A democracy needs perspective and humility.
In “David Dimbleby: ‘I feel liberated. Going back to reporting, it’s what life is about’” (The Observer, 24 November 2019), Tim Adams cites a six-part podcast by the veteran British journalist about the long career of media owner Rupert Murdoch. Adams comments:
“In telling the story of the rise of the most powerful media tycoon the world has known, it serves among other things to explain the fertile germ of populism in Britain and the US, a by-product of the corrosive tone of Murdoch’s tabloids, and outlines the threat to democracy presented by a US president who was a creation of Fox News.”
There is more than a germ of truth here. But to lay populism, at least its British version, at the door of The Sun, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail is only part of the picture. Clearly, they have reinforced prejudices and misconceptions. In addition, as Adams points out, tabloids “infected the finer aspirations of all British media, making balance and accuracy seem dull, putting gossip on the front page and suggesting that personal privacy and journalistic ethics were the stuff of liberal elitism.”
Was this the work of tabloids alone? No. Class and racism – deeply rooted in British politics, society, and culture – are at least as much to blame. For racism, an incomplete line can be traced in British history from the 12th century crusades through the suppression of the Scots and Irish, the evils of the 18th century slave trade, 19th century imperialism (India, South Africa), and 20th century colonialism (Kenya, Windrush, Chagos).
Tabloid journalism muddies the waters; it rarely lays down the silt. It plays on ignorance, fear, and irrationality firstly for economic gain (“sell them what they want”) and secondly – manipulated by wily leaders – to bolster political power. To counter its effects, independent journalism, which is in increasingly short supply, offers alternative narratives and images in an attempt to redress the balance and to persuade people to see the world differently.
Strangely, many people do not want to have their eyes opened and are content with the mirrors and echo chambers offered by unscrupulous newspapers, radio stations, television channels, and social media platforms. When Sasha Baron Cohen criticised the “Silicon Six” for their lack of oversight and regulation, he also identified a wider malaise:
“On the Internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.”
Playing to the gallery always risks becoming populist. After all, populism has come to mean pandering to the worst in people. Tabloid media are entertainment for entertainment’s sake – a “show” – whose values are those of the lowest common denominator.
This is not an argument for getting rid of tabloids. Ironically, “It’s a free country!” But it is an argument for more balance in public media, for accurate information, and for non-violent alternative opinions. It’s also an argument for humility, which, as Oscar Wilde wrote during his spell in prison, is the starting point for a new development.