2007 - 2022

Parody Britain and the Death of the Fourth Estate


Allegra Stratton’s departure has been widely seen as a sideshow, a sacrificial lamb to the baying mob while bigger players remain unchallenged. That’s all true but what her performance and role also show us is the extent to which the elite that was formally distinguished between the political and the media has effectively merged.

This idea of a separation – a fourth estate (quarto potere, Vierte Gewalt, Cuarto poder, Quatrième pouvoir) has collapsed in Britain – and what this most recent debacle reveals is the culture of cronyism that exists between Downing Street and the right wing media. They are mutually dependent and often indistinguishable. This is a ruling elite, a governing class that comes from the same strata, shares the same education and is literally inter-married. In this context the idea that such a media can hold the powerful to account is of course laughable. The British media is incestuous and dysfunctional.

Allegra Stratton is married to James Forsyth, the editor of The Spectator. Dominic Cummings is married to Mary Wakefield, Commissioning Editor at the magazine. Michael Gove is an ex-Spectator columnist and was married to journalist Sarah Vine. Rishi Sunak was best man to James Forsyth, Stratton’s husband. Munira Mirza is married to Dougie Smith – Dougie who had been a senior figure in the far-right Federation of Conservative Students, while she herself was part of the LM network and is widely thought to have arranged Claire Fox’s ascent to the House of Lords. The Spectator has long been closely tied to the Tory party, indeed former editors include Boris Johnson (1999–2005) and other former Conservative cabinet members Ian Gilmour (1954–1959), Iain Macleod (1963–1965), and Nigel Lawson (1966–1970).

We are living through such a macabre and fantastical episode it needs to be carefully curated and framed for it to be palatable. This requires a media class that’s pliant enough to keep secrets and maintain order but also creative enough to maintain the spectacle and abide to the 24 ‘rolling news’ agenda.

Observing such a merger is the context in which we should have discussions about the possibility of ‘unbiased’ news reporting and the need for genuinely independent media. The elite that run Britain are a political class that is unprecedented in its incestuous nature and the extreme politics they are developing.

There’s no better example of the tightness of this class than the immediate backing for Stratton that came from the upper echelons of the commentariat. Robert Peston spoke an unknowing truth when he described her as ‘a model for many in modern politics’. She herself spoke of her great pride in COP26, an international meeting that was an ecological disaster of historic moment.

 

This lack of any self-awareness or humility is contrasted with the excess in which these people live. For example the Trumpesque Downing Street press briefing room in which she was filmed giggling cost £2.6 million, and Stratton was paid £125,000 a year … yet never gave a single briefing in it. None of this is to say that there aren’t good journalists and good media platforms out there, there are. The idea that all media is bad or that all politics is bad is a deeply corrosive one. But there is also at the very top a sort of succulent lamb media that is permanently embedded with the powerful and it is absorbed into the spectacle of its own pantomime.

 

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Comments (41)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Well put Mike. When was the last time the “UK” had a govt that wasn’t supported by Murdoch? That people continually vote against their own interests says it all.

    Cue a John Learmouth ‘gammons’ post.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘…people continually vote against their own interests…’

      As defined by whom? You?

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        What kept you Colin, I should’ve lumped you in with John Learmouth. Are you seriously claiming the Tories are all for the working class (spare me your working class definitions)? Do the elite go to the lengths Mike describes as a hobby?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          No, I’m not claiming anything of the sort. I’m just wondering by whom ‘their own interests’ are defined. By you, some other more enlightened being like you who lays claim to knowing their ‘true’ interests, or by the voters themselves?

          1. Tom Ultuous says:

            You could be right Colin. Maybe they’re all masochists who enjoy being shafted by sadists. You stick with your Rupert.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            I’m maybe right about what, Tom? I’m just asking by whom ‘their own interests’ are defined. Who knows better than they do what ‘their own interests’ are?

            (And who’s Rupert?)

          3. Tom Ultuous says:

            Rupert Murdoch.

            Their own interests would be apparent were there a level playing field as opposed to a barrage of right wing propaganda.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            But we do have a level playing field. Everyone can access any of the myriad channels through which news and commentary is broadcast by the clamjamfry of radically diverse voices that compete for our ears. As I said to Wul below: in these post-truth times, the onus is on us to be more catholic and discerning in our consumption of news reporting and commentary.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, absolute rubbish, once again. A cacophony does not a democratic discussion make. There is no level playing field (but if you want to consider that metaphor, some people are buried up to their necks while others are driving tanks). There are, for example, vast inequalities in access, a point which Bella has very ably made. Pliant journalists, selected lobbyists, the ultra rich, and corporate secondees are granted insider access to government, while critics and public are left out in the cold (and the walls of British imperial secrecy are built brick by brick by brick). Furthermore, astroturfing (which you unsurprisingly approve of) greatly distorts social media with fake ‘individual’ voices. What chance does an ordinary person with limited resources have to answer basic questions about “what is going on?”? UK libel and slander laws are said to favour the powerful, while secret censorship (today’s version of all those ‘voluntary’ D-notice frameworks) deprives the public of vital information and criticism. Democracy, it is usually felt, requires informed debate. Yet misinformation and disinformation is typically favoured and promoted by settings and algorithms (including the very search algorithms — manually adjusted — which adjudicate much access) set by governments and corporations. Peaceful civil society is infiltrated by state and corporate secret police and agents. Vast funnels of dark money sway arts and politics and push once-bampot views into the mainstream. Investigative journalism is put on a par with espionage and subversion. Intimidation of speakers is rife. Your very comments are the stuff of poisonous degradation of public discourse.

            Of course, not everyone has equal access or even access at all.
            https://webfoundation.org/research/costs-of-exclusion-report/

            Meanwhile, our government supports states which execute bloggers and supply malware to spy on journalists. Is that the democracy of which you speak?

          6. Tom Ultuous says:

            How can it be a level playing field when almost all the outlets are owned by Tory backers? Is it any different from China or Russia where it’s pretty much state controlled?

          7. Mons Meg says:

            @Tom & SD

            Sorry, guys; the site’s not letting me post my reply again. Bloody Tories, eh?

          8. Mons Meg says:

            One of life’s wee mysteries, Mike.

      2. Mike Friel says:

        No, as defined by how they later regret what they have done! #brexit #votingtory

        1. Mons Meg says:

          I like the immanent ‘self-correcting’ model: disappointment with the outcome of one’s previous [voting] behaviour as expressed in one’s subsequent [voting] intentions. Sure beats for me the transcendent ‘I know what’s best for you, you stupid/gullible b*st*rd’ model.

    2. John Learmonth says:

      Tom,
      I’m now a vegetarian……..
      In future can you please refer to the uneducated masses who refuse to be told whats in their best interests by their betters (like you) as…..Turnips.
      Have a good xmas!
      John

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @John Learmonth, turnips voting for Burns Night?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Or neips for Hallae e’en?

      2. Mons Meg says:

        Tumshies?

      3. Tom Ultuous says:

        Same to yourself John. Veganism next step?

        1. John Learmonth says:

          No chance, I like eggs and cheese, not to mention beer. My waistline can testify to this!

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Very good.

    However, you could also have drawn links with the ‘City elite’, who bankroll the Conservatives (and, did so for ‘new’ Labour, thereby effectively emasculating Labour as a party for the wider population, and by monstering Corbyn, when Labour began to speak for a wider constituency and installing the ultra pliant Starmer). Further, this clique extends to the higher echelons of the Civil Service.

    In effect the UK ‘state’ serves the interests of this clique, which is only conditionally ‘British’, because almost all have multiple nationalities, homes in various countries and most of their money in ‘offshore’ accounts. (The term ‘tax haven’ is indicative of the mindset.)

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Aye, this ‘clique’ you talk about (and the ‘elites’ that populist demagogues talk about) is what we used to call ‘the establishment’: the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.

      In Scotland, this matrix of social relations is, of course, an ‘ideology’ or ‘expression’ of the relations into which we currently enter in producing the material conditions of our survival (‘capitalism’). You won’t get rid of the current establishment or ruling clique/elite until those relations of production change.

      Thankfully, that change is immanent to capitalism itself. https://youtu.be/BaRUZ81K8bk

  3. Jean Mackenzie says:

    In what way was the main stream media different 20 years ago, or 40 years ago?

    I’d genuinely like to know.

    1. Good question Jean. I think there are a couple of big differences. The rise of the internet has created a new platform for the new right that chases traffic with clickbait. Sites like Guido Fawkes have a completely different vibe than the old establishment Telegraph/Times masquerading as being subversive while churning out nihilistic content. Sites like The Spectator have been radicalised in recent years under Fraser Nelson’s editorship. Another big difference is the emergence of the journalist-politician (like Gove and Johnson). The expectation of 24 news and social media means also that politicians have to be always ‘on’. This turns politics into even more of a game needing performers.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        John Humphreys on retiring from the Today programme pointed out that the biggest change in the media over the last 40 years is that working class people who left school at 16 (like himself) and got jobs in regional papers to learn the trade no longer rise to the top, in fact its impossible.
        All media today (whether right or liberal left) are dominated by privately educated/Oxbridge people (The Guardian/C4 are bastions of elite privilege).
        These people grow up together, live in the same North London postcodes, marry each other, attend the same parties etc etc
        What/who is to blame for this?
        The abolition of the grammar schools?
        I would imagine (its a guess) that a sizeable number of writers for BC are also from similar backgrounds (private schools/elite universities).
        Journalism used to be a trade and you worked your way up thru regional papers to the broadsheets/broadcast media.
        Its now a ‘proffession’ and I would argue a lot poorer for it.

    2. Mons Meg says:

      I agree with Mike: the rise of the internet and the proliferation of media channels has led to mainstream commentators having to compete with a cacophony of dissident outlier voices, which has in turn left the public more sceptical of the trustworthiness of the media generally. Basically, whereas 20 or 40 years ago we perceived the media as channelling us the truth (more or less), we now understand them as channelling only a clamjamfry of rival and contradictory opinions. That’s part of what we mean when we say that we live now in a ‘post-truth’ age.

      And while we might look nostalgically to a more innocent age of journalism, in which it collectively formed a trustworthy ‘fourth estate’, the post-truth genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back.

      1. Wul says:

        Does this “clanjamrification” suggest the desirability of smaller, more powerful units of local governance?

        Maybe if the broadcast of news or politics were coming from sources closer to home, just a few miles away, we would be able to say “I smell shite” with a greater degree of accuracy?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Not particularly. It suggests to me more that we need to be more catholic and discerning in our consumption of news reporting and commentary.

          And while I do lament the decline of our local news reporting and commentary in the form of our local rags, I also welcome more the dizzying proliferation of citizen reporting and commentary that takes place through (for example) community channels on social networking platforms. The current self-regulating free-for-all reporting and commentary regime of social media seems to be working fine from a democratic point of view.

  4. John Cawley says:

    I don’t want to be a gloomster, to quote Boris, but Scotland’s fourth estate is in quite a bad way too. Mike has given me the space to explore the unhealthy links between politicians and the media that is supposed to report on them and keep them honest. Just for the sake of brevity, the BBC programme looking at twenty years of devolution, Children of the Devolution, was produced by Two Rivers Media. The Director of Two Rivers is Sir Angus Grossart. One of the high heid yins is Alan Clemens, Kirsty Wark’s partner. The interviewees included Andrew Wilson of Charlotte Street Partners and Chris Deerin, former employee of CSP. Alex Massie of The Spectator writes a regular column for CSP called The View from Andrew Wilson’s Colon, sorry The View from the Street. Why would Alex Massie write about any lobbying scandal like the one airbrushed out of Children of the Devolution, when CSP pay his wages?
    Have a look at Message Matters, where Geoff Aberdeen has joined Andy Maciver and Peter Dark Money Duncan. Geoff is comfortably ensconced with Tom Vote Leave Scotland Harris, purveyors of dark money to the DUP and all of them given a platform on BBC Scotland. I asked Lesley Riddoch about how comfortable she was sharing the airwaves with a lobbyist. Answer came there none.
    Don’t throw stones at English politics without checking out our own midden. In Scotland, we’re in a bad way too. Who is there to expose the next Lobbygate when all the journalists are lobbyists and all the lobbyists are former politicians?

    1. Yes I’d like to do some mapping of that John. I’m going to use littlesis.org

      I didn’t intend to infer we were in any better shape, but this piece was abut the London elites and the networks of power around the right wing media.

    2. Wul says:

      “I asked Lesley Riddoch about how comfortable she was sharing the airwaves with a lobbyist. Answer came there none.”

      A bit unfair that comment. That’s like asking someone how comfortable they are “…sharing air with ….[insert villain’s name here]” Should independent journalists refuse to use all media because it has been “contaminated” by people with a different agenda?

      1. John Cawley says:

        Wul, the Scottish commentariat is a pals act. They all know each other and, therefore, when one of them gets in bother, their pals cover for them. I like Lesley Riddoch. I loathe the corporate capture of Scottish politics personified by guys like Geoff Aberdein and companies like Message Matters. In the absence of effective regulation, we need an effective media to hold grifters like Aberdein to account. Unfortunately, we lack an effective media. Westminster has Private Eye. Where is Scotland’s equivalent? Bella provides a platform for alternative voices, but chancers like Aberdein, Chris Deerin, Tom Harris and their like are getting away with murder because honest brokers like Mike are always outnumbered and always outgunned. Christ , Frankie Boyle is an employee of Sir Angus Grossart. Will we see Frankie Boyle’s Guide to the Corporate Capture of Scottish Politics? Of course we won’t.

        1. I think making those clandestine networks visible is something we can do John

          1. Wul says:

            Cheers John,

            I do like the idea of a Scottish Private Eye. That would be a brilliant read. I would buy it.

  5. john macleod says:

    Brilliant journalism Mike. I stand in awe.

  6. Maxwell Macleod says:

    Brilliant journalism Mike. I stand in awe.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Medialens has addressed some of this in the context of the corporate media largely failing to report more serious British imperial crimes:
    https://www.medialens.org/2021/a-christmas-tale-the-downing-street-party-laughter-and-bigger-state-crimes/
    Some of these abuses could be checked by a codified constitution, although the UK is heading ever away from constraints on Executive power.

    What seems lacking in the UK is a popular cultural production line of anti-corruption models and narratives that can be readily applied. BBC’s current Doctor Who is essentially Boris Johnson in a pastel coat, embodying the British political elite’s hallmark ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy; over-promising and under-delivering, and partying in the face of mortal public peril while (with traditional British hypocrisy and cant) paying but occasional lip-service to the human and non-human masses they purport to care about so deeply (while never daring to show any society whose culture viewers might learn useful lessons from).

    1. Thanks, that’s a great link

  8. gavinochiltree says:

    Election coming and Boris has, at last, been rumbled by our English neighbours———-and the Tory Elite. But still carries enough street cred as rule out men-in-grey-suits, so a series of leaks, to slowly destroy him.
    Who is behind it, would be a good story. In this nest of vipers, it would be anyones guess.
    Sunak? Cummings? How about Carrie, with her own “buyers remorse?
    Or any combination of the above, backed by Murdoch, City money and maybe the Queen.

  9. John Monro says:

    Nicely done illustration of the incestuous nature of the media with the higher reaches of government. Of course you could extend these links a long way out I’m sure but then I’d need a 72 inch monitor to contain them all on one page. They’d involve the Murdoch and most other media, the BBC, corporate business, US right wing think tanks,Tory donors, oil sheiks, and London City slickers. etc. Thanks for the article, nicely done. Thanks too for SleepingDog posting the Media Lens article to remind me. I recently wrote to one of the Medialens Editors, name David Cromwell, , sending him a link to your pages https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/10/31/the-deluge/#comment-577981 He wrote back saying he had looked at the Bella Caledonia site, but some disagreement occurred in the past? Media Lens is a great place to find some sanity, but they can fall out with allies because of their somewhat inflexible ways of arguing, a bit like John Pilger, perhaps. But I admire both, much as I’ve come to admire your writing. Thanks.

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