Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 12 August 2018

What becomes news and why


One of the unfortunate things that some Remain supporters can do is treat anyone who voted Leave as stupid. How could you vote for such an idiotic idea is a good question, but to assume the answer is stupidity is wrong. I personally know non-political people who voted Leave and they are anything but stupid.

So why did they vote for a stupid policy. To answer that you should ask how do you know it is a stupid policy. My guess is that you have read a lot about it from experts in trade and law and so on, and you have then come to that conclusion. That puts you in a small minority of the population. Most people are pretty uninterested in politics, and do not go out of their way to inform themselves about it day in and day out. They read a newspaper for the sport or the celebrity gossip or the crossword, and take a quick look at the main bit, often reading just a headline. They probably also look at/listen to a single news programme from the broadcasters because they know their newspaper has an agenda.

You could say that indifference to politics is itself stupid. People should be more interested in things that can have a profound influence on their lives. But it is also true that one individual normally has no influence on politics, so it is rational for them not to bother. Furthermore we have a representative democracy which allows most people not to have to think about politics too much except during elections. They delegate the job of worrying about politics to their MPs or councillors.

We are where we are with Brexit not because people were stupid in 2016, but because Brexiters controlled key parts of the means of information. We had Brexit because we had large parts of the press who turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for Leave. To believe that almost no one who read these papers were influenced by all this is equivalent to saying advertising does not work at all. What Brexit shows is not that people are stupid but that it is vital who controls the means of information, and the restraints they face from government agencies (which in the UK’s case for the press is pretty much zero).

I am often told that the circulation of newspapers is falling (true) and therefore they no longer have any influence (false). A factor of 2.5 is often used to translate circulation into readership. So even if the combined circulation of the Brexit dailies is 4 million, that means a readership of 10 million (the Leave vote was 17 million). But if you ask people whether they have read a particular newspaper in the past month you get much higher figures: 10 million for the Sun alone, 9 million for the Mail. Electronic readership then multiplies that by a factor of around 3 for those two newspapers.

What about the non-partisan media that do not have a view they want to push. Someone said to me the other day that their job is to report the news, and not to make the world a better place. Unfortunately it is not that simple! What counts as news and what doesn’t? Media outlets will talk about covering things that are important, but who decides what is important?

Very occasionally, some in the media question whether the rules the media currently use to select what is newsworthy are working. Here is a piece by Ezra Klein, who asks whether US media should be paying so much attention to what Donald Trump says, and instead spending more time on what he does. The (unwritten?) rule book for what the media thinks is important includes, at close to the top of the list, what the nation’s leader says. So Trump can with his tweets or speeches send the media where ever he wants them to go, often distracting the media from what he does.

But there is another reason that the media focuses on what Trump says, and that (as Klein suggests) is that importance is only one of the selection criteria the media uses. If it is entertaining or shocking that helps too. Trump knows that as well: it is an important part of why he became POTUS (see here). That is why Boris Johnson’s remarks about letterboxes is straight out of the Trump playbook: media coverage for a week, with maybe a slap over the wrists in a few months time. If your target audience is the Conservative party membership it is a no-brainer for someone like Johnson.

Both Trump and Brexit have created other serious problems for non-partisan media. Balance just does not work when one side is telling obvious lies. As Gavin Esler writes:
“The “crisis in our democracy” comes because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with ‘systematic disinformation’ is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.”

But it would be foolish to think this just started happening two years ago. I knew in March how the Brexit campaign would go because I had seen how the media had treated austerity and the state of the economy before the 2015 election. And similar things were happening on other issues, such as the complete failure to provide good information about the Coalition’s disastrous 2011 health service reforms. An obsession with Westminster gossip meant a failure to educate and inform.

No media organisation ‘just reports the news’. What is news, and how it is talked about, is always a choice, and often a very controversial choice. It is partly about perceived importance, but other values also matter. Partly for that reason, there is far too much coverage of what people say and Westminster gossip, and far too little about what people (invariably governments) are actually doing. Partly because news coverage is so Westminster focused, the insistence of balance has created an incentive for politicians to lie their heads off and not be held to account. The media is neither a neutral purveyor of news nor an institution simply designed to support ‘the system’. The media runs according to rules, rules that can have a profound influence on how people think and how they vote.

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