When the offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo were gruesomely attacked in January 2015, the world was shocked, and rightly so. The attack focused on the press, one of the most sacred institutions of our democracies. The terrorists also challenged something that most of us deeply treasure, maybe without realising it, namely freedom of opinion. In true Voltairian style, I may not agree with you but I will give my life to let you express your opinion. Hands up, those who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the day of the attack. Quite a few, I suspect. The satirical journal’s subscribers numbered less than 10.000, and the journal sold under 50.000 copies per week. But the problem is not whether you read the publication or not. It’s that the publication exists, and has the right to do so. The media, in particular the written media, is rather like rain in our Northern climates. We always complain about it, but are jolly glad we have it. The national press forms an essential part of any functional democracy, and must remain free, independent and, above all, responsible. Just as a coercive government can intimidate and manipulate the press, so can national newspapers influence and direct public opinion and, in extreme cases, bring down individual politicians or entire governments.
A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad. – Albert Camus
Responsibility and Guilt
But what is responsibility exactly? And how does it relate to guilt? Can the media, for example, be found responsible for stirring up feelings of hatred amongst its readers, without being found guilty? Or does this responsibility lie with individual readers? These are important questions that should be raised when assessing the role of the media in present day democracies.
Before exploring what is meant by responsibility, I would like to illustrate the subtle difference between responsibility and guilt, by relating what happened to the former French social affairs minister, Georgina Dufoix, some years ago.
Today, the responsibility lies directly on my shoulders. I feel absolutely responsible. However, I do not feel guilty. – Georgina Dufoix, 1992
The statement was made on national television following revelations, published in the weekly L’Événement du Jeudi, that the Centre National de Transfusion Sanguine (National Blood Transfusion Centre), knowingly distributed blood products contaminated with the Aids virus to haemophiliacs in 1984 and 1985. Briefly, for financial reasons and sheer stubbornness, the French refused to use American developed diagnostic tests to screen blood products, waiting for their own test to be officially patented, whilst at the same time, not taking into account increasing medical evidence that pre-transfusional heating of plasma products was sufficient to eradicate the virus. They also refused to import safe American blood products, on the grounds that the samples came from poor countries in Africa, and were also too expensive. The responsibility of the French government stems from the fact that blood transfusions in France are free of charge and come directly under state control. In this case, the transfusion centre can be considered to be a government agency that was allowed to function in the total absence of official government guidelines. In the end, although Georgina Dufoix appeared in court for manslaughter, she was acquitted. Finding Georgina Dufoix guilty, however, would have required proving the fact that she knew that unsafe transfusions were being carried out, and that she was consciously and willingly letting that happen.
The British Press: Power without Responsibility?
In 1992, the Sun newspaper run an infamous headline proclaiming that it had helped the Conservative party to victory in the general election that took place that year. In the same way, can we also say that the British national press made people vote for Brexit? The answer to the question is probably “no”. However, a strong case can be made that the press, in particular the tabloids and the Daily Telegraph, have conditioned the UK public against the EU. And what is worse, is that this conditioning has been going on for decades.
A combination of derisory headlines, such as those relating to the shape of our bananas and the impossibility of 8-year-old children to inflate EU certified balloons, have overshadowed the complete lack of information that the tabloid readers have had on who runs the EU, and how.
There is a big difference between an editorial standpoint that a paper adopts, known to its readers, and cheap sensational headlines that are only written to boost sales, and are also, in most cases, absolutely false and ridiculous.
It is quite clear that the tabloids have been against the EU for decades. Instead of trying to inform readers of how the EU actually functions and why, in their view, it functions in a way that is detrimental to the UK, the tabloids have successfully managed to make their readers paranoid for all things related to the EU. In grossly exaggerating the harmful effects that the EU has on our daily lives, the tabloids have managed to condition their readers into voting against the UK remaining in the EU.
It’s not only the press that can condition people, politicians can do that just as well. As with many things, the Americans are way ahead of us, and US politicians have been playing on people’s anxieties and fears for years, if not centuries. The historian Richard Hofstadter, in an article published in Harpers Magazine in 1964, described what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” as “an old recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
The technique is simple and effective. All you have to do is predict that if nothing changes, the whole of society as it now is, will collapse. Political systems will fail and moral values disappear. Nevertheless, the voter has a unique opportunity to avoid certain disaster by casting his vote in the ballot box. The “point of no return” will have been avoided.
One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows.” R. Hofstadter, 1964
The tabloid press has gone to great lengths in making this feeling of paranoia as widespread and long lasting as possible. One notable headline was that which related to yet another lorry load of EU migrants entering the UK, thanks to freedom of movement. However, video footage clearly showed that the new arrivals had informed officials that they were, in fact, refugees from Iraq and Kuwait. The next day, the paper did correct the story by printing a 54-word erratum at the bottom of page 2.
For decades, the British press has blamed the EU for practically everything that was wrong at home, whilst never explaining how the EU worked or what was its purpose. This is underscored by the fact that on the 24th June 2016, no one knew what Brexit actually meant. Even today, the consequences of leaving the EU are not known because people do not realise what the EU actually means. It has been caricatured by the popular newspapers, and under-explained by the more “serious” ones, who thought that Brexit would never happen. It was seen by the pro-remain press as an internal strife in the Conservative party, and was not sufficiently scrutinised. The shock was so deep, that even after the Brexit vote, certain commentators were suggesting that the triggering of Article 50 would never actually happen. The same can be said of the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. The highly respected Huffington Post was so convinced that his candidacy was a joke, that they published articles concerning Donald Trump in the category “entertainment”.
After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. – Huffington Post, July 17th 2015
During the referendum, both sides tried to play on people’s fears: collapse of the financial markets on the one hand, loss of control, mass immigration and their consequences on the other. I had convinced myself that, despite their reticence, the UK voters would have voted for a status quo, but deep in my heart I feared that the contest was a foregone conclusion. My feelings were based on the largely insular nature of a large proportion of the British people and the fact that they mock whatever finds itself on the other side of the Channel. This attitude was largely enhanced by a long-term conditioning carried out by the British press. Voters could hallucinate better over the unavoidable invasion of the UK by European migrants and loss of control, than over the loss of a few quid in the City. For the overwhelming majority of those who voted “leave” on June 23rd, money from the City has no smell, European migrants do.
As to underscore the power of the British press, a few days after the Brexit vote, one of the prominent Leave campaigners, Boris Johnson, who was also considered to be the most likely next Conservative leader, abandoned his leadership bid. A leaked e-mail suggested that, among other obstacles to a successful bid, he did not have the support of Rupert Murdoch (owner of the Sun and Times newspapers) or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. The e-mail read:
Very important that we focus on the individual obstacles and thoroughly overcome them before moving to the next. I really think Michael needs to have a Henry or a Beth with him for this morning’s crucial meetings.
One simple message: you MUST have SPECIFIC from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support. The details can be worked out later on, but without that you have no leverage.
Crucially, the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket.
Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best.
It’s a funny old world, and it’s reassuring to know that, even in this age of digital technology, good old print still has the political clout that it used to have before Facebook and Twitter saw the light of day.
All in all, to answer the question of whether the press is responsible for the current state of affairs in the UK, I would say that it is. As for the question of guilt, I’ll be generous and give the press the benefit of the doubt. Voters are old enough to decide for themselves. However, the referendum was not asking the electorate to decide on a matter that could be easily reversed, like the building of an extra runway at a local airport. The EU referendum question was deceivingly simple because the answer required was excruciatingly complicated. The UK’s electorate was asked if it wanted to effectively change its constitution. In front of such a daunting question, people should have been comprehensively informed. Political debates should have taken place, instead of soliloquies inciting doubt and hatred. The newspapers, irrespective of whether they were pro- or anti-EU, should have responded to the challenge posed by the referendum question with dignity and responsibility. Exceptional circumstances required an exceptional press coverage and enlightenment. Neither were delivered.
A final example serves to illustrate how irresponsible and patronising the press can be. In asking the High Court to decide
whether Article 50 could be triggered without the consent of parliament, Gina Miller was only doing what others should have done. She has defended the true values of a parliamentary democracy. People vote for policies, members of parliament represent the voters and, policies are discussed and carried through by the national parliament. This democratic process should not, under any circumstances, be tampered with. That an advisory referendum was held for such an important decision as membership of the EU does not alter the fact that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. The reaction of the Sun would almost have been funny, had the situation not been so serious. Here is a “loaded foreign elite”, Gina Miller, being told to mind her own business, by another loaded foreign elite, Rupert Murdoch. This surely deserves that I press the “align-centre” key on my computer keyboard.