Media Myopia

Simplistic and divisive, the media response to the riots was utterly predictable

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Blaming "nihilistic gangster culture"; The historian David Starkey

After the summer riots, I spent a day in my local courthouse watching the magistrate refuse almost every request for bail. The young men the police brought up from the cells might have been an unrepresentative sample of the thousands arrested. I cannot be sure. But as I looked at them penned in the dock, I could say one thing with certainty: they did not fit into any of the hand-me-down explanations for the violence rival newspapers and pundits offered the public.

Leftish columnists blamed the violence on inner-city poverty and “the cuts”. The more fanciful among them held that the oppressed urban masses had risen up against a corrupt society that bailed out failed bankers and allowed MPs to line their pockets. You can say in their favour that the riots began in the ghettos of Tottenham. But that is as much as you can say. Not one reporter or police officer heard the looters chant a political slogan, and most of “the cuts” have not happened yet. In my court, the defendants were from prosperous St John’s Wood. That did not mean that they were necessarily prosperous themselves. Rich and poor live side by side even in the most expensive parts of London. But one of the suspected rioters was about to go to university and did not look like a working-class hero. Another was at university studying for a law degree, no less. Funnily enough, he was the only defendant the magistrate freed on bail. Right-wing columnists insisted that the breakdown of law and order was the result of family breakdown: the grim consequence of the generation of the 1960s undermining the family and allowing single mothers to bring up children at public expense. I met one distraught father, who clearly was not absent from his son’s life but had come to court to offer support. The lawyer for another pleaded that his client also had strong family values and looked after his mother and siblings.

Meanwhile David Starkey, supposedly one of our greatest historians, decided that it was all the fault of the blacks. Not one of the defendants in front of me was black. But Starkey already had an answer to such footling objections. “The whites have become black”, and caught from the children of immigrants “a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture”. In Starkey’s circular reasoning, even when rioters were not black, the blacks were to blame.It must be nice to be the professor and live with a mind untroubled by evidence.

The riots shocked no established commentator into changing his or her mind. You could predict the responses of left-wing and right-wing newspapers before you read them. As we have seen with so many other sudden events, no change, however violent, can shake the cocksure out of their conditioned reflexes. Whatever coin you put into the machine, the response is always the same.

I thought as I left the court that a young and unscrupulous journalist, able to knock out 1,000 words on time and to length, needed to make just one choice before beginning a career as a columnist. If he wanted to work on a right-wing paper, he would develop an aversion to immigrants, trade unions, political correctness, theories of global warming and all public sector workers except members of the armed forces. He would defend free enterprise but still support the bailout of bankers at public expense and hope no one noticed the contradiction. If he wanted a career on a left-wing title, he would develop an aversion to all businessmen except pop stars, Jews (or “Zionists” as he would soon learn to call them), the police, and all members of the upper and upper-middle class apart from the great and the good of the public sector. He would say that he opposed homophobia, racism and misogyny but still make excuses for radical Islam and hope that no one noticed the contradiction.

Not all columnists fit into the above categories, but these are the dominant modes of expression as much because of the choices of broadcasters as the predilections of newspaper editors and proprietors. By law, broadcasters are required to present balanced programmes. By necessity they need entertainers who can stop the small audience for current affairs reaching for the remote control.

To find the performers who match their needs, they engage in a winnowing process. Viewers should always remember that although broadcast debates give the appearance of spontaneity, they are manufactured events. Before you go on, a researcher cross-questions you on everything you are likely to say. “Would you be prepared to argue…” researchers begin. They then present the simplest version of an argument they can think of and reduce it to absurdity.

You had better ignore the absurdity and say at once that, yes, absolutely, and of course, you agree with everything they say. If you do not, they put the phone down and look for someone else.

If a right-winger fails to play to stereotype by saying he believes the evidence for global warming is overwhelming or the left-winger says she has her doubts about the euro, they unbalance the debate and — more importantly — confuse the viewers and listeners. Pundits’ personalities need to be simple and predictable to hold their attention. Complexity or deviation from the roles assigned by central casting upsets the audience as much as the broadcasters.

The result is a media that cannot handle large sections of political opinion. Many Labour supporters are against immigration and the European Union but for the welfare state and the redistribution of wealth. They are unrepresented in both print and television. Only The Times provides a space for Cameron-style compassionate Conservatives, who believe in fiscal conservatism and increasing the foreign aid budget. 

As for politics itself, British commentary has no way of dealing with the cross-party alliances that, for instance, support early and expensive intervention in the lives of deprived children but also support cutting the overall costs of welfare. Unlike politicians, when commentators talk about welfare they must either say that benefits can only rise (if they’re left-wing) or that they are incitements to idleness and immorality that must be slashed (if they’re right-wing). What percentages of the population share the caricatures of left- and right-wing politics the media present is hard to say. My guess is that they have always been far smaller than editors imagined and are smaller still now. 

The recession has destroyed old certainties. Gordon Brown’s idea that you could let the financial markets rip and then use the proceeds to fund Fabian projects crashed with the banks. But so too did the belief of economic liberals that markets worked best when left alone. The pressure of events is changing minds and sending previously fixed ideas into flux. Everywhere, that is, except in the media.