The right-wing papers have trashed the country and they mean to go on doing so whoever wins the next election. We must stop them, writes Brian Cathcart
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Why is the United Kingdom in a mess? Few people dispute now that it is – even Conservatives, who have been in charge for 13 years. Everywhere you look it’s a mess, from the health service to the police, from the welfare system to international trade, from agriculture and fisheries to the courts, and on and on. Why?
Put the same question another way: are the British generally incompetent, slow-witted, lazy, bigoted and selfish? Of course, they’re not, but take a look at the people who represent them, turn on BBC’s Question Time, trawl social media or ask many foreign observers: it would be easy to conclude that they must be.
Something is wrong with this country and it is something very big.
Normally we would pin the responsibility on economic downturn: that was the reason a U.S. election strategist in 1992 instructed party campaigners to remember that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.
Certainly, the UK economy is a disaster, with Brexit at its heart. The evidence is beyond dispute. But those are symptoms and not the root cause of the country’s woes. After all, something caused Brexit, just as, for example, something is causing a population capable of immense humanity to accept the idea of dumping desperate refugees in the middle of Africa.
Our problem is the press. That’s not to say they made the mess on their own because they obviously had help, but fundamentally, indeed overwhelmingly, it's down to them.
In some ways it should be obvious: look at those furious, hate-filled headlines every day; over time they were bound to have a significant effect on attitudes and perceptions. In other ways, perhaps it is not obvious: after all, who buys a paper these days, and isn’t television a more powerful medium?
But it is the corporate national press, whose messages pervade and poison all other media, that has normalised the abnormal in the UK, that has made what is wrong appear right, that has stoked contempt and hatred for the weak and the poor, that has facilitated and concealed corruption, that has engineered applause for the brutal and the stupid and that has corroded what was honest and decent.
And in making the mess the press has also made itself more powerful than it has ever been before – so powerful, indeed, that it will take an act of great courage by the whole country to call it to account.
There is a history to this, both long-term and recent. For well over a century the British press, mainly because it is centralised and large in scale, has enjoyed a political influence not matched elsewhere. As long ago as 1931 Stanley Baldwin said of the Mail and the Express: ‘What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’
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Papers came to be above the law. Through the 1990s and the 2000s they bribed, they hacked, they intruded, they committed contempt, they victimised and they blackmailed, while at the same time reinforcing their own impunity behind a shield they called ‘freedom of the press’. To challenge the bullying was to gag the press; to prosecute a journalist for breaking the law was to overturn 300 years of hard-won press freedom.
The past decade, however, has seen a historic change of gear, because that ‘power without responsibility’ which they sought for so long has actually landed in their lap. How and when the change began and how it proceeded are matters for another day: suffice it to say that an unprecedented degree of mutual dependence came into existence between the press industry and the Conservative Party.
Weak Tory leaders (Cameron, May) threw themselves on the mercy of proprietors and editors, who in turn needed corrupt government assistance to protect them from the consequences of their wrongdoing (independent regulation, the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry) and to prop up their business model (tax breaks, leverage with Big Tech, Covid bungs).
It helped that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove came direct from Fleet Street, but that too was a symptom, because what was at work was less a partnership than a hive mind, uniting government with leading newspapers – the Mail, the Times, the Sun, the Telegraph. The mutual backscratching was not a trade-off but an instinct: no one needed to consult anyone because everyone knew what was in the common interest.
Who makes the policies, who thinks up the crazy, repellent ideas? That doesn’t matter much. It may be ministers or rightwing think tanks or it may be editors, proprietors or columnists. Most important is who sells them, and that is the rightwing papers, who serve them up to the public with wild enthusiasm. Very rarely do they challenge, as a free press is supposed to do. And the critics, without fail, are ignored, derided or monstered.
That’s how we got Brexit. That's how we got May, and Johnson, and Truss, and Sunak. That is how a police service damned as racist, homophobic and misogynist got unprecedented powers to interfere in our lives. That’s how the NHS for which the nation clapped was hollowed out. That is how nationwide asset stripping can be passed off as ‘levelling up’.
These people are the masters of dishonesty, the wizards of fakery. And we should not be surprised. The Mail, after all, is dominated by the ranting, self-righteous bigot Paul Dacre, who (for example) has spent 25 years misrepresenting his own role the Stephen Lawrence affair. The Sun and the Times are owned by Rupert Murdoch, who presided over (for example) Hillsborough, industrial-scale hacking and most recently the attempt by Fox TV to sabotage a US presidential election.
Am I saying these people are manipulating you? Yes, I am. They seek to promote hatred and they succeed. They seek to distract and they succeed. They make lies truth and they make truth lies.
To take one small but very conspicuous example: what, exactly, have Harry and Meghan done that justifies the tsunami of hostile coverage their every action precipitates? How can anybody imagine they justify a single headline at a time when working nurses are having to use food banks? Harry is fifth in line to the throne, for goodness sake; he will never be king.
Murdoch, Dacre, Rothermere, the Barclay family – they are now accustomed to playing this country like a piano and having the full butler service of an obliging government on the side. They are too rich to care about Britain; they are happy to trash its institutions, its traditions and its interests.
By now you are saying to yourself, OK but aren’t they about to come a cropper? Isn’t the message of the opinion polls and of the recent local elections that the Conservatives have no hope of surviving the election due next year? Doesn’t that solve the press problem?
If only. Even if the Conservatives are defeated, the press is not. Their power might be reduced under a Labour government or a Labour-led coalition, but unless someone takes a strong stand against them it will not be by much. And right now there is no sign of anyone taking that stand.
You can already see their power at work in the positions taken, or rather not taken, by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. It has not promised rapprochement with the EU, still less a return to the Single Market. It has not promised to repeal arbitrary police powers. It has not promised to treat refugees as refugees. It has not promised proportional representation.
Why not? Put it this way, the kindest thing we could say about the Labour leadership is that they would fundamentally like to do these things because they would obviously be right and would benefit the whole country, but they feel they can’t because of the power of the press. In other words, they are afraid.
That fear is not an accident. The newspapers have put Labour in that position because they want it there. The consequence is that they – the papers – are effectively now writing the Labour Manifesto. So even if the Conservatives lose next year, the Mail, Sun and Telegraph will continue to reign.
This, in turn, means that, while Labour in government might conceivably reduce the mess and mitigate the damage, it will bring no fundamental change to the United Kingdom.
There is only one way this country can really change, and that is by breaking the power of the right-wing press. Starmer is clearly not a leader to choose that on his own; he needs to be convinced that the country is up for this and that most people want it.
So tell him, in any way you can. Don’t let the Labour strategists get away with their old line that the press is ‘not a doorstep issue’. Make it one. Tell your local councillor. Tell your MP. Tell any Labour member you know. Shout it from the rooftops.
Fundamental media reform is not a pipe dream. It is not far-fetched. A small number of practical measures can produce big changes, and they are not changes that will strangle press freedom but ones that greatly enhance the ability of honest journalists to do their job.
Much more than that, it can unlock rational debate and evidence-based policy-making across the whole field of government, freeing politicians of all parties from the tyranny of hysterical headlines.
So tell Starmer to back media reform. It is the only way to get the country out of the mess.
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