Tuesday, 21 April 2020

You have the media you deserve


I haven't been monitoring the UK Corona soap opera very closely. Hypocrisy is running wild and it's too much to bear. I'm tired of the partisan bickering on Twitter and I want no part of it. I'm not going to get sucked into arguing the toss over manufactured issues and I don't want to know Robert Peston or Piers Morgan think let alone debate their opinions. The issue is far bigger than our festering tribal politics. 

My first thoughts when Corona hit were obviously related to trade and Brexit but then I started thinking about the global implications - chiefly what happens when Corona hits the slums of India and Pakistan and parts of Africa. We're not getting reliable data because they don't have sufficiently good governance to collect it and are probably not even testing, let alone treating in the worst affected areas. Moreover, I wouldn't place too much faith in the accuracy and honesty of data from these such places. We can see, though, that it is already causing tensions and political instability.

I have some confidence that the UK will eventually get a grip and we will somehow cope but the bigger picture, while we prat about, failing to control Covid-19, is that less developed countries which rely on us for trade are suffering from the economic downturn which we have precipitated. If Corona doesn't get them then famine and other diseases most likely will.
The world is facing widespread famine “of biblical proportions” because of the coronavirus pandemic, the chief of the UN’s food relief agency has warned, with a short time to act before hundreds of millions starve. More than 30 countries in the developing world could experience widespread famine, and in 10 of those countries there are already more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation, said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. “We are not talking about people going to bed hungry,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “We are talking about extreme conditions, emergency status – people literally marching to the brink of starvation. If we don’t get food to people, people will die.”  
This has dangerous implications for Europe. We have already had a decade of death in the Mediterranean and a massive upsurge in migration to Europe which has had a profound influence on central and eastern European politics. They are already at breaking point in terms of how much they can absorb while feeling utterly abandoned by the EU. If the migration crisis then becomes a magnitude larger than it is now, we can expect to see conflict on the EU's borders and possibly massacres in the Balkan transit camps.

Being that the problem will be inconvenient to Western European nations, there's every chance they will look the other way. If the EU doesn't have an adequate response then we could see the Visegrad group going rogue. It is potentially an existential issue for the EU that makes Brexit little more than an irritating distraction. 

Presently the Corona debate is divided into two camps. The do mores, and the do nothings. The do mores are failing to identify how we should proceed while the do nothings are not thinking beyond our own shores. Not controlling Corona is not an option. We need to resolve the epidemic in order to address the economic problems. The rest of the world doesn't have the luxury of waiting to get to grips with the problem - and if we don't then their problems become our problems.

I don't know exactly when the UK will get its act together, but an urgent global response is needed to tackle Coronavirus. It stands to throw everything into turmoil. I don't even rule out regional and possibly world war at this point. So much of the global order has been creaking and under sustained attack for years and it won't take much for stabilising mechanisms in geopolitics to fall over.

I am already of the view that there is no returning to normal. The normal we have enjoyed for so long is gone for good. What matters is what the world looks like when the music stops. This is why we need central government focussed on the international dimension rather than stepping in to do a poor job of the day to day management of the domestic crisis. This is why having toothless and de-skilled local government is so critically in need of correction.

If there is one thing I have noted, it's that if people barely took an interest in Brussels news, they take zero interest in British activities in Geneva. For all that we have seen a change of management in Downing Street, for our diplomatic corps, save for the occasional admin chores thrown up by Brexit, it's business as usual. It looks very much like it did prior to 2016.

This is as much to do with the fact that our own government take little interest in it either. It is used to conducting its international affairs through Brussels, but now we have withdrawn from that level of European politics we have seemingly abandoned any kind of global engagement, leaving our Geneva contingent to continue making bland and inconsequential statements which translate into no action at all.

At a time when there are calls to dismantle DfID and foreign aid, with populist calls to join Trump in defunding the WHO, we risk self-isolating at a time when global engagement has never been more urgent. The WHO rightly faces harsh criticism in how it has allowed itself to become an unwitting agent of China, but the UN system is still, by and large (though we don't realise it) the West's primary instrument of soft power.

Instead of realistic engagement, what we are seeing is a political and media class as insular as ever it was, continually distracted by trivia, unable to get serious. Here we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the Tories are trying to construct a trade treaty with the EU based on collapsing trade norms when we need every swinging dick turning their attention to fighting Corona at home and abroad.

At the best of times Brexit is no small undertaking, requiring a massive chunk of Whitehall's operating capability, yet we're now doing it when circumstances are changing faster than our ability to understand let alone respond. Not exactly ideal for negotiating a long term relationship - yet the media has all but dropped the issue while the government executes its Brexit agenda out of the spotlight.

The insularity of our political class though, is not an indictment on our politics. Our politics is only really a reflection of us. The right is presently complaining about the conduct of the media but they don't protest when it's spewing out Daily Express/Telegraph fiction. Ultimately the media's problems come from market saturation. There is plentiful demand for trivia and gossip and a universe of suppliers. There is plentiful lightweight toss for free so there is no real incentive to part with money for it. But then the media can't win. If they did produce quality content that required more than a nanosecond's attention span, that in any way conflicts with existing tribal narratives, few would actually read it.

For the last few years I have viewed politics through the prism of Twitter, where the more outlandishly crass the statement, the more popular it is. (See Tice, Richard/Grayling, AC). It has given rise to a new class of know-nothing punditry, preaching ideologies they have never read on or understood, reacting to events by way of trading insider gossip and prestige opinion. The rest of us are expected to follow it and debate it as passive consumers of politics where they set the agenda.

As such it is a top down relationship with politics in that nobody I know of has successfully set the agenda from outside the bubble. There were times when The Leave Alliance got close, but the Brexiteers circled the wagons.

If anything kills us in the masses or destroys everything we value, it won't be Corona. We'll be helpless passengers of events far beyond our control because we took no notice when it was necessary to do so. The Chinese navy could be moored off the coast of Kent and right wing Twitter would still be demanding Brexit talks stay on schedule while the left would be bleating about whatever nonsense takes their fancy on any given week. Disturbances to their regular political grazing habits are ignored unless there is a politically useful dimension. (See PPE)

Unless the public themselves are willing to step off, to stop being passive recipients of political narratives and engaging with celebrity journalist trivia, then our politics will remain in its comatose state. But instead of getting serious people prefer to remain in their comfort zone of whatever provides them with the validation they crave. Virtually nobody on Twitter is remotely interested in achieving something. They just don't know how to occupy their day otherwise without someone setting the agenda for them. It's actually worse than political disengagement and apathy because it sustains this corrosive dynamic.

As it happens, there is still worthy journalism out there. Quite a lot of relevant news comes from the Guardian World section which tweets under a different account (@guardianworld). It's the Guardian's equivalent of BBC World Service before it was cannibalised and downgraded. Bizarrely it doesn't get much in the way of retweets. It's the sort of news that's useful in constructing your own understanding, but that is not really what the market demands. They want neatly pre-packaged narratives they can deploy in their own petty little Twitter spats which accomplish nothing.

We saw this during the Brexit debate where chlorine washed chicken became a feature of the debate, sparking countless misconceived debates over whether it was safe to eat, completely missing the point that the issue is a flashpoint because it marks the differences between the regulatory philosophies of two trade giants, where pivoting our alignment has implications for our exports. Nobody in that argument was especially interested in trade (an inherently interesting subject). They were only interested as far as it was a useful scare to play petty partisan games. Four years on and it is still a recurrent theme where nothing whatsoever has been learned. There is no curiosity beyond the confines of a political bubble created for its inhabitants by the media.

Fast forward to today and we are having the same kind of  inane debates about PPE in hospitals, which is really a logistics problem if it is a problem at all, but in any case is a situation that varies between health authorities - but it serves as a stick to beat the government regardless of what it actually achieves, whether it's relevant or not.

The right has it that the media should be getting behind the leader where it should be "fostering an atmosphere of national unity", which is fair to a point, but what they actually mean by that is it's bad form to criticise the government at all. The real failure on the part of the media, though, through its own intellectual debasement, is a failure to identify and prioritise the government's errors with a view to correcting them - which it couldn't manage even on the remotest chance it was inclined to do so. But why would they when there is so little demand?

I'm all for media bashing pretty much all of the time, but if you published or retweeted articles saying "We have nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit" or other such baseless propaganda you don't get to lecture anyone about the state of journalism. You're guilty of the same incuriosity and lack of integrity. Right now the government's mistakes are destroying our economy and the fabric of our society yet media consumers carry on as though it were just another theme in their regular news entertainment and whatever passes for political participation. Say what you like about the media, but you do get the media (and the government) you deserve - and it's going to cost you everything.

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