When war breaks out among the political class, as it has over Brexit, journalists are bound to get excited. It works the other way, too: excitement among journos puts the wind up the politicos. Accordingly, in recent weeks, their frenzied interaction blew a perfect storm across College Green, the media’s favoured haunt outside the Palace of Westminster.
For journalists who’ve reported the near-death of professional news media as we know it, strife among the politicos presents an even more exciting prospect. Recalling the editor’s adage that if it bleeds it leads, they may hope this bout of political bloodletting will lead to a revival of journalism’s public ratings.
No such luck, according to The Guardian columnist John Harris. During his most recent perambulation, Anywhere But Westminster, the people from Northern England he interviewed were largely uninterested in reports of Westminster shenanigans, prompting Harris to warn of “the media combusting with excitement, while millions of people look the other way”.
This tallies with findings from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which reports that approximately 32% of people regularly avoid the news, a rise of 11% since 2017, “mainly due to the intractable and polarising nature of Brexit”. Understandably, news avoidance has become a hot topic.
Reality? No thanks
The term news avoidance suggests that these people are avoiding reality. The underlying principle of public journalism is that readers are also citizens whose actions in the real world are based on the reality they have come to know from the news. While acknowledging that this reality is put together by journalists, in line with the Frankfurt School’s concept of the culture industry, many academics accept that not to know is to retire from reality.
Yet this way of thinking about journalism and its role in society fails to address the recent experience of Harris’ interviewees and millions more. For them, journos and politicos have combined to produce the unreal, distant world of the Westminster Village, a world that many ordinary people feel disconnected from, the post-truth world. Seen from this perspective, avoiding the news may be an attempt to escape the unreality concocted exclusively by residents of that gated community.
This would further explain how an unstable consensus seems to have emerged away from Westminster Village. Regardless of what they voted for in the 2016 referendum, more than three years on, many Leavers and Remainers just want Brexit sorted. As Harris reports, it seems “as if a particularly awful working week has somehow failed to end, and most of us simply want to switch off the lights and go home, wherever that is”.
Nor is this the first time that voters have asked to return to the real world. Much of the Leave vote was always motivated by the desire to escape the unaccountably baffling and seemingly Kafkaesque world of the EU, while Remainers were equally keen to get off the fantasy island identified with narrow-minded Englishness. Indeed, away from Westminster, both groups of voters have seemingly been requesting a reality check. This means checking out of the unreality foisted on them for 20 years by the journo-politico class.
Living on thin air
In 1999, journalist and policy wonk Charles Leadbeater announced in his book of the same name that we were Living On Thin Air. The old order is giving way to a new economy in which “knowledge, ideas and creativity are the most important factors,” Leadbeater declared; and Westminster Villagers waved their order papers in approval.
Though there never was a frictionless new economy, since the 1990s, the distance between financial gain and the social production of new value, has grown ever greater. The City of London established itself as the world capital of fictitious capital – identified by Karl Marx as the money business in which the greater portion of this money capital is purely illusory – and the rest of the British economy has come to resemble it.
Journalism, as I have explained elsewhere, has also largely been financialised. Many journalists, rather than reporting new stories, have been ripping their content from what has already been published elsewhere – just as the financial economy operates in the sphere of circulation rather than investing in new production.
Fine if you’ve managed to find your niche in this rarefied atmosphere. But, as commentator David Goodhart pointed out, Britain is now divided between the minority – educated, affluent and mobile anywheres – who’ve been invited into this intensively globalised existence, and the millions of others – less well-educated and more rooted somewheres – for whom it remains unreal.
Those who cannot escape reality are bound to resent the virtual world inhabited by the few – and the EU became the target of their resentment. To them, it is the political counterpart to financialisation: the latter is distant from production while the EU is seen as equally removed from the people who make up its member states. Thus, in 2017, a Demos survey “found that more than half of respondents in Britain, France, Germany and Spain have low levels of trust in the European Commission”.
But besides Brussels, a politics distant from the people already had a home in Westminster. Manoeuvres to stall the 2016 referendum result, block the Boris Brexit and delay a general election are further episodes in the depopulated politics piloted by New Labour as far back as the 1990s. Tony Blair’s New Labour made politics into a brand which is not only unrecognisable to traditional Labour voters but also unreal to a people increasingly disengaged from the public sphere.
I would like to think that a new actor – possibly in the guise of the Brexit Party – will arrive on the scene and cut short the pantomime that passes for politics today. If my position is identified with populism, so be it. I might add that in my opinion such drastic action would not amount to the birth of a new politics, but is simply one of the preconditions for rebirth to occur.
But perhaps even this can’t happen just yet. It may be that before we become truly political again, we will need to find new ways of describing what we have in common. Drama did this for the Ancient Greeks in the run-up to their greatest invention – democracy; Shakespearean theatre performed a similar role for the proto-politics of the early 17th century. If it’s still too early for a different type of politician, maybe the order of the day is for artists, thinkers and journalists to address social reality in ways which prepare the common ground for change.
A new journalism would have to prove itself to people who are not resident or connected to the Westminster Village. It could begin by getting to grips with the extra-parliamentary consensus against unreality. Then journalism would start to be the real thing once more.
Andrew Calcutt is Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Humanities and Creative Industries at the University of East London.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.