Friday, January 19, 2007


Distorting Media Prism Makes Cynics of us All

The media gets blamed for so many things, there's a tendency for Guardian reading types like me to draw back from believing some of the more fashionable accusations. For example John Lloyd in his 2004 book, What the Media are Doing to our Politics claimed the media had unjustifiably decided:

'politics is a dirty game, played by devious people who tell an essentially false narrative about the world and thus deceive the British people.'

He doubted this chimera of a 'parallel universe' which bore little relation to the real world in which politicians and the like live and seek to do their jobs.

Journalist David Leigh exposed the limited truth of this critique by replying that in his experience:

'when a journalist asks members of British institutions uncomfortable questions about what is going on, they respond with more or less polished evasions or downright lies'.

However a more recent critic, Peter Wilby, argues a different case. He cited the YouGov poll on New Year's Eve which revealed 40% of respondents judging 2006 as having been a good year for them: and only 26% a bad one. But asked about the nation as a whole, only 7% thought it had been a good year and 24% were not optimistic about 2007. He points out:

'The effect is familiar to pollsters. Asked in general terms about the NHS or the schools, people often say both are in dire straits. Yet asked about the local school their children attend or about their own or a close relative's stay in hospital, the majority express complete satisfaction'

He concludes that the explanation for such disparities is provided by the media's -especially the Mail, Express, Telegraph, Sun & News of the World -overly critical attitude and conviction the 'country is going to the dogs'. Not everyone reads these papers-and circulations are falling- but they tend to set the agenda for television. And maybe there is something in our national character which enjoys revelling in such downbeat analyses; we must do or such material would not appear in the press with such depressing regularity.

So, to some extent, we are the authors of our own low opinion of ourselves. But the corollary of this must be that a great many polls about public services being rubbish, despite the millions poured into them by Blair governments, should not be taken seriously. It might seem odd to articulate this but, to some extent, we should not believe our own opinions.

You're right to say that the attitude of sensationalist newspapers has a tendency to seep into television. Take BBC News: airport delays create "chaos"; Ruth Turner's arrest sends "shockwaves of surprise" through Downing Street. Regional news is particularly bad. North West Tonight has several default stories: an horrific murder, usually by stabbing; a robbery of a pensioner by some callous youth; an incompetent or interfering council; and the obligatory "fun" story - perhaps love letters have finally been delivered by the Post Office after a 25-year limbo.

Here's one of my favourites from the NWT website: "A woman has denied slashing a teenager in a Psycho-style shower attack."
Yes, the popular press may be denigrated by posher types in the media but as the bottom line is copies sold or ratings won, the best ways of attracting such things will always carry weight. This is why the telly tends to look to the printed press for inspiration when constructing their news agenda and order of priority. So its true the TV news has gone a bit down-market in presentational style. Also items like Big Brother tend to force their way into the more upmarket end of the news agenda, once they develop sufficient heads of steam.
Michael Moore illustrated this point nicely in his film 'Bowling for Columbine', when he put together a montage of sensationalist news stories, illustrating such fearful things as the deadly danger of escalators, imminent attacks by killer bees, and, of course, the obligatory stories of black men carrying out all manner of dastardly crimes.

His montage was entirely conducted from telly news, and reading spl's sumamry of NWT's news scoops suggests how close we are coming to that - the tabloids are not alone!

The question is - how do we recover a proper public cautiousness and judgement?
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