The Tabloid’s Handmaiden

Without wishng to sound too conspiratorial or over paranoid we have reached a stage in the United Kingdom where it has to be asked who exactly is running our country?  Our Prime Minister and her government or the newspapers and their possies of editors and/or proprietors? When Barnier begins his negotiations with the UK to exit the EU will he be presenting his position to May or to Rupert Murdoch? When Verhofsadt sets out the European Parliament’s position on access to the single market does he need to side-step David Davies and head straight to the offices of the Daily Mail and begin the nitty-gritty talks with Paul Dacre instead? Should Tusk even bother to touch base with Theresa May or should he just head straight to the Channel Islands where the Barclay Brothers (owners of The Telegraph) dwell?

In answer to “who runs the country?” every school child in the UK will answer – our democratically elected Parliament and our Prime Minister of course! Whilst this used to be the case recent events give us pause to wonder whether this (in a modern era of on-line news) still rings true?

A bird’s eye view of the current state of affairs in British politics suggests the picture is not as sharp and clearly defined as once it was. Look at our timid and limp Members of Parliament. What ever happened to their backbones? Are they going through an evolutionary process of losing them and turning our nation into a wobbling mass of jelly? Bar a few noble Members of Parliament who have had the guts, determination and vision to break away from following their party’s whip, the vast majority of our representatives cower, scrape and kow-tow to the mythical “will of the people” as if that really existed.  In the same way  Piglet fears his imaginary enemy the Heffelump our MPs are terrified of being branded “enemies of the people” by the nasty tabloid press rather than having the courage of their convictions. This Parliament must surely go down in history as one of the weakest, most pathetic and useless of all Parliaments. My respect for Westminster is diminishing by the day – and to then accuse the European Parliament of being a rubber-stamp institution is the biggest irony (or joke) of the century.

… and then there’s our highly unimaginative, rigid as two short-planks Prime Minister, Theresa May. Her track record on U-turns is almost becoming a national joke. It’s enough to make one believe Theresa May feels quite at home landing on the head of a snake forcing her to slither all the way back to where she started from rather than eagerly throwing the dice to move onwards and upwards to further our nation’s interests.

This is not euperspectives seeking to exaggerate and flag a point. Her track record speaks for itself. At the Conservative Party Conference Theresa May announced she would introduce Employee Directors on Company Boards – but then changed her mind. She allowed Amber Rudd to announce proposals on foreign worker quotas which would force companies to list the number of foreign employees they employ – but then changed her mind. As a matter of interest does anyone have a clue what the government’s position on grammar schools is? I don’t. First their on. Then they’re off. Then they’re on again. Of course new Prime Ministers change their minds on all sorts of policies inherited from their predecessors but when it comes to raising cash for public services to pay for unnecessary and expensive vanity projects – such as leaving the EU – few make such a submissive U-turn as our current Prime Minister did only a few short weeks ago.

Then again why are we surprised? When, in the history of our nation, have we ever valued a Prime Minister who, at international gatherings, plays with her cufflinks and looks like an awkward teen-ager rather than a confident leader determined to represent our nation’s best interests?

Thersa May 2

When have we ever been impressed by a Prime Minister who flippy-floppies all over the place on how to run a budget? How is it even possible to admire our current Prime Minister’s position on Brexit when she is getting her soft leather trousers in a tight twist by trying to squeeze an illogical ideology on Brexit (which resembles the size and shape of a flying camel) through the eye of a finely tuned, spinning needle.

Theresa May, far from being the capable, canny politician emerging from the shadows we had all hoped she would be in July 2016, is proving not only inept but incapable as well. The fabled submarine that finally emerged from the depths is hardly turning out to be a top of the range, whizz-bang British designed and engineered standard of excellence propelling us through stormy waters. Sadly it has spent so long underwater it is now covered in barnacles and sea-weed.

The NHS is in disarray, the pound is worth 18% less than it was this time last year, inflation is rising, our international reputation is plummeting, jobs are threatening to move overseas, Scotland is once again agitating to leave the Union, the fragile peace in Northern Ireland is dangerously close to collapsing – hardly an impressive record. Many may wonder how and why she remains so popular. Corbyn is of course responsible but perhaps more importantly she has the support of the nations purveyors of tall-tales and titillating stories of outrage – the  modern media – a completely new source of power in modern British politics.

There is a good case to be made that power is ebbing away from the Crown in Parliament and slithering behind the closed doors of an editors office. No wonder George Osborne, who looks like a man who has a nose for sniffing out the well of power, is choosing to ignore his constituents in favour of editing the London Evening Standard. No wonder Trump is FURIOUS about FAKE NEWS! He was under the impression that being POTUS made him “the most POWERFUL man in the world” and is only now, belatedly, realising that editors can be more powerful than him.

This may all sound a tad exaggerated and a bit House of Cards-ish but consider this: only a few weeks ago it was widely reported that in February 2016 – just as the referendum campaign was beginning to kick off – our then democratically elected Prime Minister David Cameron was terrified enough of the Daily Mail to beat a path to Lord Rothermere’s office begging him to sack Paul Dacre in a last-ditch attempt to save his Remain campaign. Lord Rothermere had no incentive, no fear and no reason to listen to the democratically elected leader of the United Kingdom. Instead the non-domiciled tax exile patted our Prime Minister on the back, muttered something about editorial freedom and sent him on his way. Cameron’s fate and the fate of the country was sealed when Paul Dacre pulled out all the big guns and bazookaed one headline after another ridiculing our Prime Minister and his campaign.  Cameron resigned. Paul Dacre remains in situ.

Everyone agrees that the only reason May is where she is today is because Paul Dacre, crowned her his anointed candidate at the end of June 2016. He assumed, quite rightly as it turns out, that the maiden is far more prone to doing his bidding than the unpredictable goon, Boris Johnson. Dacre now even has his own messenger boy in May’s office making sure she sticks to script on Brexit. Since her official crowning by Dacre May has pretty much rolled on her back when-ever he has tap-tap-tapped an editorial that tut-tut-tutts her policies. Perhaps she learnt a lesson from David Cameron – there’s simply no point trying to fight the big-boys of fleet street. Far better to stay docile and in Number 10 than be combative and have one’s political reputation and career ruined by those who have the power to do so.

Never underestimate the power of the narrative.

Just imagine the sweet, delicious ability to decide which photo to choose for your front page – a flattering one where the individual in question is all smiles and smooth skin or a photo where the individual in question is suffering from a bad-hair day.  A photo of a happy family in a cosy kitchen or of a humourless couple staring vacuously into space in a bare kitchen. A photo of a person hap-hazardly chewing on a bacon sarnie or a photo of a person enjoying life to the full.

Imagine having the power to decide what headline to use for the next day’s print edition:

EU 27 agree to April meeting on Brexit

OR

EU 27 in disarray over timing of Brexit meeting

EU talks with Turkey stalled as Erdogan cracks-down on political opponents

OR

EU talks with Turkey progress towards full membership

In the United Kingdom the media play king-maker without the legitimacy to do so. They dictate policy through shrill editorials whilst lacking any form of accountability. They threaten the rule of law without worrying what the implications on the nation could be. They can and do deceive, mislead and cheat without a care in the world or fear of repercussion. They have the power to make or break reputations – even posthumously – with all but minor repercussions. A delicious, unaccountable, unchecked and illegitimate power. Who cares if print editions are going under – other business interests can prop them up. So long as proprietors such as Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and Rothermere can cling on to the sweet taste of unaccountable power through their media empires.

When ever anyone tries to seek a more balanced approach to regulating this power the media indignantly cry “freedom of speech” and use their huge platforms to broadcast a message to the masses suggesting that freedom of speech is under threat – our very liberties threatened by elected government –  and they are only ones capable of defending it.

Now, we all agree that freedom of speech is vital in a free, fair and democratic society – but let us not confuse free speech with deception and manipulation. To use your position of strength to mislead a reader is categorically not the same as to express an opinion in good faith. To deceive is categorically not the same as freedom of expression in an open society. To tell fibs through sloppy research is not the same as disagreeing with the government. Sadly the media has beguiled many of us into confusing the right to freedom of speech with the right to lie. So confused have we become someone announced the other day “I do not want to live in a society where I no longer have the right to lie!”

Really? Do we really want to give the accused the right to lie about whether they did or did not set fire to the family home? Of course not! Do we really want to give contractors the right to lie about how much money they owe their supplier? Of course not! Do we really want to give the CEO the right to lie about how well the company is doing? Of course not! We all know that lying leads to disaster and injustice. So why should we expect a different set of robust standards from those who report our news to us? Yet we do each and everyday. Trump, is right to talk about FAKE NEWS. Wrong to think he is the man to get a grip on this.

The founding father’s of the US constitution, inspired by the French enlightenment thinker Montesquieu, understood the importance of balancing power so that neither one individual nor one institution should enjoy absolute power – because as Lord Acton so famously noted “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. There was one power base, however, that neither Jefferson, Pain, Washington nor Montesquieu included in their equation – the power to control the narrative.

If ever the time were ripe to consider how to ensure the narrative does not turn into a nightmare from hell now is it. Our traditions, our values and our future depend on making sure that the media use their slice of power responsibly rather than becoming corrupted by it. Let’s hope that when this current government are finally exposed for the useless politicians they quite evidently are a new government will give this suggestion some serious consideration.

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