed air time because it was about the same as inviting the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. into your studio, only less sensible.
And we seem to be conflating editorial bias, with something else. Suddenly the Torygraph is lying, yet it has always been the Torygraph and the spin it puts on everything has always been right wing. From where I’m standing, it looks as if it’s doing what it’s always done. Likewise the Mail which speaks out often and forcefully about letting refugees into Britain, just as it did in the 1930s. It was a hateful rag then and it still is now. I’ve always believed in the right to free speech, but for a while I began to believe that if you preach hatred, you forfeit that right. Now I’m beginning to wonder.
Maybe we don’t need to censor the free press, maybe we just need to relearn our ability to take the things we are told by anyone, even those we trust, with a pinch of salt. Maybe it’s time we began to entertain the idea that a trained journalist might be more qualified to bring us news than a bigot who is pissed off about the proliferation of women characters in gaming and has moved from banging on about it on gaming forums to becoming an alt right activist – alt right because they believe the same things as Nazis but they aren’t Nazis, obviously – a pepperment is still a peppermint, darling, even if the brand name on the wrapper is different to last time.
And it’s all just distraction tactics anyway. Because this week, a major, major nation dropped quietly out of the United Nations Human Rights accord and no-one seems to have noticed. And that’s a bit of a worry. If you see pictures of Mussolini, one of the things that is striking is his puffed up pomposity. We have two world leaders like that right now.
Once, I read that the British political party that has been the first to adopt the highest number of policies into its mandate to eventually become law is the Monster Raving Loony Party. That’s because equal opportunities and concepts of that ilk were considered laughable when they did it. Maybe that’s just what I’m seeing here, the laughably evil Dr No types at the extreme right, left and religious fringes of this world becoming credible. But while giving men and women, black and white, gay and straight equal pay is reasonable, decreeing that gay or coloured people or yes, women, should e treated as inferior is clearly not reasonable, surely? (I know, there I go, ‘thinks me’.)
Recently, I heard that, like the Monster Raving Loony party, the place that a lot of real political news starts in the UK is the satirical newspaper Private Eye, where it will run for months or even years before suddenly hitting the mainstream media. What Private Eye does do is cast a splendidly cynical eye over news, politics and any over pomposity among those in power be it in politics, big business, media or sport.
As you can imagine, it gets sued a lot. It’s worth a read.
As for the rest of us. Well, at the moment, it strikes me that the way news is disseminated, consumed and understood by folks is mostly on the internet. And in larger part, as a historian, I keep seeing parallels with the way news spread in medieval times, cf the first 1.5 minutes of this video. And since we do seem to be reverting to the kind of malleable unintentional idiocy of medieval society, I guess we can’t really be surprised if we end up with the political equivalent of the second half this vid!