Huge contempt for democracy infecting our public culture

Fri, Nov 16, 2012, 00:00

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.

Although things improved somewhat as polling approached, the tone of the media coverage in the early stages of the campaign implied that this was something to which only lunatics and extremists could object.

This was conveyed by means of tendentious headlines, leading questions, smirks and sneers – all accompanying a total avoidance of critical examination of the amendment wording.

The referendum result tells us that approximately two in five voters feel utterly unrepresented in the public conversation, because our singular media seems intent upon promoting the reconstruction of society over and above any democratic responsivity or responsibility.

It is especially remarkable, in view of the constant threat of extinction hanging over conventional media forms, that media organisations appear intent upon pursuing ideological objectives at the expense of their own survival. Upwards of half-a-million people would be available to, for example, buy newspapers – if they could find a newspaper prepared to give their values and outlooks a fair shake.

Yet, no newspaper or broadcasting station appears to be interested in pursuing this segment of the population other than for the purposes of re-educating it.

The abdication of media duty occurs in a troubling symbiosis with the almost total abnegation of responsibility by our parliamentary Opposition.

In the past, opposition parties operated by the principle that it was their duty to oppose the government, to ensure that all legislative questions were adequately interrogated before any law was passed. This approach is now defunct.

Close to half the electorate lacks a voice in either the Dáil or Seanad, where Opposition parties and most Independents routinely adopt the Government line on crucial issues. Like the media, politicians place the process of “correcting” society above democracy or their own survival. If Fianna Fáil could pull in 42 per cent of the popular vote it would hold about 80 Dáil seats instead of 20, and yet it ploughs the same furrow as Fine Gael, Labour and the rest.

Unsurprisingly, politicians and media actors have been working overtime since the referendum to explain away the No vote as relating to, variously, household charge refusnikism or even (according to one ludicrous extrapolation from a single spoiled vote in Cavan) support for the incarcerated Seán Quinn.

Sorry comrades, but no. This vote is no more the expression of some vague disgruntlement, vexatiousness or conservatism than it is indicative of a widespread desire to grind children into the dust.

It is directed at the establishment, which now includes our singular media, indicating an awakening to the extraordinary contempt for democracy that now infects Irish public culture.

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