Sunday, September 10, 2006

Our own worst enemies

As I tend to do when I have a bee in my bonnet (what a wonderfully English phrase – I wonder what the equivalents are in other cultures), I go out into the garden and do some physical work, allowing the mind to mull over the problem while the body is occupied – which partly explains the light blogging yesterday.

The encroaching autumn - or "fall" as our American cousins so economically put it – is an exceptionally good time for this activity as the overgrowth of the summer requires cutting back, allowing an exercise in the savagery of cutting, slashing and burning that is some – albeit poor – substitute for the real thing.

If one cannot indulge in the real thing, the blog is also something of a substitute, where one can indulge in intellectual savagery which, if nothing else, will offend even more of our readers than I managed so far to do on our own forum.

While some of the comments there have provoked my ire, the underlying cause of my savagery is the growing realisation that the core activity of this blog – and the cause to which I have devoted three decades of my life – is a complete waste of time and effort, an utter, dismal and unremitting failure.

That cause, of course, it euroscepticism – the handy if somewhat inaccurate tag applied to the movement in Britain devoted to our withdrawal from the European Union. We may, on occasions , divert into other territories but it was in pursuit of this aim that we established this blog, and that remains our main aim.

It would be false modesty – which, in itself is a form of vanity - to assert that its two authors, myself and Dr Helen Szamuely, are anything other than acknowledged and widely published experts on the European Union (and other things besides). It perhaps says something for the British eurosceptic community, therefore, that the readership of our freely given input is largely from the United States, consistently above 65 percent and sometimes rising to just short of 90 percent.

Then, while it is fair to say that blogging has taken off more in the United States, it is also true to say that there is a malign characteristic of my fellow Brits. This determines that they should revel in their ignorance and prejudices, to the extent that many of those who should know better actually parade their ignorance of "blogs" and wear as a badge of distinction the fact that they never read them.

We can only look upon the efforts of the likes of Little Green Footballs and Michelle Malkin – and their huge hit rates - with admiration and awe, not only for the quality and vibrancy of their work, but also for the willingness of their audiences to engage and take part in that unique experiment in democracy which is the "blogosphere".

It is there that lies the proximate cause of my ire, tangentially illustrated by the admirable USS Neverdock – one of the blogs which I never fail to read every day. There, recorded in a series of linked posts is an account of how the so-called "right-wing blogs" are taking on the predominantly left-wing national media, and running them ragged, to the extent that, on many issues, the political agenda is being set not by the MSM but by an increasingly influential group of blogs.

There is perhaps the reason why the US blogs have made such an impact and we have so significantly failed. While they do engage in the hurly-burly of political comment, they have made their primary target the media. In the UK, most are either trying to emulate the media or go into competition with it or both. For sure, there are a few, like the indefatigable Biased BBC but, for all its worthy attention to the dire inadequacies of our state-funded broadcasting organisation, it – and the few like it - remain niche blogs, largely ignored by the mainstream.

There again, it may not be the bloggers themselves who are entirely at fault but their own audiences. All of us (deny it if you dare) live and die by our hit counters and – ever attuned to what garners the hits – the temptation to pander to the audience is extremely powerful. And. so far, the (British) audience seems to respond most favourably to the sort of political trivia and banal comment that we get in the MSM itself.

Here, while so many of us profess to being disgusted, offended or irritated – or whatever – by the media, huge numbers of us still watch, listen and read its output. Despite manifest declamations, therefore, the MSM is still hugely respected and powerful... and it still sets the political agenda.

That, in itself, raises an interesting issue. The eurosceptic community is particularly voluble about the failings of the MSM – mainly about its unwillingness to publish its output, or to address the European Union issue seriously. But, rather than take it on, many campaigners pathetically fawn at the table, begging for crumbs – spending much of their time and energies in pathetically seeking attention. And when, from the lofty height, the media occasionally throws them a bone, the response is paroxysms of delight and paeans of praise for whomsoever is the careless donor.

At the heart of this perhaps lies another malign characteristic of my countrymen. For all our proclaimed love of freedom and independence, sixty years of the welfare state, sub-standard state education and official nannying has imbued the population with a craven conformity and introspection that bodes ill for the future.

Thus do you find eurosceptics arguing that if we did not spend the £6 billion of so on our membership of the European Union, we could spend more on doctors, nurses, more hospitals, more policemen… Never once have I seen expressed in any eurosceptic tract the idea that the money could be spent on defence, to magnify our efforts in the "war on terror", alongside our ally, the United States of America. The decades past have atrophied their brains and sapped their spirit.

In fact, an ill-concealed relative in the closet of many a eurosceptic – driven more by anti-europeanism than any crusading zeal for freedom and independence – is a nascent anti-americanism. The phrase "little Englander" in this context is cruelly apt.

So, where does that take us?

Basically, we as a nation – and the eurosceptic community in particular – have a choice. We can continue as we are, bleating from the sidelines in the hope that the media will somehow take pity on us and espouse our cause, thereby condemning ourselves to the continued failure to which we have become accustomed. Or we can do something positive. And, looking at it in the round, that means redirecting our fire.

Of this I have written before but to understand what we need to do, we need to understand more fully the relationships between power, politicians and the media.

It has to be said in this context that huge power does rest with that small band of politicians within the inner circle of government but, as we have observed before, in a democracy – in theory – the ultimate power rests with the people. It doesn't, of course, and that is where the media comes in.

Over the last couple of centuries – in fact since the late eighteenth century – first the newspapers and then the broadcast media have taken on the role of articulating public opinion - ursurping the role of the coffee houses (see here also). As their circulations grew, the newspapers had some claim to that role. Then the politicians, unable to communicate directly with their expanding constituencies, began to rely on the media as the sounding board, keeping them in touch with what the public thought.

With remarkable speed, the media learnt that they could use this phenomenon. Even the most autocratic of governments – collectively - crave popular approval while politicians, both mighty and low, yearn for public attention. Thus by giving or withholding approval and by deciding who had access to their pages and airwaves, the media found it could exercise considerable control over the politicians and, through them, the government.

Even today, when the newspapers, working as a pack with the other media, all combine on one issue, they are very powerful. They can make or break ministers and, when governments (or prime ministers) are weak, they can bring them down.

Over the years, the media have acquired a monopoly position, purporting to represent public opinion, a situation which worked after a fashion for as long as – at least on the big issues – it actually did.

But the situation is increasingly developing where it does not. I may, for instance, buy The Daily Telegraph but that does not mean I agree with what is says. In fact, most times these days I wholeheartedly disagree with it. Nevertheless, my purchase and the hundreds of thousands of others contibute to the newspaper's power base, which gives it its unique grip over government. Equally, I may listen to BBC Radio or watch its television news, but I do not agree with its agenda, or much of what it reports. Nevertheless, the BBC holds great sway in the corridors of power because of the carefully cultivated myth that it too represents the people.

Thus, we effectively have a closed loop. The politicians believe that the media represent the public – and pay attention to it – while the media maintain the increasingly threadbare myth it is representative. Each part then relies on that myth to promote their own agendas. The media is thus the key player and the public does not get a look in.

This is where the bloggers come in. In effect, we are the modern equivalent of the coffee houses. Collectively, we can claw back power from the media and challenge that assumption that it represents the public. That is not to say that we wish to replace it as the public's representatives. We need not do that - we are the public. Thus, our role is to articulate that simple truth, summed up in the slogan coined by the anti-war demonstrators: "not in my name". When the media speaks, it does not represent me, it does not represent us – it speaks only for itself.

We can do this in manifold ways. Firstly, we can disagree with the media, challenge it publicly and make our disagreements known – known to the public of which we are part, and to the politicians who would otherwise believe that the media was speaking for us.

Secondly, we can challenge the veracity and accuracy of the media output, in so doing challenging its authority as the monopolistic purveyor of information and opinion. We can make it known that the MSM is but one source, not necessarily the best and certainly not one which can be relied upon.

Thirdly, we can provide alternative views and analyses, both on our own account and through our forums and comments sections, where our readers have their chance to air their opinions. We can also give a platform to politicians, thinkers and others, airing ideas and opinions that the MSM chooses to exclude – thereby again challenging its monopoly.

Fourthly, we ourselves can perform some of the basic functions of the media – providing news and analysis. Even with mainstream stories we can often do it faster and better and certainly – in respect of analysis – there are more experts out in the blogosphere than there are accessible to the media.

But we can also fill the gaps – which was the original aim of EU Referendum – writing up the stories which the MSM chooses not to follow. By so doing, we challenge the power of the media by not accepting its right to set the agenda. We write up and discuss the issues we think are important – not just those that the media sees fit to tell us about.

All this, inevitably, requires that there should be a wide range of blogs, loosely working to the same overall agenda, partaking in that informal alliance which has worked so successfully in the United States under the generic name of the "blogosphere". Over the next few weeks, I will be talking to fellow bloggers with the idea of forming what might be called a "freedom network".

But, whether such an idea works depends most of all on our readers. If they read and promote the blogs, then through our readership numbers we will have the credibility to take on the media. Without those numbers, we are but small voices chirping in the wilderness.

Despite the MSM's attempt to ridicule us and denigrate our efforts, we know there are some good writers out there in the blogosphere. And, as I remarked earlier, both Helen and I are published authors – our news sense is such that many a story we have written has later appeared in the media and, when it suits them, the MSM are not at all adverse to stealing our material. Thus, we know that the quality of our output - and others' - is up to the mark.

To conclude this long essay, I refer to one of our forum members who wrote this afternoon that: "sometimes I wonder if people value liberty, or merely the freedom to shop on Sundays", commenting on the low grade of debate on the European Union.

And to my question in an earlier post, entitled: "Who holds the media to account?", another of our members wrote:

Here we arrive at the final level of responsibility: the general public. It appears the public are sufficiently gullible and lazy that they accept both incompetent officials and a superficial and incompetent media. In a democracy, it is the people who perpetuate mediocrity with their votes, money and attention. Just as the "average hack is idle", so is his readership, the voting consumer citizens.
That need not be the case. We have seen the US model and it appears to work. I know of no other plan on the table. Agree or disagree, it's over to you the reader.

In the final analysis, as my favourite saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport. You can have idleness or you can have democracy – you cannot have both. And if we choose the former, we are our own worst enemies.


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