MEDIA WATCH

The mainstream media should stop giving extreme views a platform – it just normalises them

Journalism needs to be objective, but there is a line to be drawn.

In recent weeks, a number of quite astounding articles have appeared in the British press. These have included among others, a Times column opining the benefit to Britain in the current climate of having a political leader like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; referred to as “strongmen”. In the Daily Telegraph, a similarly toned piece contemplated the reinstatement of the death penalty after Brexit.

Somewhat appealing to the lowest common denominator, these and similar articles prompt questions about the extent to which Britain’s mainstream media is shifting towards the right of the political spectrum. Even more worrying is the extent to which it is “normalising” extreme right-wing ideas and ideologies.

A recent Sunday Times article by Andrew Gilligan referred to “hipster fascists” with their penchant for New Balance trainers and skinny jeans. So their views might be out where the buses don’t run, but at least they have a decent dress code.

It’s not just the print media. Mainstream broadcasters have been giving significant airtime to various prominent far-right identities. These have included the former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the release of Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the anti-Islam English Defence League, on bail after winning an appeal against a contempt of court conviction. Meanwhile Ezra Levant, Robinson’s former employer at the Canadian far-right website Rebel Media, appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Breakfast Show.

Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and Donald Trump’s former strategy guru, was invited onto LBC and told Nigel Farage: “I don’t think Robinson’s a bad guy. I think he’s a solid guy and I think he’s got to be released from prison.” This followed an extensive interview with BBC Newsnight in May.

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It is worth noting that prior to his conviction, Robinson himself was something of a darling of the mainstream media. He has been a guest on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, BBC Radio 4’s Today, BBC2’s Newsnight and BBC1’s The Big Questions, among others.

Given the recurrence of Robinson’s appearances in the mainstream media, it can be argued that not only has this played down the highly divisive and dangerous views and ideologies he has espoused but so too has it legitimised his claim to be voice of the people. That has the potential to have quite dangerous and dire consequences.

A ‘new normal’

Indeed, one of the goals of right-wing extremists has always been to appear “normal”. In recent years, the British National Party was transformed under the leadership of Nick Griffin. By trying to look more like mainstream politicians, Griffin believed that the British National Party would become more electable. Despite the outward change, its nationalist agenda remained constant.

While the BNP achieved relative success in local and European elections, Griffin’s appearance on BBC1’s Question Time pretty much destroyed his credibility both inside and outside the BNP. Describing the treatment he received as being akin to a “lynch mob” highlights the stark difference between then and now.

If seen to be complicit in the process of “normalisation” then – through playing down or trivialising the very real and detrimental impact bigotry and hate can have on the lives of individuals, communities and wider society – the mainstream media could be accused of conferring acceptability on some of these views.

Working-class heroes?

Focusing upon the style, clothes or brands worn by far-right activists or having debates about the extent to which they might be a “working-class hero” fails to acknowledge the highly politicised agendas and ideologies those being focused on seek to disseminate. It also has the potential to embolden and strengthen their supporters and act as a recruiting tool – making them appear as the “true voice” of certain communities, groups or constituencies.

You could argue that the mainstream media did much the same with the unprecedented platform afforded to the now-imprisoned Islamist extremist, Anjem Choudary. Not only did he reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam in the wider community – but the mainstream media’s endorsement of him as a key Muslim leader caused consternation among the vast majority of British Muslims for whom his views were extreme and not in the least representative of them.

Hail strongmen

The same can be said by the “strongman” article by Clare Foges, a former speechwriter for David Cameron. Her article massively plays down the more unpalatable policies of leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Turkish president Erdoğan. Foges in fact praises them, as well as Trump and Putin, for getting things done.

But it also overlooks the very real fact that under their leadership, values that are held dear by democracies including the UK – among them democracy, free speech and justice – have at times been restricted, constrained or completely removed.

Knowing that the murder of Jo Cox and the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque were perpetrated by individuals aligned to extreme right-wing ideologies should be itself warning enough that affording greater legitimacy to and normalising such views is extremely dangerous.

Put this in the context of the sharp rise in the number of people being referred to Prevent for holding extreme right-wing views and the fact that levels of hate crime last year reached record highs and the seriousness of the matter is unquestionable.

I’m not advocating censorship or limiting free speech – far from it. What I am saying is that the mainstream media has a responsibility for ensuring objectivity and impartiality. The zeal to maintain what is obviously a false balance by giving a platform to such extremists is not part of that remit. Big media organisations must be aware that legitimisation of the far right is not acceptable. They cannot normalise nor be seen to give permission to what are, in truth, hateful ideas and ideologies.

Chris Allen, Associate Professor in Hate Studies, University of Leicester.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.