As well as watching and listening to my SPERI/New Statesman prize lecture, you can now read it in the form of a SPERI paper (slightly more coherent and comprehensive that the lecture I gave). I have also written an article that is now up at the New Statesman, which attacks the same issue a slightly different way. This post is aimed at encouraging you to read that article.
It suggests that we should not find either the Brexit vote or Trump’s election a surprise. Once we recognise that a large proportion of (most?) voters are not that interested and therefore not that informed about politics, and then ask what information these voters actually received from the media, then both Brexit and Trump were quite rational choices.
If that statement sounds shocking, I think it is because those of us who are interested in politics and are well informed find it difficult to imagine what it would be like not being so. We ask how can Trump be more trusted than Clinton, because we have read and indeed listened to all his lies, but if the only source of information you look at is the nightly news you will have mainly heard about Clinton’s emails. We ask how can half of those who voted in the EU referendum opt for evident self-harm, because we have read that economists think it will be self harm by a margin of 22 to 1. But if all you have seen is he said/she said reporting in the media, it just looks like economists are divided on the issue.
I’m not arguing that the impact of globalisation is not important. It helps people lose trust in mainstream politicians. Instead I’m asking why legitimate grievances should lead people to start believing in snake-oil salesmen. People will go for populist policies, if the knowledge that these policies will not work is denied them, or portrayed as just one more opinion rather than knowledge.
The power of the media to distort truth should never be underestimated. In 2015 voters elected a Conservative government because they thought they were more competent at running the economy. They blamed Labour for causing austerity. Pretty well all the evidence suggested the opposite was true. But all most people heard was the Conservative narrative about ‘clearing up the mess’. You should blame Labour for letting that happen, but if you do you also have to concede that the information people receive is critical in the decisions they make. The power of a simple but false narrative is immense: remember most workers had experienced an unprecedented fall their real earnings over this period, yet they still chose to blame Labour for this rather than the global financial crisis and austerity.
After everything that has happened over the last two years, these points should by now be self-evident, and to some they are. But a great deal of analysis just ignores the role of the media. I surveyed a great deal of work on the Brexit vote, trying to relate it to all kinds of variables, but I saw no analysis that looked at the media people were exposed to. In the UK there is not much we can do about the partisan press in the short term, but we can do something about the broadcast media. How many more Brexits and Trumps do we need before we do?