Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The power is ours if we choose to use it

I've been a blogger on and off now for about a decade or so. More seriously in the last few years. There was a time when I thought it was a path to journalism. I once dreamed that I would write for one of the big UK titles - but now I wouldn't write for any of them even if they paid me. Which they wouldn't. They're broke.

Ultimately I am driven by a desire to understand things and in the process inform my readers. Nothing is more gratifying than to have some tell you they learn from you and depend on you to keep up to speed. The media, though, no longer serves that function. If a story is breaking the last place I would consider looking for quality information is our so-called newspapers. 

Largely thanks to Twitter I have a vast array of genuine expertise at my fingertips and the ability to cross reference what I am told with background material found on Google. I no longer have to take anything on trust and I do not need unpaid interns and twenty-something hacks to interpret events for me. 

What the media now subjects us to is to is little more than reportage, trivia and reinforcement of existing prejudice. I wonder then what the point of having a newspaper column would be. If one is not seeking to inform or challenge ideas, why even bother?

More to the point, every newspaper has its own agenda - usually that of its owners or sponsors - and why would I wish to serve someone else's agenda when I can advance my own? This does of course mean a smaller audience but there again, what use is a large audience if you are not actually saying anything? If exposure requires narrative conformity then it seems a complete worthless endeavour. 

In fact our legacy media is now so robbed of its vitality and intellectual curiosity that at least half of my role as a blogger is to correct the misinformation put out there by newspapers - and if one were so inclined one could make it a full time occupation. 

Nowhere is this more true than a complex area like Brexit where we are speaking of complex interwoven physical and legal systems each possessing their own rich fabric of nomenclature. To understand it requires a degree of intellectual investment, and cannot be understood without verifying the basic facts - something far beyond the abilities of the modern day press.

We are, therefore, presented with several different versions of reality based on best guesses, where those in power choose to believe the source not with the best track record for accuracy, rather they choose the source with the most institutional prestige. This tends to mean that lazy establishment sources who take no responsibility for their errors who continue to misinform the national debate.

This is ultimately what is responsible for the poor decision making in Westminster. With members of parliament attacked from all sides and lobbied on all manner of issues, they can never hope to acquire any expertise of their own and so they frequently delegate the research function to a media which is no longer in the business of doing research.

Newsrooms all over the world, challenged by the internet, are making major cuts and so they prefer younger, cheaper journalists (if we can call them that) with no real world experience, straight out of a ranking university with no specific subject knowledge. They then spend their careers inside the Westminster bubble, never once rubbing shoulders with anyone working class, mixing only with political functionaries and out of touch academics - themselves living on borrowed institutional prestige, regardless of their own academic track record.

We therefore limp from crisis to crisis on the basis of guesswork from a narrow and insular culture whose actual knowledge is minimal - and decisions are taken on the basis of a Westminster consensus, guided by its own distorted groupthink.

The only real way to break this miserable cycle is for individuals to rob these redundant shells of their power by electing to inform themselves by other means. For as long as we, like our representatives, delegate our research to those incapable of carrying out that duty, we as a people will be incapable of adequately holding our politicians to account.

The internet has allowed us to interact directly with our rulers; to question and cross examine them. With tools such as Twitter we are able to tell which of them are engaged in genuine dialogue and which of them are simply in transmit mode only. The fact of the matter is that we do not need our media as an intermediary. We can do their job for ourselves better than they can.

The old paradigm - that of the twentieth century, was that our rulers spoke to us via the media. In the modern age we can cut out the middleman, consult genuine expertise and challenge the pretenders. The power is ours now. The game is no longer about reaching a mass audience. What matters is reaching the right audience. It is better to to invest a year in changing one person's mind than to tell a million people what they already think.

In respect of those seismic shifts on the balance of power, I no longer have that same ambition to be a legacy media hack. I would consider it a demotion. Traditionally it was always the role of the media to hold the establishment to account. That is no longer the case. The media is the establishment - ever interchangeable with the corporate funded think tanks of London. They are no longer capable of speaking truth to power because their primary purpose is to seek the favour and approval of power.

It is now a duty of citizenship that we the people fill the vacuum vacated by the press and take up that mantle as defenders of democracy, challenging not only our politics but also our press. We no longer have to tolerate being spoonfed with opinion - and the more we choose to ignore the press the further they retreat behind their pay-walls until they are speaking largely to themselves.

During the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, we set up The Leave Alliance. I was dissatisfied with the official campaign in London and I knew that we needed a presence on the blogosphere. We set out to recruit a small army of bloggers to push a set of pre-agreed messages. I was only partially successful. In the end we numbered no more than thirty activists, but each of us managed a readership of two thousand people at least, which in internet terms is not vast, but through the force multiplier of Twitter it would not be an exaggeration to say we reached nearly a million people.

The one thing we had on our side was persistence. We were online all day, every day, for the better part of a year. We rounded on politicians and journalists, challenging their assertions, questioning their motives, and pushed our alternative ideas. We can't say for sure if we changed anybody's mind but we planted concepts and ideas into the debate and we set the agenda.

The point here is that it only takes a small band of motivated and like-minded people to coordinate their activities to make a real impact on politics. With so many people believing they have no power, the pool of people actually engaged in politics is comparatively small. Consequently, it only takes a few, with a plan, and the right ideas to change the course of an entire continent. You can't necessarily take power, but you can be the kingmaker.

Traditionalists exalt the virtue of a free press, calling upon the noble arguments of yore in respect of The Fourth Estate. This is largely the product of classically educated people who pretty much are the establishment, who view the empowered masses as interlopers on their domain. But the truth of the matter is that we owe these people nothing. They are not entitled to be the voice of the nation and they speak for nobody but themselves - and often only to protect their monopoly over the debate. This is why they often denigrate independent media and blogs.

As it happens, the more they protest, the more they clamp down on "fake news", the more it tells us that they are afraid. The plebs have found their voice and they do not like it. It means they have to up their game to stay relevant - and they very much resent it.

We are at a turning point in media. When the internet unleashed the power of people, the legacy media sought to freeze it out. They do not like competition. With their influence they push for regulation of independent voices and a tightening of libel and defamation laws. They were comfortable with freedom of speech just so long as nobody else was speaking.

It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to defend freedom of speech - with our lives if necessary. We cannot expect our media to defend freedom of speech because our speech is a threat to their business model. The media has found its own comfort zone - a compromise that gives our politicians a free pass. That bargain with the devil is how democracy dies - unless we the people are willing to assert the power we already have. You have a voice. Now is the time to use it. 

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