White Noise

In a week when, miraculously, the Sunday Mail came out urging voters to vote Green in Scotland, it’s worth reflecting on the relationship between media and politics. I say “miraculously” not because the Scottish Green party doesn’t deserve support, it does, but because the Sunday Mail hasn’t created a reputation for far-sighted ecological politics and an antennae for climate crisis.

It may not make much difference. The print and broadcast media’s power is on the wane under the twin ‘threat’ of the silos and closed stagnant pools of social media platforms and a populist hatred of the mainstream press that starts from rational skepticism and ends in Trumptastic vitriol and paranoia.

But the Mail’s support is a symbolic act if nothing else. “The environment” has come mainstream, even if it may be about forty years late.

This shifting ground of the media has pluses and minuses. A questioning population is a good thing – particularly in Scotland where we have been ill-served by the media for too long – but can end up rejecting all journalism everywhere and anywhere apart from the voices that confirm our own original beliefs. The “power” of the media has been undermined, and we can see this leak out in positive responses and in a sort of social nihilism. Increasingly it’s impossible for mainstream media to operate in a world where the discussion is happening somewhere else.

Back in September last year Steve Bannon was ‘disinvited to the New Yorker’s “festival of ideas”: queue meltdown.

Writing for Bella Amna Saleem wrote:

“The New Yorker ‘festival of ideas’, having now disinvited Steve Bannon, is facing his ire – despite the fact that he knows he’s won either way. Invited, he gets to peddle his half-truths and dog whistles; uninvited, and he’s the victim of PC culture. A Newsnight segment featuring, of all people, Laurie Penny and Ella Whelan highlights the problem of Bannon’s influence. Whelan is determined that his “bad politics” be heard on account of free speech while throwing millions of minorities under the bus just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate. She has fallen hook, line and sinker for the belief that lives like mine are acceptable to debate yet has the audacity to present it as a concern for balance despite the fact that he is a well known white supremacist who encourages others to wear accusations of racism as a badge of honour. ”

She continued:​

“Steve Bannon doesn’t even have to work that hard because the news outlets do all the work for him. ​if we could trust those with power to hold him to account I could perhaps be compelled to see things differently​ but on the occasions where he has been invited on TV or radio he is never adequately challenged, leaving him to spout his nonsense with minimal intervention. His dog whistles are heard loud and clear by folk who were never going to change their mind anyway, yet we are force-fed this idea that fascists deserve to be heard so they can be put in their place (which is in the White House, apparently).”

We tried to challenge this issue with BBC Scotland and the problem re-emerged this week with Ben Shapiro and Nigel Farage. It’s not going away.

In fact it’s become so ubiquitous it’s become a background noise, like the Archers or the Shipping Forecast, according to Nesrine Malik:

“This is the danger of ubiquity, it just erodes an ability to be discerning. No matter how much those with regressive, prejudiced or simply dishonest views are challenged, it is pointless if they are constantly provided a venue. It is the platform that legitimises them, not how they perform when they are on that platform.”

She continues:

“Farage is the same. He has been skewered on his lies several times, often by his own radio phone-in callers, and most recently on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, but it’s not relevant to his profile. The belief that somehow giving more airtime to people will expose and vanquish them makes no sense. The whole “sunlight is the best disinfectant” argument no longer works. Sunlight simply provides exposure and nourishment. There is no middle ground with challenging bigots, no matter how popular they are.”

The futility is clear, one person tweeted out after saying: “Not a #Farage lover. It was good to see him hold that tosser #Marr to account.”

We’re in a world where politicians hold journalists to account, not the other way round. The media has become the central focus of hatred in Britain in a way that is entirely compatible with the wildest Trump rallies.

Malik writes: “There comes a point when seeing Nigel Farage on TV becomes no longer appalling but almost comforting. It’s old Nigel again with his familiar voice and manner, and bluster and cackle – an offence of white noise.”

We’re not entitled to challenge why figures like Farage have become so prominent, though after years of media curation he looks like he may finally have some electoral success with the Brexit Party, for an institution he despises.

What should be done? We can do three things: we can create excellent investigative and challenging journalism; we can de-legitimise them; and we can build explicitly anti-fascist media and political movements.

Last October the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was quite right to pull out of the News XChange event at which Steve Bannon was speaking, and quite right to accuse the organisers of the risk of “legitimising or normalising far-right, racist views”.

In this context – in Scotland – we must show solidarity with minorities, trade unionists, the oppressed, the low-paid and the unheard as a basic part of our everyday understanding of the world. That means thinking about language and action and voice and rejecting misogyny, transphobia, homophobia as part of a practice of humanity and movement building. Understanding that ends and means matter and that the struggle for democracy is not confined to the constitution or to sovereignty but is about a much deeper understanding of real self-determination and autonomy is essential. The Yes movement – a movement for democracy – must be explicitly anti-fascist and conscious of the world around it.

But I think we also need to build different agendas. As the saying goes: “what you give attention to grows”. So creating entirely different narrative agendas is essential rather than an endlessly reactive media following the tropes and spin of the populist far-right.


Comments (14)

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  1. Wullie says:

    Nothing new in this rightist new party, de javu of Mosely & The New Party! could end very badly?

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    On a local level: anent the declared stance of the Sunday Mail that people in Scotland should vote Green in the forthcoming European elections – is this indicative of the morbidity of Scottish Labour? Has even the editorial team at the Sunday Mail decided that Scottish Labour is unsaveable and is shifting towards another party – and it was quick to say that it opposed the Green’s position on independence – that has a positive position on a number of issues as well as ecology and which many of its readers actually care about? The Daily Record has still to declare a stance, and its political editor dodged the question on Good Morning Scotland on Sunday.

    With regard to right wing and other baleful views – I think that most of the readers of this site support electoral reform as part of constitutional reform and that some form of proportional representation is required. That is my opinion anyway! However, I think that it is inevitable that such systems will bring far right groups and other extremists into our council chambers and our Parliament. I do not think they will get anywhere near a majority, but could exercise some influence in the forming of administrations, as has been the case on a number of occasions in Israel, for example. Left wing groups have also been excluded from our Councils and Parliament because of FPTP and PR would, probably bring them, too, into our elected bodies.

    Groups which are labelled ‘extreme’ are ‘extreme’ by virtue of the fact that they are outside the increasingly narrow triangulated centre ground over which the larger parties squabble. In some cases only some of their views are distasteful/hateful, but with other views they tap into genuine grievances which many people have as a consequence of the centralisation of power and policies of the main parties, which are increasingly influenced by Financial Services.

    By constitutional change power can be redistributed away from Westminster and the hegemony of the main parties will wane, unless they change, and Scottish Labour is an example. Elaine C Smith has described its attitude as being ‘putting party before people’.

    A major part of the problem is the power of the mainstream media, which, despite falling sales is still influential and tends to endorse right wing groups as their weapons in the divide-and-rule strategy by demonising ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Trade Unionists’, LGBTI+ people, the ‘politically correct’, etc. and fostering grievance against them. Mr Farage is a hugely wealthy man from a privileged background, who is acting the part of ‘man of the people’ (Ronald Reagan is the model to emulate). So, there has to be a greater transparency of media power and an encouragement of sites such as Bella, Wings, etc.

    1. Jo says:

      Yes Alasdair, I think we know there’s no way the SM would ever endorse the SNP. This is a clear message to abandon Labour and that’s interesting in itself. The Greens are clearly the next least-worst option… with the obvious rejection of their Independence option which I find hilarious.

  3. Jenny Tizard says:

    BBC debate on Sunday night.
    The Brexit spokesman talked for 10 minutes in total, was aggressive and repetitive, did not answer questions and constantly interrupted everyone else.
    The Green spokesperson spoke for 5 minutes in total and was concise, articulate and responsive.
    Why does the BBC camera linger on the Brexit party?

    1. Better Box Office? More Entertaining?

  4. Michael says:

    I’ve been listening to some interviews with journalist, Matt Taibbi, about his views on how the media operates. I’ve found it interesting. These few excerpts below sum up his position:

    “So long as the public is busy hating each other and not aiming its ire at the more complex financial and political processes going on off-camera, there’s very little danger of anything like a popular uprising. …

    “The trick here is getting audiences to think they’re punching up, when they’re actually punching sideways, at other media consumers just like themselves, who just happen to be in a different silo. Hate is a great blinding mechanism. Once you’ve been in the business long enough, you become immersed in its nuances. If you can get people to accept a sequence of simple, powerful ideas, they’re yours forever.

    The Ten Rules of Hate:

    1) There are only two ideas, only two baskets of allowable opinion: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, left or right. This is drilled into us at a young age. By the time we hit college, most of us, roughly speaking, will have chosen the political identity we’ll stick with for the rest of our lives. It’s the Boolean version of politics, pure binary thought: blue or red, true or false, zero or one.

    2) The two ideas are in permanent conflict.

    3) Hate people, not institutions: Trump is not just the perfect media product, he’s a brilliant propaganda mechanism. Though most of our problems are systemic, most of our public debates are referendums on personality. Not many people can be neutral on the subject of Trump, so we wave him at you all day long.

    4) Everything is someone else’s fault: We like easy stories. This is another reason why Trump has been such a savior to the news business … Every narrative involving Trump is perfect: easy enough for the most uneducated audiences to digest, and pre-packaged in crude binary format.

    5) Nothing is everyone’s fault: Nomi Prins used to be a banker for Goldman Sachs. She left the industry prior to the 2008 crash and became an important resource for all Americans in the years that followed, helping explain what banks were doing, and why, from an inside perspective.

    In recent years she became increasingly alarmed by central banking policies around the world. In Europe and the United States, she zeroed in on programs like Quantitative Easing that overworked the money-producing powers of the state and pumped giant sums of invented money into the finance sector. These policies are a kind of permanent welfare mechanism for the financial sector, and have had a dramatic impact around the world. They’ve accelerated an already serious financial inequality problem and addicted the banking sector to an unsustainable subsidy.

    All important – but no partisan angle: “If it’s not either for or against Trump, you don’t get airtime,” Prins says. “You kind of have to pick one side.”

    6) Root, don’t think: By the early 2000s, TV stations had learned to cover politics exactly as they covered sports, a proven profitable format.

    etc etc … full article here: https://taibbi.substack.com/p/chapter-1-part-ii-the-ten-rules-of and video interview here: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/on-contact-deep-rot-in-american-journalism-wmatt-taibbi-part-two

  5. Jo says:

    While I understand the message, Mike, I also tend to worry about any group having the right to essentially close down others or to decide which views are acceptable and which are not. It’s a very difficult area and some of your assertions trouble me.

    “That means thinking about language and action and voice and rejecting misogyny, transphobia, homophobia as part of a practice of humanity and movement building. ”

    In various debates I’ve heard allegations of all of the above being made where, in my view, the allegations were made simply in response to a view someone else didn’t agree with. So the labels came out. Damaging ones. I have no time for tactics like that. It makes me very angry when people use some of those labels inappropriately simply to take another person out.

    “A questioning population is a good thing – particularly in Scotland where we have been ill-served by the media for too long – but can end up rejecting all journalism everywhere and anywhere apart from the voices that confirm our own original beliefs.”

    Is there not a danger that by wanting to decide which views are valid that we’re in danger of doing the very thing you warn about here?

    “We’re in a world where politicians hold journalists to account, not the other way round. The media has become the central focus of hatred in Britain in a way that is entirely compatible with the wildest Trump rallies.”

    In my view the media deserves everything thrown at it and more because it stopped holding politicians to account long ago. Indeed, it’s hard to differentiate between journalists and politicians and it’s not unreasonable to associate both with lies. Fake news isn’t something invented by Trump. It’s peddled constantly by our print and broadcasting media…. including our publicly funded BBC.

    As I said, it’s a difficult one. There are many reasons to deplore certain views but we must be very careful when we want to control the debate or even exclude some views from it. That way other problems lie.

    1. Yes I understand that false accusations of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia can be problematic but I do think its sometimes very clear.

      “A questioning population is a good thing – particularly in Scotland where we have been ill-served by the media for too long – but can end up rejecting all journalism everywhere and anywhere apart from the voices that confirm our own original beliefs.”

      I just mean that there ends up such levels of nihilism and paranoia that tars any and every journalist and outlet as implicitly broken and corrupted, and that’s not my experience.

      People end up in silos of their own ‘new media’ where they gather with others who agree with them and nod their heads agreeing. Its comfortable experience but politically useless.

  6. Jo says:

    Oh jings! Just saw the first Brexit Party broadcast. GAH!

  7. Wul says:

    Wasn’t it Nick Robinson who, as political editor of BBC news, decided, along with others, that the popular phenomenon of unease about immigration needed to occupy more air-time? Way back around 2012 or so, if I recall correctly?

    The narrative ran that, whilst Farage & Ukip were not big political figures, they should get airtime so that viewers could understand what many, poorer, white voters were becoming concerned about?

    This moment seemed, to me, to mark a shift from giving airtime to parties & politicians proportional to their democratic share of the vote, and instead, allowing “popular” figures airtime because senior BBC journalists had decided they were a new phenomenon or becoming a “thing”.

    1. Wul says:

      By the way, what happened to the impending “immigration crisis”?

      Here we are, four years on from being about to be “swamped” and still part of the EU. Did we get swamped? Why’s it not on the telly anymore?

      1. Jo says:

        Well ol’ Nig is still getting plenty of airtime Wul, that’s for sure.

  8. Gaidheal says:

    While I can see the appeal of no-platforming certain unpalatable characters from the media, I’d be wary of it. Why do we gain from a free press?

    There is a very clear example of when this was not in the public interest. Remember the furore when Nick Griffin was on Question Time? The programme has it’s faults; but unquestionably, the BNP’s bile being ripped to shreds in a public debate was better than not inviting him on at all airtime. This present choice example is Ben Shapiro who, more used to the echo chambers of US & social media, was eviscerated and threw a tantrum.

    This is not to deny that certain figures are give undue prominence; but for a genuinely free society, we have to be open about confronting the unpalatable elements. Rigorous debate is the best way to ensure that incompetent blowhards are seen for what they are. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but we have to trust a democratic society’s judgement. We should never say the answer to a group such as the Brexit Party is to deny them oxygen – rather, it is to let them be snuffed out by a strong electoral and media environment!

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