Jonathon Shafi: We have to stand up to the rightwing press destroying civility in Britain

CommonSpace columnist Jonathon Shafi says that despite the rise of online media, newspapers still hold sway over national conversations and it must be addressed

THERE is a permanent sore in our society, oozing a toxic mix of hate, jingoism and bigotry. 

This sore is an angry one. It has been clawed away at by decades of decline, and no ointment will sooth it. It uses its reach and ability to set national discourse to blind and redirect the rage of the masses, and puts in front of us the most vulnerable as modern day witches to be burned at the stake in order to solve all our problems. 

This sore, this scar on our democracy and our national debate, is the increasingly rabid rightwing press.

This sore, this scar on our democracy and our national debate, is the increasingly rabid rightwing press.

In recent months we have seen this part of the media go into overdrive. But in reality it is part of a long history of injecting poison into social and political life in this country. 

This is not about, as they claim, defending a free press. This is about a small number of people dictating the language and parameters of our discourse and dragging it into the gutter.

So - bash the immigrants, savage those who rely on social security, demean women, demonise muslims, and all the while make the claim that this amounts to 'standing up for the little man'. When the 'little man' dares to go on strike, though - their true colours shine through. 

In other words, the front pages you are rightly appalled at have consequences when it comes to how power is wielded, and what forms of interaction in our society are acceptable.

Trends show that print media is in steep and terminal decline as people opt to consume news online. But the print media still set the main stories and have huge influence on the broadcast media. They have the ability to shift the debate towards their ideological pole and the rightwing press do a much better job of this than the liberals at the Guardian. 

This is not about, as they claim, defending a free press. This is about a small number of people dictating the language and parameters of our discourse and dragging it into the gutter.

The obsession with immigration, for example, has had the effect of pulling all other issues under its influence - and this has changed the way other parts of the media approach the issue.

At the start of 2014 the BBCs political editor, Nick Robinson, speaking ahead of a documentary called 'The Truth About Immigration', which he presented, said: "In public life, in politics and, I accept, historically at the BBC, (we) didn’t have a warts-and-all ... debate about immigration." 

He said that the BBC had been "too slow" to acknowledge concerns about immigration, and that it was now "getting it right". What did he mean by "getting it right"? Bluntly it meant, in practical terms, making sure Nigel Farage got more coverage.

But it doesn't end here - it gets even murkier and we can start to join the dots to show the relationship between the rightwing press, its influence on broader sections of the media and an actor that is often missed out - the state itself. We can start to build a map that shows the rightwing press are not just an eccentric sideshow - but exist as an important part of the daily operation of the British state.

Warwick University conducted a major study after the EU referendum called 'Who Voted for Brexit?'. This in-depth research found that while it was the case that immigration was a key feature of the Leave vote, it was also bound up with wider class concerns. 

So - bash the immigrants, savage those who rely on social security, demean women, demonise muslims, and all the while make the claim that this amounts to 'standing up for the little man'. When the 'little man' dares to go on strike, though - their true colours shine through. 

So for example, complaints about immigration levels were tied to cuts and therefore reduced access to public services. The austerity phase of British capitalism needs to have blame for declining living standards placed somewhere else. Yes - immigrants and lack of national pride must rationalise why your services are worse now than before, and why your wages are stagnating.

So what do we have? The rightwing press are the attack dogs sent out to find targets - other than the state and the ruling class - to blame for socio-economic decay.  

Nick Robinson feels at ease to say the BBC has not covered immigration properly and has gone to great lengths to ensure that at this moment, as we sit on the precipice of a huge social crisis, it is central to political 'common sense' – instead of the NHS workers taking to the streets of London, or the junior doctors, or the disability rights activists, alienated youth or the sacked public sector workers. 

No, these are not the subject of wall to wall coverage. That would not be in the interests of the powerful - and it would change everything, but only because it would bring the mass of the population into confrontation with their rulers.

And that is really what it is all about: the front pages you see, the times you despair at the Question Time panel, the sexism, the immigrant scapegoating and the muslim bashing - blame anyone, throw yourself in the gutter, fill your pages with hate, do anything you need without limitation, just make sure that attention is not where it needs to be, on the system that got us here in the first place.

Imagine just for a minute how different the situation would be if every day, for decades, the front pages blared support for trade unions and anti-racist campaigns. Imagine every day seeing headlines about the injustice of austerity and the need for better wages and conditions. 

Imagine just for a minute how different the situation would be if every day, for decades, the front pages blared support for trade unions and anti-racist campaigns. Imagine every day seeing headlines about the injustice of austerity and the need for better wages and conditions. 

What would happen if, week in week out, the system was subject to scrutiny and every day was a call to arms against it? Imagine this shaped our political life and Nick Robinson and the rest of them were down giving coverage to people marching to save public services. 

How much stronger would the radical left be, and how much more difficult is it for us to popularise our ideas given the ideological forces ranged against them posing as 'objectivity'?

The answer? It is indeed much more difficult. But that is the task. We need our own media institutions. We need our own Breitbart and our own Daily Mail. We need to build solidarity as an alternative to pouring more hate fuelled headlines onto the fire. 

We need to do this not just because the long-view of history demands it, but because the headlines we are so disgusted by have immediate consequences, too.

The next time you see an abhorrent headline, work out where it fits into the border landscape, expose it, and turn despair into action.

Picture courtesy of Jonathon Shafi

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