The Manufacture Of Outrage

The self-appointed guardians of speaking truth to power have hosted a long piece by reporter Jonathan Cook, who compares the recent Medialens book with journalist Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News. Naturally (it would not have been published on the site otherwise) Cook raves about the two Davids’ masterpiece of conspiratorial binary thinking while dumping on Davies’s reality-based look at how the media works.

Don’t read Cook’s entire piece, it is tedious beyond belief, but in it he does make one interesting point about this year’s expenses scandal. Here it is:

It is interesting that the revelations about the British MPs emerged in the immediate wake of a far more important scandal involving the banks’ extortion of western governments to save themselves from liquidation, and the later feathering of their own nests from public finances. Whether it was the goal or not, the trickle of reports of parliamentary graft over several months very effectively distracted attention in Britain both from the banks’ shocking behaviour and forestalled a tentative debate about the profound crisis facing corporate capitalism. 

In addition, a Chomskian might suspect that the timing of the attack on our elected representatives, using information leaked to the establishment’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had a beneficial consequence for the embattled finance sector. With their own integrity in question, British MPs and ministers lost the moral high ground and with it any hope, admittedly already feeble, of turning on the bankers. With the parliamentary system in crisis, the banking system faced little threat of significant reform, which would have required an unprecedented assertion of political will. 

Even efforts to make the banks more accountable lost momentum during this period. In fact, while our elected representatives were being flayed by the media, the bankers quietly went back to business as normal. By personalising the issue of graft and directing popular anger at a few individuals – at first, the most visible bankers and then many MPs – the economic system itself was given a reprieve from a serious debate about its merits and failings.

This does make a certain amount of sense to me. The spectacle of a wealthy elite being bailed out by the public after gambling the future of the economy on other people’s money looked like becoming a catalyst for real democratic reform of capitalism. Then came the Torygraph‘s revelations – and the public and commentariat, stampeding with anger about Fred the Shred and the con of the free market, obediently turned round and stampeded in the opposite direction. Relatively minor public sector graft has overshadowed the greater crimes of the banks.

The expenses scandal could have broken at any time. Lembit Opik MP claimed in the Observer that ‘The expenses system was set up as a salary substitute. MPs were told that overtly.’ Welcome to human nature! (We always say we want our politicians to be human – yet we hate it, when they are.) Even the worst offenders, like David Wiltshire MP, have ripped off very little compared to the Telegraph’s owners, a pair of reclusive twins who live on a tax haven so they don’t have to contribute to a society their newspaper purports to represent.

There was a lot of big talk about cracking down on bonuses and tax havens when the markets fell. But now the champagne pyramids are back up in Square Mile bars and, at least in this country, populist reforms have been quietly forgotten. It’s business as usual, except it’s on your tab. It will be business as usual until the next huge disaster.

What does this tell us about the press? Chomsky said the role of the media was to manufacture consent. In the UK, it looks more like the manufacture of outrage.


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