Friday, 11 September 2015
A Yorkshire tale or "We get the media we deserve. And it ain't pretty."
This morning I went to listen to the Prime Minister. And he had a lot to say - about prison reform, promoting digital government, the case for deficit reduction, payment by results and getting decision-making closer to ordinary people through devolution. It was interesting and important - it doesn't matter whether you agree with the Conservative agenda or not, what he said mattered.
As I left the venue for the PM's speech a BBC TV reporter poled up to me accompanied by a cameraman. The camera was pointed in my face and a microphone shoved at me.
"Did you listen to the Prime Minister's speech this morning," asks the reporter.
"Yes" I reply.
"Would you like to comment on something Mr Cameron said before the speech that we picked up and recorded. Something about Yorkshire people hating each other?"
"No" I reply.
This conversation was repeated (only more brusquely) with another BBC reporter - this time a local one.
Now I could at this point have a good old go at the priorities of the media - how a mild gaffe by the Prime Minister is more important to them, a sort of "ha ha ha, he he he, gotcha, you're an idiot" approach to the news. But the reality is that the media are just a mirror to society - this petty and irrelevent news-making reflects our sad pleasure in schadenfreude and childish slapstick. Instead of reporting the actual news, we prefer to either point and giggle or else (and worse) adopt a faux-outrage for the sake of political point-scoring and the indulgence of our prejudices.
The problem here is that people who disagree politically with Cameron will dollop their prejudice all over social media, will ring up phone ins and generally behave as if the Prime minister had suggested the rounding up and summary execution of every Yorkshireman (perhaps followed by raising towns to the ground and ploughing the earth with salt). It's not simply that these people have conveniently mislaid their vestigial sense of humour but that they see Cameron's comment as the most important element of the news.
It's fine for such an approach to feature in gossip-mongers like Private Eye or Guido Fawkes but the BBC is not there to peddle eavesdropped gossip but to report the things that matter. Ramming a microphone in my face is fine if you're going to ask me about the speech I've just heard but not if you just want to find someone to express the faux outrage that will make your pathetic piece of tittle-tattle into a better story.
In the end this sort of focus - taken up with self-important comments like "this shows the utter contempt that Cameron and the Tories have for the North and exposes the whole devolution agenda as a con" - shows the complete lack of any depth or substance in much of our political debate. And the fault lies with us, with our preference for ad hominem, our obsession with trying to catch people out, and our tendency to conduct political debate in the manner of two ten-year-old boys - 'my Dad's bigger than your Dad', 'we've got a bigger car and two tellies', 'you're stupid with a snotty nose', 'bogey boy, bogey boy, na na na'.
I'm not being partisan here - it's just as bad when the focus is on Ed Miliband eating a sandwich or Andy Burnham talking to a fake donor (isn't is odd how the media think it fine to use deception but are so judgemental about deception in others). Not only are we a staggeringly hypocritical society but we a in danger of becoming down right nasty - only a degree away from picking on someone because they've a runny nose or spectacles or ginger hair or a funny walk. For sure we can all have a laugh at what Cameron said and, if you like that sort of thing, at his discomfort. But it really has nothing to do with the Government's programme or with what are today's important news stories.
We get the media we deserve. Petty, insubstantial, snide, gossipy and, at times, just nasty. The media do this because it seems to be what we want. Laughing at others misfortune, ogling celebrities' divorces, manufacturing offence, and conducting debate on the basis of gotcha rather than a considered assessment of the issues and challenges facing political decision-makers. Not very pretty.