Went today to an Orwell Prize debate on his essay, Politics and the English Language. This was out in Buxton, way into Cheshire or maybe Derbyshire (I have grown up in the county yet don’t have even a working knowledge of its geography) and through the train windows you could see hills, farmland, canal barges, sheep and other unnerving sights. It was in the Palace Hotel and the panel included the novelist Linda Grant, Matthew Parris and a couple of others whose names I can’t recall. Nick Cohen was meant to be there as well, but he had been called away at the last moment to go on a moose hunt in Alaska (at least according to his Wikipedia page).
There was almost no discussion of the NI revelations. This didn’t surprise me. The phone hack allegations, the dark complicity between government, media and police, is too big to take in. You feel like Hunter Thompson watching Watergate unfold from his decompression chamber. No novelist, not even Christopher Brookmyre, could get away with a plot like this. No commercial editor would green light it. What can you say about an organisation that would sanction such things, or a prime minister that would welcome such people into government’s highest offices? Closing the Screws is not enough: they should burn Wapping to the ground, and sew salt in the ruins.
As I say, this didn’t really come up. Instead we took another ride through the timewarp of 2003. A lot of talk of WMD, Tony Blair and the manufacture of consent. Apparently Chomsky is big among the respectable men and women of rural Derbyshire. But this led to some interesting points.
1) The limits of false class consciousness
People can be stupid and servile and will often believe anything they’re told. At the same time, however, the engagement of the public with the media has never been so informed and analytical as it is today. Linda Grant pointed to the mockery and dissection of spin of all kinds that takes place every day on social networks. For example, take the Daily Mail, which is ridiculed hourly on Twitter. It is read ironically and, I suspect, in large parts written ironically as well. Journalism graduates tend to be young metropolitan liberals who will take any job, even on the Shriek, and put in their time for a few years until they can move on somewhere where they can practice actual journalism.
The manufacture of consent theory takes as its starting point the idea that most people are susceptible drones and need an intellectual vanguard to shake them out of their electric dreams. The good news is that new generations are less credulous and more cynical than ever. Perhaps it’s significant that the audience members promoting Chomsky’s condescending assumptions (and come to think many Chomskyites in the media) were what PR men call ‘older’ people.
2) Journalism and human nature
A journalist on the panel told the story of walking across some almost deserted part of Scotland and coming across a small village, with no newspaper or media access, but where someone had written ‘Maggie Smith ran off with the milkman’ across a shed wall. Something in us, she said, wants to broadcast this stuff. A town crier rings his bell in the streets of the human soul. Which raises the possibility that the rightwing tabloids are simply responding to a need. People get the media they deserve, and some part of you wants to read about scheming, lying, plague-carrying immigrants, high off the working man’s sweat. Some part of you loves the feeling of hate.
3) The importance of ambiguity
Politics and media is a thrash of competing narratives. Political spin is about getting the story across. The National Government has its narrative that everything bad it does is the fault of the previous government, one that people are buying so far. Ed Miliband is trying to put across his counter narrative, with limited success so far – look at his eerie and repetitive strikes interview where he’s giving the narrative and nothing else. Ed was mocked for this but the technique is widespread. George Osborne did the same thing last year, but with more skills. It’s only Miliband’s lack of finesse that let him down.
The tabloid newspaper is like a psychotic melodrama or fairy tale, complete with doomed princesses, swaggering cads, wise kings, fallen heroes, and evil serial killers. The Daily Mail is a morality play that runs for centuries. There are these simplistic narratives on the left as well, Linda said, particularly on Middle East reportage. She talked about a novel she’d written about the slum landlord Peter Rachmann. She began with an anecdote about someone who had seen Rachmann through a car window and told a newspaper that she had seen the face of evil. The interesting thing about Rachmann (and I’m quoting Linda almost verbatim here) is that he was a Holocaust survivor. The fairy tales say that suffering ennobles. Why doesn’t it? The writer’s job is to take on the messy reality that lies behind fairy tales.
An audience member then asked: why should we trust novelists any more than we trust journalists?
What Linda should have said to that was: because at least we admit when we’re making shit up.