Back in the turbulent days of Thatcherism, critical media analysis of British news reporting seemed in plentiful supply, notably because of the important work done at the time by the Glasgow media group. Now, the reporting of the current crisis in general and the reaction to the drastic cuts in the Higher education budget in particular cry out for similar close analysis. But, in contrast to France (see here), such a thing would seem to be striking by its absence in the UK, unless, of course I am looking in the wrong places. My sense of dismay at how things were being reported reached a peak last Thursday (9th December) as news of the vandalism done to the royal car and the poking of one of its occupants came through. Immediately, it became clear that the newspapers and the television were going to converge on that one incident to the exclusion of everything else. Or almost everything, for the young man relieving himself at the base of the statue of Churchill also had clear and instant media appeal. It was not that these things, the pee and the paint, were in and of themselves unworthy of any note but, in the bigger scheme of things, they were hardly the most important happenings of the day. Part of the problem was the press’s and above all the TV’s attraction to the dramatic image: the picture of the shocked, wide-mouthed royal consort and the young man at the base of the statue were too photogenic to be passed up by a media drawn to the visually striking at the expense of the less (tele)visually appealing (for The Mail’s predictably indignant report, see here). Part of the problem too was the shameless agenda setting and conclusion drawing: ‘they’ve undermined the purpose of their whole day of action through these mindless acts,’ we were repeatedly told in so many words, as the media passed the blame for its own decision to concentrate on the superficial and the eye-catching onto the protesters. And another part of the problem was of course the decision to attach far more weight to the largely symbolic violence done to monarchy and national hero than to what had been done to the protesters: the truncheon blows, the cavalry charges, the kettling ( for an eye-witness account, see here), the enforced photographing. It could and would of course be argued that the protesters had only been manhandled in various ways because of their own allegedly prior attacks on property (the Treasury) and the police. But, surely it was precisely the prior nature or not of these attacks that it was the press’s role to investigate in order to establish an accurate account of the day that didn’t simply endorse the police account or follow the predictable script that is lazily rolled out for dealing with demonstrations (the handful of troublemakers, the injured police, the overshadowed message …). Which brings us to the next problem: the absence or decline of serious investigative journalism. A symptom of this is perhaps the role of aggressive questioning as manifested on the different occasions when a supporter of the protests was pushed to say whether they condemned any violence or not with attempts to explain or to challenge the framing of the question typically being met by a hectoring ‘yes or no? So you refuse to condemn the violence …’ It is as if journalists feel obliged to compensate for their own failure to question and investigate by their hostile questioning of others (for a particularly telling example, see here). In the process, the place of the ‘kettling’ (of adults and minors) or compulsory photographing of demonstrators in a supposedly liberal democracy goes largely undiscussed.
The reporting of last Thursday’s events is sufficiently disquieting on its own but the problem hardly ends there. There is a broader failure to question that should worry those who believe in the importance of a media willing to question, to challenge and to investigate. This failure manifests itself both in a specific and a general sense. Specifically, there is a reluctance to ask how university cuts that will only deliver savings long term, if at all (see here), will help resolve a budget deficit that, we are told, is urgently pressing. The whole ideological tenor of the cuts, the fact that the crisis is being used to push through a savage reshaping of British Higher Education (the dramatically increased fees, the quasi-privatisation, the savage assault on arts and humanities) goes relatively unchallenged and undiscussed. The possibility that general taxation might provide a much fairer and more reasonable funding source than either the increased fees or Labour’s graduate tax is given almost no column inches or air time, as the horizon of political possibilities is kettled within the borders of the status quo. More generally, there is an unwillingness to question the extent to which the current coalition government has any mandate for its savage cutting of the welfare state. Retrospectively, it now seems entirely predictable that the political right (the Tories and the Orange book liberals) would seek to renarrate the banking and debt crises as a crisis of public expenditure and use it to justify a shrinking of the state. But it is nonetheless surprising how little this renarration is held up to scrutiny. The two coalition partners routinely cite the unforeseen dimensions of the ‘black hole’ in the public finances to justify their recourse to policies that weren’t in their manifestoes. What surely therefore cries out for investigation by reporters and journalists is the extent to which the size of the hole was unforeseen. But do the British media do investigation any more?