Jo Cox, Brexit & mainstream media

22 June 2016 by Jennifer

[Content note: this first section, references to violence.]

The death of Jo Cox MP was one of those “days of judgement” which Dorothy L Sayers talks about here:

The habit, very prevalent to-day, of dismissing words as “just words” takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there… It may for some time only incarnate itself in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment.

I’m not only thinking of the mainstream media’s relentless drip of words and ideas about Britain being under threat from migrants: the context in which, it seems, Jo began to appear to her killer as “a traitor”. (Though I am thinking of that, and I recommend this piece by Alex Massie.)

I’m thinking also of anyone who’s ever joked or half-joked about smacking or killing a woman to shut her up.

I’m thinking also of every film, and story, and real-life justifying rhetoric, which portrays violence as a fine way to “make your point” or “send a message”.

Text in a nice blue font: "The habit, very prevalent to-day, of dismissing words as "just words" takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there... It may for some time only incarnate itself in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment. - Dorothy L Sayers".

Truth versus news

This other quote from DLS floated back into my mind in connection with Brexit in general:

It is a plain fact that ninety-nine “interviews” out of a hundred contain more or less subtle distortions of the answers given to questions, the questions being, moreover, in many cases, wrongly conceived for the purpose of eliciting the truth. … The journalist is, indeed, not interested in the facts. … The Press and the Law are in this condition because the public do not care whether they are being told truth or not.

– Dorothy L Sayers, The Mind of the Maker1

That last phrase keeps coming back to me as I read the Leave rhetoric. “The public do not care whether they are being told truth or not.”

I kind of almost can’t fathom it, how easy it is to find out that Boris has a blatant lie painted on his bus (the £350 million a week thing) and how people apparently still aren’t thinking “hang on a minute, if the Leave campaign’s number one famous claim is a blatant lie, maybe there’s some other things they’re not being entirely up front about?

Years of biased reporting

Except… I kind of do get it.

People have been lied to, and lied to, and lied to.

Martin Fletcher writes this about Boris Johnson’s time as a Brussels journalist:

He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.

… Johnson later confessed: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.”

… By the time I arrived in Brussels editors only wanted stories about faceless Brussels eurocrats imposing absurd rules on Britain, or scheming Europeans ganging up on us, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rearguard actions against a hostile continent. …

Stories that did not bash Brussels, stories that acknowledged the EU’s many achievements, stories that recognised that Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments, almost invariably ended up on the spike. [i.e. rejected by editors, never published.]

Boris Johnson is now campaigning against the cartoon caricature of the EU that he himself created. He is campaigning against a largely fictional EU that bears no relation to reality.

(Actually, it seems to me Boris is still at it, in the same spirit of reckless mischief. Why even claim £350 million a week, when he could’ve just claimed whatever the real figure is and it still would’ve sounded like a lot? I can’t help suspecting that he takes delight in seeing what he can get away with, no matter how much harm it does.)

And recently too, media editors have made similar decisions to publicise Boris or Farage because they found them comical, controversial, “good value” and likely to attract viewers/readers, regardless of the truth of their message or what was likely to happen as a result of boosting them.

Remember how, in the run-up to the 2015 election, we kept getting Farage on the telly and hardly ever the Green Party people, even though the Green Party had similar numbers to UKIP?

News is run by the rich people

And then also…

It’s mostly rich people who own & run the main newspapers. Even when the owners don’t directly intervene day to day, they’re usually going to pick editors they broadly agree with.

I worry about the amount of power they have, and the lack of accountability.

A lot of what we’re seeing in newspapers is distraction from what the richest people are getting up to. Look at the size of tax evasion by rich people and big companies, in comparison to the relatively tiny amount of benefit fraud.

When they want to sway people,2 they can afford to hire clever writers to do it, and clever lawyers to tell them how far they can go.

You can write a big headline with a fib or a misleading thing in it. And then maybe a few weeks or months later, maybe there’s a tiny paragraph where you have to take it back… but by then, thousands and thousands of people have read it.

The disabled people losing their transport & their jobs due to benefit assessment mistakes, the practical and financial contributions of immigrants, the reasons refugees had to leave their original homes, the ordinary people saying “refugees welcome”… Those stories rarely get put in the mainstream media spotlight, in comparison to the theme of how we can’t afford to help anyone else.

What the mainstream media tell people day after day can sway elections. It can sway things like the Brexit referendum. Supposedly we’re under Europe’s thumb. Supposedly we’re “better poor than under control”… as if voting Leave is a matter of honour now.

I saw a quote going round (possibly true, possibly not, I’m not sure) from Rupert Murdoch, saying something like: he wasn’t a fan of the EU, because they didn’t listen to him, whereas the UK government did. I worry that we’re heading for Brexit partly just because he wants us to.

Checking facts takes time

Even aside from influence from on high about what direction to take, and the need for clickbait to keep the money coming, a lot of journalists are seriously overworked, and don’t have the chance to dive into proper thorough fact-checking, or unearthing the non-obvious aspects of a story.

As Nick Davies puts it,

Journalism without checking is like a human body without an immune system.

Lots of people can tell you how many news stories in their own field get published with wrong “facts” in.

Here, Michael Dougan explains some of the EU myths. It’s his job to know about EU law, and he sounds amazed at the scale of misrepresention we’ve seen in the Brexit debates. For example, it wouldn’t be 2 years to renegotiate trade deals; the 2 years is a time limit for getting disentangled, the “divorce” as he puts it. Renegotiations would be more like 10, sometimes more, to get deals probably not as good as we’ve got now.

Brexit: the rich people will still be fine

If (as seems quite possible to me) Brexit happens, and if (as seems to me even more likely) its bad effects drastically outweigh the good ones…

At the end of the day, Boris Johnson & Nigel Farage & Rupert Murdoch & Michael Gove, yes and David Cameron and a load of the Remain camp as well, are OK for money and connections. They’ll be OK whichever way Brexit pans out. Boris & Farage are hoping for jobs with even more power if it’s Leave.

I worry about ordinary people, though. I worry about Boris as PM with Nigel Farage as his sidekick, full of great stories, careless with truth, careless with other people’s lives. It’s like some kind of classic heart-breaking tragedy, how people can be tricked into voting against their own jobs and workplace protections by the inspiring story of getting out from under a theoretical thumb.

Even though things will be hard either way, even though there’s work to be done either way, I’ll be hugely relieved if it does turn out Remain.

1. Source of DLS quotes: Both quotes are from The Mind of the Maker, written in 1941.

The book is mainly about parallels between the creative process and the Holy Trinity. If you’ve ever grappled with the task of translating inspiration into practical manifestation, you might well appreciate this book… and probably even more so if you are a Christian.

Mind of the Maker on the web. The chapter which the “just words” quote comes from. Lots of reviews of the book.

2. When owners or editors of newspapers “want to sway people”: I’m not saying that’s all the time – most of the time, they’re mostly interested in making enough money to stay afloat and turn a profit, especially now that the net has made it harder for print newspapers to survive.

Text in a nice blue font: "The habit, very prevalent to-day, of dismissing words as "just words" takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there... It may for some time only incarnate itself in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment. - Dorothy L Sayers".

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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