On Destructive Public Voices

Hey there, long time no see.  Only a month, but you can still call it writer’s block I guess.

Also, apologies to anyone who’s comments didn’t show up! I’m reasonably tech-savvy I promise, but I’m still getting used to this GUI.

So, after that hiatus, normal service is now resumed.  Gosh, I can feel a palpable sense of relief sweep over the nation on hearing that.  On to business…


 

We recently saw both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May interviewed by Jeremy Paxman.  Now truth be told, I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Paxman, whether he was savaging a soundbite politician or haranguing a bewildered undergraduate for taking too long to identify the second percussionist in a late sixteenth century line-up of the Prague Philharmonic.

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Oh doooooo come on Magdalen!

Image: Duncan Hull – CC BY 2.0

I grew up in a more deferential age.  The likes of Ben Elton were seen as radical comedians simply because they questioned the status quo.  Spitting Image drew shocked gasps from florally patterned sofas across the nation.  Punch magazine was not only still extant, but to some extent even still occasionally relevant.  George Bush Senior contrasted The Simpsons with The Waltons, thus placing an eight year old with a catapult at the pinnacle of non-conformist youth.  When South Park and Family Guy arrived on the scene I’d watch them with the sound right down, sheepishly aware that My Mother Would Not Approve.  Even when I was living in my own house about four hours’ drive away.  I guess Methodist guilt must be hereditary.

In my best Ted Mosby narration I’ll tell you this: Kids, things used to be different.  Any idea that actual behaviours have gotten better or worse over time is a very easily demolished fallacy.  Even the most cursory glance at the realities of social history reveal that as the poppycock that it is.  But what is certainly true is that what is widely deemed as ‘acceptable’ for mainstream public broadcast or print has undergone a seismic shift.

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Olden tymes

Image: Graham van der Wielen – CC BY 2.0

So when the 1980’s Paxman sat down with the MP for Haltemprice and refused to doff his cap or tug his forelock, it was bordering on a revolutionary act.  The budding antifa growing inside me rather liked that, someone prepared to square up to our patrician twentieth century Tory overlords.  Paxman was a small but meaningful force for change.

So, interests fully declared, we move on to the present day, and in particular the role the likes of Paxman play in our national political discussion now.

His questioning of both Corbyn and May was simply pathetic.  It was childish.  It was Magrittesque at times, quizzing Corbyn on why not all of his personal views made it into the manifesto of the democratically run party that he leads.  Whether or not you like Corbyn, the guy wasn’t elected by Labour members to sit as an autocrat over the party.  For the love of God the man’s a socialist – and you’re questioning why he’s not dictated the manifesto despotically rather than by consensus?  This really isn’t a sophisticated point of political theory I’m making people.

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Paxman’s twitter avatar, yesterday

Image: calmansi – CC BY 2.0

Paxman didn’t appear to like the answer given to him though, so I assume he’d prefer Corbyn to be running the party on more authoritarian lines, akin to a Presidential system.  As, it has since been revealed, Theresa May did with her own party.  Wow.  That way Blairism lies.  No one wants that.

A couple of days before we had the high profile sacking of Katie Hopkins.

Apologies – my mistake – Katie was by no means sacked.  She left LBC by mutual consent.  She was definitely not fired.  She left of her own accord, with the blessings of her employer.  I expect a massive good luck card was signed by all at the Leicester Square studios.  James O’Brian probably circulated it around the office, and brought special cakes in.  There may have been prolonged and tearful farewells.  She was absolutely not sacked.  She just decided her show had run its course and now was the time to pursue other ventures.

All a day after putting out a tweet suggesting that a Muslim holocaust would be just spiffing.  Which she then deleted.

Not fired though.  Mutual agreement.

Those two people – Paxman and Hopkins – are not in many ways alike.  Hopkins has made a career, and probably a small fortune, simply by being a hate-filled uninformed gobshite.  Paxman on  the other hand presumably at least understands the subject matter he’s discussing.

There is one similarity though.  Both have used their public platforms to influence socio-political discourse in an inflammatory manner.  ‘Inflammatory’ is a word used so often these days that I feel it’s lost some of its meaning, so let’s clarify.  What exactly does it inflame?

It inflames abuse in the playground.  It inflames angry and distrustful stares at the supermarket checkout.  It inflames racist and faith-based slurs at pub chucking-out time, and in the taxi queue home from the clubs.  In extreme instances, people get beaten, battered, stabbed.  These ‘inflammatory’ behaviours result in real people getting really killed.  It results in a divided society, with one group feeling that the other hates them and wishes them harm – and vice versa.  It results in kids growing up shying away from their peers, isolating themselves out of a defensive reaction to a perceived hostility.  It results in a vulnerable growing youth, looking for acceptance, ripe for exploitation by any madman intent on recruiting soldiers to their insane war – whether white supremacist, twisted jihadi, xenophobic nationalist or any other cause du jour.

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Some racists, yesterday

Image: Chris Page – CC BY 2.0

Point is, the words and behaviours of Paxman and Hopkins do not exist in isolation.  They have a public platform which grants their real words real impact upon the real world.

And thus they have real responsibilities.

I believe that they understand this.  Whether it be Paxman’s childish and narcissistic interviewing style or Hopkins’ spittle-flecked venom, they understand full well that what they vomit into the world has more impact than the angry bigot ranting into the ether at your local Wetherspoons.  I’m not the first to suggest that their privileged position gives them influence on actual behaviours and events.  No one reaching their kind of standing is a genuine idiot, so it’s not that they can’t conceive of the consequences of their actions.

Like them or not, successful journalists have had to display some degree of intelligence to succeed in that world.  Take Piers Morgan for instance.  The man’s detestable, an odious opportunist of the first degree.  He’s also not half as smart as he thinks he is.  In the grand scheme of things though, he’s not stupid.  The idea that these journalists don’t understand the impact of their words is ridiculous.

They know.  They understand.  So therefore, they must just not care.

We’re left with the unpalatable idea that these people simply don’t give a shit.  Paxman was well aware that his schoolyard tactics would produce nothing of value, and perhaps influence the course of an election, influence all of our futures.  And he didn’t care, so long as he got noticed.  Hopkins was fully cognisant of that her tweet could inspire a suburban youth to smash a brown person’s skull into a paving slab.  And she really didn’t give a flying fuck, as long as people were talking about her.

When journalists behave like this I’d like nothing more than to give them the benefit of the doubt, to believe that they don’t know, or don’t understand.  But realistically that’s simply not true.  They behave like this totally aware of the possible consequences of their words, so it must be that they just don’t care.

Their ego is far, far more important.

The rumblings about phone-hacking continue, accompanied by plenty of opinion pieces referencing the hallowed ‘journalistic ethics.’  But where are those ethics in the behaviours of Paxman, Hopkins, and every other journalist indulging their self-image before their responsibilities?

If you’re a print or broadcast journalist, even if you just write a blog like this, or just tweet to a wide audience – do you realise the impact your words may have?  If you write in an ‘inflammatory’ style are you willing to accept responsibility for the abuse or violence that you may encourage?  When a kid has his head caved in because your words ‘inspired’ someone to misguided action, will you be at the hospital bed, the prison, or the funeral?  Will Paxman?  Will Hopkins?  Do they ever stop to consider that some things might be more important than their vaunted public profiles?

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Narcissus, yesterday

Image: cea + – CC BY 2.0

Narcissists, nothing more.  And yet we hang on their every word.  Perhaps the responsibility lies with the rest of us as well, for giving them the attention that they  so desperately crave.

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