The new web journalism allows you to discover what readers want by seeing how many hits an article attracts — and I wish it didn’t. I now know that if I want to impress my editor at the Observer — and what journalist does not want to impress his or her editor? — the easiest way to make my piece the most-read article on the Guardian and Observer‘s comment site is to launch an attack on the Tory press in general and the Daily Mail in particular. The more vitriolic I am, the more filled with hate my prose becomes, the more, in short, that I write like the very tabloid journalists I am condemning, the more the readers will like it.
To make sure my piece is a success, I will imply or state outright that the Mail brainwashes its readers, reinforcing their sexism, racism, homophobia and contempt for the poor. When you assign that level of malevolent power to a newspaper the only logical conclusion is that it should be censored or banned. For how can you fight prejudice while allowing the propaganda that creates it to continue unchecked?
Equally if I were a columnist on the Mail or the Telegraph, I would tear into the BBC. I would say that it was a nest of moneyed hypocrites, whose managers spouted leftist opinions, while pocketing the taxes of hard-working licence-fee payers. The phrases “Hampstead liberal”, “fashionable views”, “poll tax licence fee”, “dumbed-down” and, above all, “bias” would dot my piece like parmesan shavings on pasta. I’d be clear that the reason why so many in Britain did not agree with the views of Mail or Telegraph readers was not because their views were doltish or incoherent in any way — for that can never be admitted on the Right as much as the Left. Rather, large sections of the public failed to endorse traditional morality because their minds had been poisoned by relentless BBC propaganda. Again, the logic of my argument would lead to censorship. A corporation that is so corrupt and corrupting must be constrained or closed.
I once believed that no one read journalists who wrote about other journalists. I assumed the wider public was bored by the self-reference and self-aggrandisement. But the hit counters don’t lie. They show that readers love journalists condemning other journalists in the most violent terms, and will join in with the condemnations online.
You might say that I am missing the point. Liberals rage against the brutishness of the tabloids because the tabloids are indeed brutal. More than that, they were allegedly a home for criminal behaviour. Conservatives, meanwhile, denounce BBC bias for the same reason footballers denounce bent referees. The law requires the BBC to be impartial and it is scandalous that it rigs debates. In any case, you could go on to say arguments about journalism are a part of an open society. Today’s media culture wars are nothing more than the modern version of the pamphlet wars of the 18th century.
But there’s the rub. Britain’s culture wars are no longer a part of democratic debate but a threat to democratic debate. On the Left and Right, media criticism attacks the fundamental liberties of this country.
No conservative admits that actual examples of bias in BBC news are next to impossible to find. Indeed, all conservatives I know turn to the BBC when a major story breaks. BBC bias is mainly Radio 4 bias, and even there it is confined to its cultural chat shows and comedy. BBC managers could deal with it if they moved a handful of biased journalists to The Antiques Road Show, and reminded feature and comedy producers that the rules that cover news cover them too. Conservative writers must exaggerate, however. They must maintain the illusion that the disappointments and frustrations of their readers’ lives are the fault of a vast conspiracy.
Look at where the illusion leads. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps, has just said that he is inclined to cut the BBC’s licence fee in part because there was a “question of credibility” for the BBC over whether it applied “fairness” to its reporting of politics. In other words, a leading figure in government was telling the state-funded broadcaster that it would suffer if it didn’t go easy on the government. This is the language of a dictator or gangster — “show respect or you’ll suffer” — and will be heard as such at the BBC.
The assault on the tabloids, meanwhile, has brought Britain as close to state-sponsored supervision of newspapers and magazines as at any time in 300 years. The Conservatives look as if they are backing down. But if Labour or a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition forms the next government state surveillance will be back. The overwhelming majority in both parties are against free speech for the same reason that the overwhelming majority of conservatives are against the BBC: they believe that the masses are the dupes of the press barons. If they must break the old constraints that limited the state for centuries to allow their side to flourish, they will do it.
The Murdoch press gave them their opening by allegedly engaging in illegal surveillance and harassment on an epic scale, and the police have now arrested more than 100 journalists and newspaper sources. Everyone says that journalists should not be above the law, and, of course, contempt of court law constrains everyone from saying much else.But even in this instance I worry. The mass arrest of journalists ought to set off alarms in a democracy as much as in a banana republic. It would make a refreshing change if commentators on the Left began to ask whether the state was using the hacking scandal as a pretext to frighten off potential whistleblowers.
I used to think that Britain had an extremist intellectual culture — in its press and universities — but a moderate political culture. Continental countries, by contrast, had staid public debates but successful neo-fascist and neo-Communist political parties. I now know that the old distinction cannot hold, and an extremist culture will eventually produce extremist politics. For when broadcasters are threatened by the government, when journalists are arrested by the dozen and when the taboos protecting press freedom are broken by all parties, an extremist politics is what we have.