Promoting demagogues of Left and Right makes for increased ratings but is bad for democracy
Extremists are good for business: the louder and more mendacious they are, the better. It is almost funny how the far Left and Right do not realise how essential they have become to commerce. They loudly proclaim their outsider status without understanding they are shop-front mannequins for old broadcasters and new social networks that are as keen on making money and expanding market share as any other business.
Step back, and you can see the appeal. Traditional news sites have “journalists” who are no better than press officers. Left-wing websites have weaselly apologists for Jeremy Corbyn, with an apparently limitless number of half-truths and distractions to suffocate objections to anti-Semitism and leader worship. Right-wing sites have Brexit boosters, who once again spend most of their time denouncing their opponents for raising legitimate questions. They are true propagandists rather than engaged writers because they do not offer intelligent support to their causes while retaining the intellectual integrity to speak out when they believe their allies have made a mistake. Watching them is like watching reporters, who began in journalism with high ideals, taking the easy road and easy money by moving into corporate PR. You think that if you could have told their younger selves what they would become, they would have walked away and chosen a different career.
From a commercial point of view, propagandists generate two kinds of business. Trump, Brexit and Corbyn have made many learn the depressing truth that large numbers of people want to be lied to, or at the very least have their prejudices confirmed. Less well appreciated is that traffic also comes from their shocked opponents, who have their biases confirmed by seeing how politically correct a proponent of identity has become or how far into racial prejudice a right-wing columnist has sunk.
The difference between broadcasters and news sites is that a TV or radio station can increase the commercial benefits of extremism exponentially. Conservative newspapers cannot hire left-wing columnists without alienating their readers. But because broadcasters are non-aligned, they can promote left and right-wing propagandists simultaneously. And not just political loudmouths, but extremists for any and every cause. Most people who make public arguments will eventually receive a call from a BBC researcher asking in an expensively educated voice whether they will reduce their argument to absurdity, and say 2+2 = 5, or black is white, or night is day, in the most doctrinaire manner they can manage. Grasp the commercial logic behind the request and you will understand modern broadcasting’s imperative to create as much noise as possible. You will understand too why Facebook and Twitter only remove incitements to violence and abuse when they are threatened with regulation by the state.
The retirement of David Dimbleby from Question Time after a quarter of a century has brought fears of cultural debasement to a head. Dimbleby will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, for fanning hysteria, and his departure provoked something close to disgust as broadcasters looked at their future and recoiled.
Adam Boulton of Sky described Dimbleby’s complicity in Question Time’s drift towards “the ritual confrontation and humiliation of its guests”. His and the BBC’s laziness and ugliness had led to a “coarsening of public discourse”. Among my political allies Dimbleby and his producers are the first item of evidence used to prosecute the claim that the BBC has not merely covered populism but promoted it by putting Nigel Farage on Question Time more than any other guest this century.
Although I find it repugnant to see men and women who have had nothing but privilege in their lives make money by building up demagogues, the bias accusation misses the point. Or rather the bias is not political but “the bias against understanding” that long-forgotten BBC executives complained about. The worst broadcasters aren’t remotely partisan. Having settled political convictions would harm rather than hurt their careers. Rather, they exploit the dogmatism of others and transform it into ratings and pay rises. They know that outrage keeps the audience tuned in; it stimulates and infuriates the viewers. Better that than a difficult argument that would only drive them away.
To think we need only worry about one nasty BBC programme is to miss the wider cultural problem.
In a clear-eyed essay on the Arc website, which is well worth reading if you can search it out, Bonny Brooks dissected the economics of extremism. Corporations want to appear politically engaged, not because they are planning to turn themselves into workers’ cooperatives or even put worker representatives on their boards, but because “woke” credentials drove their social media profile. Booksellers, she wrote, increasingly believe that to market their products they must find authors who “are willing to talk about themselves and their issues — a lot. They must find people who are willing to hashtag threads pertaining to hot takes du jour while testifying to their own experience. They must be seen to be woke.”
Publishers may be wrong. People who denounce or praise an author on Twitter may never buy a book from one year to the next. But they are not being stupid. An author’s follower count, the number of retweets and Facebook page likes, provides a commercial measure of sorts.
For broadcasters it may soon be the best measure they have. I looked at the summer television ratings recently, and was struck by how old the audience was becoming. Once the World Cup was over, the most popular programmes were traditional soap operas on ITV — Emmerdale and Coronation Street — and nostalgia on BBC1 — Poldark, Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. The young are as likely to see a broadcaster’s work on a social media clip as a television set. And the clips that go viral are the clips that provoke righteous outrage or gormless applause.
At least one BBC executive has talked about raising standards now that Dimbleby has gone. I am not sure it can be done. As so many Americans have said, the possibility of creating a common space where, whatever disagreement’s of opinion citizens have, they agree on commonly accepted facts, is vanishing. It won’t disappear entirely. But, inevitably, only a minority will want fact- checked information or opinions that do not merely confirm their prejudices. Mass democracy in the West was built on imperfect but generally honest mass media — the broadcasters in particular. They are shrinking now, and their remnants face enormous pressures to abandon basic standards. It will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see how democracy can cope with their loss.
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