Huge contempt for democracy infecting our public culture
When I started working for this newspaper, 20-odd years ago, the word “media” was still treated as a plural form, though in common parlance it had transmogrified into a singular.
If an unlucky journalist employed the singular construction, he or she might receive a telephone call from the chief subeditor, politely drawing attention to the error and offering a short, informal but informative lecture on the declension of Latin derivatives.
In February 2005, a new edition of the editorial stylebook innocuously announced a change of policy. “Media”, it declared, “is the plural form of medium and refers to press, radio and TV. It takes a singular verb, even though strictly speaking it is a Latin plural, when it is being considered as a single unit (The media has taken a proactive line on the libel issue). But when it refers to a collection of individuals, it takes the plural (The media were seated in one corner of the room).”
This superficially stylistic shift reflected something deeper. It was, in a sense, a catching-up on something that was by then obvious: that there existed a single entity called “the media” offering a more or less unified, non-pluralist voice on most issues of public importance, and creating a harmonious, concerted soundtrack directed at shifting public opinion towards particular inclinations.
Thus, many media organisations had ceased to serve – as previously – the aim of disseminating information and enabling discussion, and had become agents of a process of social reconstruction by some hazy but knowable ideological programme.
In his latest book, Third Stroke Did It (Publibook 2012) Desmond Fennell writes about the promotion in modern societies of “soft totalitarianism” by what he calls “the Correctorate”, an unelected, shifting group of ideologically motivated commentators that drives the public agenda in the guise of commenting upon it.
He writes: “The teachers of the post-western, liberal rules of correct behaviour, thought and language came to function, tacitly, as a sort of secular state church or informal, doctrinally paramount ‘Party’. Henceforth, regardless of which political party was in government, this collective would retain the pre-eminent teaching status.”
This syndrome abandoned all pretences during the recent referendum, when “the media” as a unified mass faithfully followed the Government’s line in pushing the proposed amendment as representing an unexceptionable and unambiguous benefit for children and society.
This referendum was distinguished in particular by the manner in which the very statement of the exercise became a form of advocacy, the amendment’s content being semantically all but inextricable from the grip of its description. This enabled both political establishment and media to imply that any contrary voice was ipso facto anti-children.