There’s no better example of the anglosphere* in action than BBC Question Time, where hereditary media bore David Dimbleby presides over a half-hearted attempt at ‘participation’. Last night, as now seems essential, UKIP were present to pronounce their views on race and immigration, despite not having a single elected MP and never having even saved a deposit North of the Tweed.
Media representation of issues around race, immigration, multiculturalism and asylum have been a distorting factor for years, culminating in the recent farcical frenzy over Roma and Bulgarian ‘tides’ at New Year. This distorting effect can be seen everywhere and it undermines efforts to have a national conversation about independence by seeing the issues through a southern lens.
But this isn’t just a question for Scotland, it’s a question of who owns the media what their agenda is and what cultural assumptions they use to frame events. From Hillsborough, to de Menezes, to Tomlinson and Duggan, we’ve seen the media regurgitate faithfully police accounts based on little more than a blind loyalty (often being forced to retract and amend in the face of a forced reality’) .
This widespread fealty has terrible consequences to our deeper understanding. John Pilger recently noted (‘Is media just another word for control?’):
A recent poll asked people in Britain how many Iraqis had been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The answers they gave were shocking. A majority said that fewer than 10,000 had been killed. Scientific studies report that up to a million Iraqi men, women and children died in an inferno lit by the British government and its ally in Washington. That’s the equivalent of the genocide in Rwanda. And the carnage goes on. Relentlessly. What this reveals is how we in Britain have been misled by those whose job is to keep the record straight. The American writer and academic Edward Herman calls this ‘normalising the unthinkable’.
Nowhere is this manipulation more obvious than in the spate of ‘docusoaps’ and ventures into ‘reality tv’ unconsciously laden with political subtexts. Owen Jones is quite right to be furious about Channel 4’s shameful Benefits Street (A healthy media would stand up to the rich and powerful):
This dross has left the public woefully ill-informed. Polls show that people on average estimate that 27 per cent of social security payments are lost to fraud, when it is just 0.7 per cent; that 41 per cent goes to unemployed people, when it just three per cent; and that the value of benefits are far higher than they are. Neither is the public aware that most social security spending is, rightly, spent on pensioners who have paid in all their lives; or that the Government’s freeze on benefits mostly hits working people. Large families are passed off as typical, even though just 190 out of the 1.35 million claiming an out-of-work benefits have 10 kids or more. A healthy media would challenge myths and prejudices; ours is determined to fan them.
Here is the world that is missing from our television screens. The poverty-wage-paying bosses and rip-off-rent-charging landlords milking our welfare state dry as we subsidise them with tax credits and housing benefit. The low-paid workers struggling along on in-work benefits and falling wages, who make up the bulk of Britain’s poor. The 6.5 million people looking for full-time work, in many cases sending out CV after CV and not even getting a reply. The £16bn worth of benefits unclaimed each year – benefit evasion, if you will – compared to £1.2bn lost to fraud.
Poverty as infotainment can be seen across the media, take the execrable Secret Millionaire or the bizarre value-laden Apprentice or Dragon’s Den formats all of which deify the super-rich and treat businessmen as a form of higher being.
In the independence campaign this distortion works in two ways, first it plays to the fear stoked by the right that we’d be preyed upon by the feckless, work-shy slobbish subsidy-junkies (us), second (and closely-related) we’d suffer from our perpetual inability to embrace the entrepreneurial revolution. Both these myths feed off the “too poor” and “too stupid” arguments for, ironically, a continued dependency culture.
How can you have a decent debate about what kind of economy we need, and what kind of society we want when this kind of mass distortion effect means people are misled as to where the problem lies and what the real challenges is?
These kind of myths are peddled by wealthy media barons and middle-class tv producers seemingly unable to distinguish between reality tv and reality, on tv. There’s now a blurring of lines between fame-starved slebs being paid for TV exposure like George Galloway or Courtney Stodden and fake-docutainment like Benefits Street. As Shabana Mahmood (MP for Birmingham Ladywood) puts it: “It was clear from the first few seconds of the first show that the producers were primarily interested in creating entertainment out of poverty.”
It’s a further shameful descent for the UK media – distorting and corrupting big social issues and turning them into cheap laughs.
The task for the independence movement is to create a better media and a more elevated civic narrative about immigration, class and culture. More celebration of being Jock Tamson’s Bairns and more putting ordinary people in charge of telling their own stories.