Mark Twain probably never said this. It’s another case of the Mass Memory Discrepancy Effect, or if you prefer, the Mandela Effect, or still again, cultural mnemohistory (this is my preferred term). It’s strangely ‘meta’ then that the saying describes its own social genesis as a saying. Knowledge spreads, with many loud and knowledgeable people to pass it on, but rarely does something like a real Truth arise to punch a hole in it (thanks to Alain Badiou for this robust way of putting it). Has this ever been more true than in our age of social media and instant mass communication?
In a world of clickbait and sensational headlines/hyperlinks truth barely stands a chance. Today’s UK general election has brought to the fore the dirtiest, brutal, creaturely ways of right-wing politicians and their supporters in the press. Just why are so many journalists right-wingers? How is it that they no longer bother to conceal this? When they are caught-out blatantly lying by social media ‘citizen journalism’ (i.e. people on the ground filming events with their mobile phones), and using the disingenuous arms-length deniability of being ‘only the messenger’ relying on ‘credible sources’ within the Conservative Party / Downing Street, how is it that they can maintain some standards of journalistic integrity and commitment to a notion of the truth? The answer, of course, can only be that they have jettisoned any notion of the truth. It’s not about the truth — it never was; it’s all about ‘the narrative’.
The narrative here means the establishment’s political line. This is a line in which fringe anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is magnified beyond comprehension whereas any scrutiny of Conservative Party racism is instantly shut down. It is a line in which nine years of savage cuts and austerity are eclipsed by eleventh hour commitments to throwing a few token crumbs of investment. It is a line in which ‘picaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘bank robber’, ‘letterbox’ Muslims and ‘bum-boys in tank tops’ are all terms, apparently, of buffoonish endearment for a fawning media to graciously pass on to us, and ours to uncomplainingly and dutifully digest, even as it shreds our social innards.
Particularly dirty in the run-up to this election have been the tactics of the Conservative party to mislead the public, such as that moment during the live televised leaders debate when GCHQ’s twitter account temporarily renamed itself and assumed the mantle of a fact-checking service. Or such as the decision of the Conservative Party to set up a spurious website entitled labourmanifesto.co.uk aimed at demolishing Labour’s political claims and demoralising its support base.
The problem of a media that it not just politically biased but actually given to propagating disinformation is one of, I am tempted to say, ontological incomprehensibility. We tend to spontaneously believe that the truth is out there somewhere, just waiting for a More Ethical Journalist to report it and quell any tide of misinformation that threatens to rise. Or that the More Ethical Journalist will report PM Johnson’s offensive remarks with some sense of offence, representing and mirroring for us our own rightly presupposed ethical response (just as the media regularly represents and mirrors for us our wrongly presupposed moral outrage at Mr. Corbyn’s dress sense, proposals of taxing the rich and investing in public services or history of negotiations in the Irish peace process). I think it is our basic modelling of the world of ‘the media’ that is wrong, and the very terminology we use which supports this misconception. It is not that we have simply the presence of the truth on one side and a more or less false representation on the other; the representation is itself present — it is material and consequential. As such the media do not simply mediate reality to us, but to a very large degree the media supplements reality, adding to it. And for this it must be held to account. A ‘free press’ can only mean, in the final analysis, a responsible press: a press that serves the public, not manipulates it. Freedom will mean free not to be owned by, or be beholden to, astronomically rich moguls and their pet ex-party political editors. And free to commit to a notion of veracity and a properly qualitative notion of truth.
It’s easy to blame all this on something bigger and historical, say, ‘the breakdown of the public sphere in the twentieth century’, or ‘neoliberalism’. These are no doubt true. But the public sphere as a concept is not without the problems of ontological incomprehensibility outlined above. Habermas defined the bourgeois public sphere thus:
In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler’s power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.
Originally, according to Habermas, the public sphere was simply coextensive with public authority, which prior to the eighteenth century meant that the state, its police and the ruling class represented themselves, and their power, in front of the people. Subsequent to the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth centuries and beyond, however, Habermas claims that various new discursive spaces open up, in which individuals and groups assemble and associate in the discussion of matters of mutual interest, reaching areas of common judgement. These spaces, however, are thoroughly bourgeois: in Britain it was the coffee house where readers of the Tatler and the Spectator would discuss articles by Addison and the Earl of Shaftesbury on matters of urbanity, taste and style; the German equivalent was the Tischgesellschaft, the table society. The public sphere on Habermas’s 1962 account began in such discursive spaces, in which civil and mannered debate between an all-male reading audience, adhering to certain agreed criteria of social politesse, took place over a then-faddish conspicuous consumption of warm beverages. Naturally enough, this account of the origins of the public sphere have been heavily criticised by more recent scholarship.
Nonetheless, the structural transformation that Habermas was trying to get at and describe is something that must have historically happened. The way in which state, civil society and the public sphere were interconnected by a particular political economy has to have changed as that political economy itself went through such momentous changes as the death of feudalism and its ancien régime. The existence of a new form of Öffentlichkeit after the eighteenth century, in which power becomes accountable to public discourse and inquiry, is impossible to doubt.
What is missing in this picture are later developments regarding the massive concentrations and entrenchments of power and wealth in the hands of the publishing corporations so that their role is no longer merely that of enabling or mediating public discourse but of being the primary, and sometimes seemingly the only, participant in it. This is all the more so when we now have a BBC that simply repeats the headlines of the Sunday newspapers to us rather than doing its own critical and investigative journalism. The BBC is doubly culpable as its public service remit requires of it precisely this critical edge. Like all public institutions the BBC has always been precariously balanced between being a state service and a public service. Frequently it is just when it touts itself as the latter that it is most beholden to the former, and this has done nothing but worsen under the effects of neoliberalism; losing its mandate to inform and educate in favour of a general injunction to provide and disseminate competitiveness and entrepreneurship, its flagships and markers of cultural note are no longer intellectual, progressive or pedagogical in any sense but essentially programmes aimed at entrenching capitalist (and some would even argue neo-feudal) labour relations such as resupine gratitude towards wealthy patronage, or talent-contest adoration of the judgement of wealthy celebrity judges of taste and presentation. The scathing political comedy, satire and parody of its former glory years has passed. Many would argue that the BBC’s tendency during the latter part of the twentieth century was to produce left-leaning comedy and progressive cultural values (especially in its output aimed at younger audiences) in order to offset its stuffy right wing news bias. Today, that tendency seems to have evaporated and the disconnect between cultural values and political values with it: we have today only a shrugging disinterest as the BBC ‘relays’ both the right-wing cultural values and the right-wing political values of a deeply politically entrenched print media empire.
The arguments that ‘the public sphere has collapsed’ and ‘there is a democratic deficit’ or ‘a crisis of representation’ are not just explanatory platitudes, but are statements with real analytic grasp, rooted in actual material conditions. We should take them far more seriously. The question then is, can social media evolve into a better public sphere, and more pressingly, can it pass into public ownership?
- Habermas 1962 [1989 translation]:xi
- Habermas, J., 1989, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.