Mark Brophy

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Marches & Media

In case you’re unaware, the People’s Assembly held a March against Austerity through London at the weekend. An estimated 50000 people participated and high profile speakers such as Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas MP and Russell Brand addressed the crowd.

Soon after it had begun however, complaints arose from activists and supporters that the march was being ignored by news media, specifically the BBC. There were stories in newspapers and on websites about the march, but they were mostly explaining why the ‘news blackout’ was taking place rather than reporting the event itself. Two in nominally left-leaning titles particularly stood out.

The first, in the New Statesman, claimed marches just aren’t that interesting. People on the street, even in fairly large numbers, do not make for a newsworthy event. You can almost feel the ennui of the author as he states that marches like this happen

..three or four times a year in London alone, usually with the same people carrying the same banners.

Strangely, the reasoning becomes muddled when it’s claimed that actually, there was coverage on the BBC (on the radio mostly apparently). Surely either something’s not newsworthy, or it’s on the news, not both. The piece completely misses the point in other ways too. This wasn’t just another march. It was partially about the perceived lack of coverage of anti-austerity arguments. The march itself started at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House, as if to say “here we are! you have to notice us now…” Of course it might be said that by making the march about the BBC nothing could have been more certain than that the state broadcaster would fail to adequately report criticism of itself. Maybe that’s unwise for a campaign struggling for whatever publicity and recognition it can get. Then again, it’s not like the activities of the People’s Assembly against Austerity troubled the scorers at the BBC much before so why not, when they have nothing to lose? Enshrined in the very premise of the article is that BBC editors just didn’t find the protest interesting, as if there’s nothing wrong with that. Contained within that explanation is also the complaint. It’s not that there is some kind of conspiracy in the newsroom against this campaign. The fact is that most of the people employed by the BBC – and most other news media – tend not to find this sort of thing interesting. They don’t agree politically, they don’t know anyone who thinks the protesters have a point, and just like Willard Foxton who wrote the New Statesman’s piece they are tired of people moaning about an entirely understandable and justified government economic policy. You only get a job by demonstrating you think the right way. So journalists are free to print (or say) what they like, because the people in charge already like what they think. That’s where the bias comes from, where the blackout originates, in the colonisation of the news media by the middle and upper classes, and the concomitant narrow range of political views they are prepared to represent.

The other piece, on the political website Left Foot Forward at least openly states

Media bias is one factor … less because of a deliberate decision to exclude anti-austerity protests, and more because of the class backgrounds of many journalists. …having little invested in the services this government is cutting means that many journalists slip effortlessly into narratives of the cuts being “inevitable” and austerity coming as a consequence of “runaway government spending”

It goes on to explain the other supposed factors. “Protest marches rarely achieve anything”, which is true but that’s no reason not to report on it. England rarely win the World Cup but there’s no lack of column inches on that. There’s more:

This specific argument has been lost… There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative… The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.

Again, in a way all true. There isn’t a mainstream anti-austerity narrative if by that you mean none of the three traditional main parties are against it, and the media see those who are as discredited flat-earthers. Undoubtedly this is a factor in the behaviour of the news media, but once again that doesn’t mean this state of affairs is right. The piece mentions polls quoting 42% regarding cuts as good for the economy, with 37% disagreeing. That’s very close to an even split, 37% of people disagreeing with austerity without there being any coverage at all of the arguments against it in the news media, the nation’s main opinion formers. Imagine what those figures would be if there were actually balanced coverage of the arguments.

Where the Left Foot Forward piece discredits itself is in saying the protesters answer to austerity, of taxing the rich, would result in the rich leaving

…the country, taking their businesses, tax revenue and jobs with them. You may profess not to care about such things, but whether you like it or not you still need money to pay for services and the like.

The assumption here being of course that all economic activity is reliant on the rich.

Worse still, it then lets itself down by referencing the Laffer Curve. This theory states that increasing tax rates above a particular level results in lower tax revenue, and is most often used as a justification to reduce higher-rate taxes. Laffer was a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s which cut higher rate income tax to a third of its previous level, ending in US budget deficit quadrupling and government debt tripling. His theory is counter-intuitive and discredited.

It’s indisputable that what our media find interesting doesn’t necessarily result in the coverage we’d wish for. Last week BBC News aired a lengthy segment including several minutes interviewing a political correspondent about a joke – possibly hacked – tweet from Labour HQ offering free owls for everyone. Yet I’m still waiting to see any coverage at all of Labour’s pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act for instance, surely of interest to the large numbers worried about the future of the NHS.

The failure of our political parties to provide a choice for voters on austerity and any number of other potentially divisive issues make it easy for the media to claim there is no dissension on these subjects. For the BBC, so desperate to safeguard the licence fee it rebuts criticism of the government rather than risk being accused of bias against it, this is probably something approaching a godsend. Even so, I think it is safe to say that a very large section of the country are opposed to austerity. We should hear their arguments.

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