For an Anglophile like me, whose best years were the ones where I lived in the apartment block maintained by a little old lady in Epsom in Surrey, the saddest part of the whole Brexit debacle is how much faith I’ve lost in the British (or indeed the Anglosphere’s) capacity to reach sound collective decisions.
Mind, I’m thousands of kilometres away from Britain and my attempts to go there (specifically to Scotland) runs into snags all the time which means I have to postpone. My understanding of what’s going on lacks on-the-ground fingerspitzengefühl, to use a very useful German word. Or as we say in Sweden, I lack fingertoppskänsla. I can’t go to a pub, listen to the conversation, and get a feel for what’s really going on. It’s the “last night’s football”-phenomena I miss, where people, nearly all people, talk about certain things.
Compensating for this lack by following British media to do the same has its own challenges. British media faces constraints from several sources. One, the only publishers who can afford to dig and splash are the tabloids, and British tabloids habitually lie either by omission or commission. Regional and local newspapers have been snapped up by global conglomerates that have cut local staff so that local journalism is under heavy strain. That strain leads to poor work conditions, and poor quality.
Broadcasters are very timid and don’t really invest in their own reporting. They follow print media to a large extent. Tony Ghallagher, editor of the The Sun, almost bragged about this in a long article in the New York Times in May this year. “It’s a fact that print newspapers, national newspapers, set the agenda here far more effectively than broadcasters, who are essentially a reactive medium,” he said.
“Who are essentially a reactive medium” is crucial in order to understand much of what the BBC and the other Broadcasters like Channel 4 and ITV are doing. While regulated by Ofcom, they essentially don’t try to create their own ecosystem for political discussion, and follow the print media, ie the tabloids. What ends up on Marr or on Sunday Politics has been decided by the editors of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror or The Times. Rarely do programs like Newsnight create waves like this that reverberate through a population, and create the “last night’s football” phenomena down at the local pub.
Without a functioning media, democracy becomes a lot harder because people will distrust information published through the media. We see that in surveys about British attitudes to media. You then get a fertile soil for sensationalist outlets like Breitbart or The Canary that wear their partisanship as a badge of pride. In those outlets, critiques of the sides they themselves ally with doesn’t happen. Such outlets become propaganda, not reporting. And that drives a wedge between democratic institutions and the voters.
With that wedge in place, politics becomes a contest between “my team that can do nothing wrong” and “your team that’s pure evil”. We see this best in Scotland at the moment where the SNP losses in the latest snap general election is now either “we won, despite BBC smears” versus “you lost because people reject nationalism”. A proper, honest holistic analysis would offer that the SNP became complacent and ran an as poor a campaign as everyone else and was punished for it, and also that the unionist side failed to break the polarisation of Scottish politics between yessers and unionists once again. There is no situation where losing 22 seats and half a million votes is not a loss, and there is no situation where failing to win more than one third of the seats is “winning the election”.
And so, looking at things from afar as I do, it seems like the polarisation deepens. The media is terrible, for varying reasons, and isn’t capable – or even willing – to properly inform voters. We get this strange hyperactive debate that is all smoke and no heat. That’s why I’m losing faith in the British ability to reach sound collective decisions, and that’s why the Anglophile inside me is weeping for the waste of it.