Monday, 26 May 2014

The Great Social Experiment 2010-2014

So, the results are in on the BBC's great social experiment:

"Let's take a toxic fool and plaster him all over our output and see what happens. We must present him both explicitly and implicitly as THE alternative to the political norm."

Imagine if Caroline Lucas had been on Question Time 15 times since 2010, with other leading Greens featuring another 6 times or so. This then being mirrored on Any Questions. Imagine if leading news programmes on TV and Radio had repeatedly interviewed Greens and presented them as THE alternative to the mainstream (this does not even happen automatically when the news item in question is an environmental issue!). Imagine, in addition, that whenever representatives from the three 'main' parties were interviewed they were pushed and pushed to respond explicitly to the Green challenge, as if this were the pressing challenge to them…

Thanks BBC.

Just to make sure, you also did much to normalise crackpot climate change denier views and make them appear respectable. You also sought to treat xenophobia and racism as charming eccentricities.

On behalf of future generations, thanks again BBC.

The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror that never made it to screen because it was deemed too unfunny: TV execs make a wager that they can take a Dulwich College educated former commodity broker and Tory, known since his school days for unpleasant xenophobic and extreme libertarian views and present him as an anti-establishment man of the people, speaking for the ordinary men and women up and down the country.

This happened.

I actually understate the issue here. The problem, the bias, was not just based on the promotion of Farage, UKIP and their agenda, it involved simultaneously demoting Caroline Lucas (the Green Party’s Westminster MP – yes, they already have an MP), the Greens and their agenda. (See again this analysis from November 2013)

So the imaginary world I’d like to conjure-up is not one where the Greens get the sort of coverage UKIP and Farage have enjoyed over the past 4 years, but one where the Greens get that coverage and where UKIP are effectively ignored and lumped in with “Others”: no name, no logo, no party colour.

But even this would not be enough. For when not talking to and about UKIP and their policies one often finds their agenda being pushed indirectly by the same media outlets. This creates the fertile soil in which UKIP, well-tended, might flourish.

Contrast this to the Greens. In a world where facts (as opposed to corporate interests and extremist libertarian dogma) frame political debate the Greens would by rights flourish. Their agenda of pursuing a politics which sees the relationship between human flourishing and the health of the ecosystems of which we humans are a part is difficult to simply dismiss as irrelevant; difficult that is to say, if you are an electorate clear on some basic facts. But our media has played a significant, sometimes leading role, in ensuring that we are anything but clear on the facts. Here’s a couple of examples.

 

1: Human-Induced Climate Change and Wider Environmental Issues

Our media misrepresent human-induced climate change, to give the impression there is a debate or that it is in doubt.

One might also add here the related depiction of environmental concerns as simply optional, ideologically-founded, concerns, as if our ecosystems are some kind of optional extra or are ideological constructs: Hey, sure, it’s nice that our planet has a biosphere, but c’mon, there are other pleasures to be enjoyed.

There really is no debate, such as it is suggested that there is by our media.

Debate here has been manufactured. Moreover, that it has been so is well-documented. The threat posed by human-induced climate change has been spun away by politically and financially motivated “sceptics” in purpose-created think tanks and PR companies, by corporate lobbyists and by right-leaning governments. On the whole, the media have not analysed and criticised, something they might have easily done by following the money and identifying the think tank backers (or simply reading the books where this has already been done). Instead, in the main, our media amplify and broadcast the spin. There is a wealth of easily accessed data which serves to unequivocally unmask the “sceptics” and deniers and undermine their arguments. Here is a small sample: three books: Merchants of Doubt, Climate Cover-up and Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Or these two websites: http://www.realclimate.org/ and http://www.skepticalscience.com/. . The media have by and large forgone the opportunity to investigate and expose the “sceptics”, despite the work having already been done for them; they have instead amplified and broadcast the sceptic message.

Ask yourself, does this help legitimise a party that has among its ranks many people who through sheer ignorance, financial self-interest or ideological commitment to extremist libertarian views, vocally deny what the world’s climate scientists are telling them?

And what do you think the media’s role here does for a party that is obviously strongly associated with environmental issues, of which human-induced climate change is the most prominent?

2: The Death of Orthodox Economics and the marginalisation of Heterodox Economics

Our media marginalise or simply ignore economic theories which challenge the orthodox fetishisation of GDP-measured economic growth. For, on its own terms, classical free market economics has failed as a research programme. Yet that research programme’s articles of faith still frame our media’s discussion of the economy, such that this is how success and failure are measured.

Over the past couple of decades, I have seen numerous magazine-like features on programmes like Newsnight that have reported on the growth of influence, and the better explanatory power of heterodox economics. In these features, which usually contain a film and then a follow-up discussion in the studio, the case has been clearly made for the poverty of conventional, orthodox economics--and the commitment to chasing perpetual GDP growth--and the strong arguments made for heterodox approaches of one type or another. I’d watch these and feel somewhat upbeat. Finally, a breakthrough! Some mainstream exposure for the overwhelming evidence for the failure, in its own terms, of orthodox, classical economics.

This would not last long.

I would then turn on to watch the same programme the following night to see it back in more familiar current affairs mode and the discussion proceeds as if the only economic game in town is orthodox economics and growthism. Whether the discussion be about the 2008 financial crisis, Climate Change, our membership of the EU, or about which of Britain's political parties are best equipped to govern, the frame in which such discussion would take place is always one where GDP-measured economic growth is the measure of success or failure. I'd find my self shouting at the television, firing off text messages to friends and posting Facebook status updates in frustration. Why, having paid lip-service to the the heterodox approaches the previous night, were they now proceeding to discuss related matters as if such heterodox approaches did not even exist, much less had crucially important things to say to us?

Of course, I had made a basic error, akin to someone assuming, as the 1970s commenced, that there was no more racism because Sidney Poitier had won an Oscar and Muhammad Ali was a global superstar.

Heterodox economics, such as Green economics, is ghettoised. In a time when even Keynesians can be widely depicted as eccentric figures, it is perhaps unsurprising that non-mainstream, heterodox economists, are ignored completely, aside from the odd magazine feature here and there: hey, look at these exotic creatures. Now, back to civilisation.

The problem the Greens have is that not only are they marginalised but so are the issues central to their political vision. Cool rational appraisal should demonstrate to one that the marginalisation of the threat posed by climate change and the marginalisation of heterodox economics, to name just two issues, can only appear plausible through media collusion with a certain set of interests. These interests coincide with the interests of UKIP. They don’t coincide with the material interests of ordinary people.

Green party candidates will continue to find it all-but impossible to break through while this marginalisation, this bias, goes unchallenged. It is testament to their hard work that they have had the success they’ve had.

But, if you want real political change, then we need to fight to change the culture. This cannot be done by simply fighting election campaigns, however hard candidates and their supporters work, because without a change in the wider culture, those candidates, whether Greens, or Socialists, or Green Socialists, are always beginning from a position of disadvantage. They have to repeatedly start from scratch, and against the media message, in arguing that their proposals though radical are plausible and practicable. We need to fight to bring the marginalised in from the margins. This political battle, that needs to be won, cannot be won purely in election campaigns by candidates and activists. They need us to provide the framework that will make their message resonate.

 

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