Reading some of the front pages today I felt physically sick. Aside from the general incoherence about the objective truth of the situation (which does not allow for the government to push Brexit through without consulting parliament, see here), I saw extraordinary levels of contempt for the independence of the judiciary. Not to mention the Daily Mail’s quickly retracted mention of the “openly gay” judge and the Sun’s lambasting of “foreign-born” Gina Miller. These remarks might be presented as facts in the case but we all know the institutional vitriol that lurks beneath.
The worst moments of 20th century history, the dictatorships, the fascism, the dark euphoria, always felt far away when I read about them at school. Suddenly it’s a little easier to envision a world where the establishment is hell bent on division and fear. Where popular anger is brought forth by a government and a press determined to divide and rule, at the ballot box or the newsstand. It would be crass to draw specific parallels with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. The point is about the press’ open and unabashed condemnation of our constitutional structure, and their gleeful appeal to the very worst instincts of desperate people to take up arms against any dissenting voices.
Suddenly that history seems a bit more real. The atmosphere can be poisoned. A nation can be turned against itself. We will not see mass bloodshed, but we can feel the pinprick of humankind’s worst instincts in these headlines.
This should not be about the anger of the 52% – they have been stoked and charged by a press promising a land of milk and honey at the touch of the Article 50 button. Now a spanner is in the works and it is reported as the metropolitan elite thwarting the clearly expressed wishes of decent, ordinary Britons. This is about a press, presumably made up of fairly educated people with reasonable critical thinking skills, eschewing all logic in an attempt to enflame and excite a readership they have cultivated. This about an institution that glugs from the cup of freedom of speech as a right, but gags at the cup of freedom of speech as a responsibility.
The question is: what to do? I haven’t any idea how to curb the manner of the press. I certainly can’t force them to only spout my views, but I wouldn’t want to: heck, there’s already 1 “The Guardian”, we don’t need 7.
Perhaps the answer lies in education. If you get all your information from one source it’s not surprising you will come to regurgitate its stories and its manner of delivering them. But what if people were able to be more critical? What if we were able to educate people to be more enquiring about the provenance of their papers, and aware of the plurality of viewpoints around an issue? Pie in the sky, right?
Let’s teach Media Literacy in schools. The ability to interrogate the media you consume is now one of the most important skills a person can have. In our media-saturated climate in which almost everything we experience of world events comes through a screen or newspaper, why not teach people to be critical about what they consume as a matter of course? We do that with food. We teach kids to eat healthily and exercise more. To take care of what they consume. Don’t we consume media too? And don’t we want our children to be able to make informed choices about what they consume? Media – social and otherwise – has become such a part of everyday life surely to navigate it safely and wisely is one of the most important skills a child can have.
This isn’t about getting people to agree with me. Come to any conclusion you want, just make sure you’ve been critical somewhere along the line. Think Brexit is the best thing to happen to this country if you like – that’s no truck with me if you’re getting your opinions from a variety of sources, if you are reading your non-fiction with a reasonable critical faculty.
If we can’t contain the producers let’s empower the consumers. If we can’t tame the writers let’s embolden the readers. If we can’t stop companies making horrible burgers, let’s at least teach our kids what’s in those burgers so even if they do choose to eat them, they’ve done so in an informed way.
The markets are what they are. Papers will print what sells. Opportunist politicians will appeal to their voters however they can. Perhaps we can’t change those things. But if we can educate society as a consumer of media and an operator of the political system, maybe we can loosen the grip the ruling class and the press have on people. You can’t force people to be informed, but you can at least give them the tools as a matter of course to handle the onslaught of media that permeates the world, and will surely continue to do so.