How do we have public conversations in the age of rage?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 15th 2018

Has the world of politics and public life ever been so messed up? And at a time of global confusion, disruption and challenge when intelligent politics is more needed than ever before.

British politics in the last week has seen stormy arguments over the rights and wrongs of Tory Boris Johnson and his comments about Muslim women wearing the burka. At the same time, Labour’s discomfort and problems over anti-semitism, which I wrote about last week, refuses to go away, continuing to plague the Corbyn leadership.

We are living in an age of bizarre cultural wars which show no sign of going away, that test the boundaries of what is and isn’t permissible comment, tolerance, and free speech.

Each of these controversies is different, but has commonalities. Take the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s comments on Muslim women wearing the burka and comparing them to ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ (in typical Johnson style, he actually meant the niqab and not the burka). As is now an established pattern, this produced an avalanche of media and public comment.

Some of the worst were some of the most prominent. Writing in ‘The Spectator’, Rod Liddle commented ‘there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory Party’, calling Islam ‘an arrogant, oppressive ideology’. Such odious remarks brought no commendation from editor Fraser Nelson, chairman Andrew Neil, or any senior right-wing politician. Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor of ‘The Sun’ called criticism of Johnson ‘this confected witch-hunt’ led by Theresa May.

As telling, in defence of Boris Johnson came – one Stanley Johnson and one Rachel Johnson – respectively father and sister. They argued in Sunday newspaper columns that their close relative was right – and indeed had only failed in that ‘he didn’t go nearly far enough’ in the words of his sister. The politics of hatred as the politics of the family sticking together – as is the incestuous nature of much media and public life.

Muslim women have been harassed on the street and called ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’: words directly traced back to Johnson’s article. What is the response of the intelligent right-wing beyond the headbangers? Leaving aside silence, the response is either to make light of it or doubt it happened – as Iain Martin, serial right-wing blogger said of one report, ‘the account of that incident seems pretty thin?’

Numerous controversies are made worse by the way the mainstream media cover them. Take two recent examples. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is one of the UK’s most influential think tanks and its Director Mark Littlewood was recently caught by Robert Booth of ‘The Guardian’ allegedly offering access to ministers for monies: a serious charge that should have led to an internal investigation and potentially resignations from the IEA. Instead, the IEA used the controversy and the need to have ‘balance’ in broadcasters to make the unashamed case for its agenda and style of operation: deregulation and a light touch state, while justifying its modus operandi and secret financing. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance whose funders are unknown beyond the organisation.

The other example is convicted criminal Tommy Robinson, a marginal public figure whose release from prison was treated by broadcasters as a major national event, thus magnifying the importance of micro-pond life on the far right. Robinson was presented as a champion of the marginalised working class and an advocate and martyr for free speech – supposedly silenced by the liberal media giving him blanket coverage. The IEA and Robinson examples show how lost liberal media has become: searching for ‘balance’ when there isn’t any on some subjects (the climate change ‘debate’ being one example), chasing headlines, entertainment, and following pseudo-public events and stunts.

Closer to home we had in a similar pattern the Peter Curran-Wings over Scotland v. BBC stramash. Most sane people will not have followed this in detail, or at all, but the detail and principle of this exercised a small, noisy online group. Suffice to say, said bloggers, both pro-independence, had YouTube channels which used BBC content; the BBC asked YouTube to take them down citing copyright violations which they did; there was then a stand-off, and after words were exchanged they were allowed back up.

This was storm in a tea cup stuff, typical of many modern supposed controversies. The BBC had a legal case, but a less sure political and ethical one. They did not publicly say what they were doing; the first people knew were when the YouTube channels were down; and once it became public the Beeb didn’t say why it done what it had done, only belatedly issuing an anodyne statement which explained nothing. Result? The BBC’s lack of leadership and ability to communicate was revealed, as was the public absence of BBC Scotland senior figures, and the continued lack of autonomy of the Scottish operation. The bloggers were seen as victims struck down by the oppressive Beeb, won wider awareness and got their sites back up. Many of those most excised by all of this saw it as vindicating the way they see the world – the propaganda of the BBC, their control, and the fact that they take their orders from London management.

All of these are not a product of the heatwave, Brexit or Trump. Nor is it about the flare ups that happen on social media: this is more a facilitator and amplifier, rather than the root source or real cause. A long tail has got us to the present point. It is a crisis of media, politics, and who can speak and who cannot or chooses not to. This is redolent of big changes underway in public life, debate and exchange, and in how we relate to and respect each other.

Once upon a time the media and public life were defined by deference, barriers to entry, and gatekeepers. Organisations like the BBC and some of the great papers of the land acted as patrician embodiments of the British establishment – liberal, benign, knowing what was best for us.

This order began to creak and show cracks across the post-war era through rising living standards, widening education, and the decline of traditional authority such as religion. It became more self-evident that the well-meaning liberal class view of the world had limitations. As the UK became more divided in the 1970s, Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) conducted pioneering research which analysed the biases of the BBC and ITV in how they reported industrial conflicts – with the emphasis systemically against workers and trade unions and slanted towards the employers. The BBC and ITV never properly responded or accepted this GUMG research, but it was groundbreaking, and the beginning of a new era in how people consumed and contested what media did.

These are fractured, fractious times, with seemingly everything up for question and debate in an endless and often exhausting public set of exchanges. Authority, experts and facts are widely questioned or ignored: uncontested facts if they don’t suit one perspective are either ignored or called out in Trumpian terms ‘fake news’. This leaves open the perilous question about who do we trust and why? Who do we look to as our guides and interpreters in this troubled world? Could it really be for some people Trump, Boris Johnson – even Tommy Robinson, or worse?

What is often missed in the age of rage and incessant noise is just as revealing: the silences. Some of these silences are those groups who are structurally or culturally marginalised because they lack connections or status. Most of the debate about Boris Johnson’s remarks on Muslim women was conducted without Muslim women, and nearly entirely without Muslim women who wear the burka.

Another form of silence exists. This comes from those with power and influence choosing not to intervene. Hence, while it is true Theresa May did condemn the Johnson remarks, a large part of the Tory Party just kept quiet. And when a social media storm blew on the Rod Liddle Islamophobic comments, not one senior Tory politician condemned them. In similar form, the recent Peter Curran/Wings v. BBC stand-off saw not one senior SNP politician stand up for the BBC, or make the case that maybe, while the BBC had made significant mistakes, it did not all amount to justifying some crazed conspiracy theory of the Beeb’s war on pro-independence bloggers.

This is how the boundaries, content and style of public debate gets hollowed out and diminished. From one side, people say insensitive things or worse: they become part of the mainstream and normalised; and from another, various figures collude in this by choosing to keep quiet. The cumulative effect is a coarsening in how we talk, listen and reflect – we are all diminished, and hate-mongers, populists and extremists at the margins are a little more emboldened.

How do we respond to such confusing times? The answer of defending freedom of speech and expression as an absolute doesn’t get us very far, because all freedoms are in context and come with responsibilities. Thus, freedom of speech in the UK doesn’t come with the right to say anything – even in the US with the First Amendment setting legal limits in a host of areas, such as according to the Supreme Court ‘advocacy of the use of force’ or incitement to suicide.

Somehow we have to go back to basics in how we do public conversations in public forums, platforms and institutions. We have to embrace cultures and processes that challenge groupthink, allow for different views and forms of intelligence, and contribute to a diversity of views. Too many of our conversations are wary of disagreement, and too many only touch on the most superficial differences, when we have to dare to go deeper into philosophical groundings, values and creative sparks and frictions from which innovative ideas and inventions come from. In an age of 24/7 you would have thought this would not be impossible, instead of endless repeating the same kind of superficial, pointscoring exchanges, but the more mainstream media that has been created the more similar in format lots of it has become.

What is really needed is alternative ways of doing media, public platforms and spaces, but ultimately this only matters if we can find better ways of communicating and engaging. These are disputatious times with huge questions hanging over our societies and mankind, and which some parts of media choose to interpret by hiding behind ‘balance’ on climate change between an expert and Nigel Lawson, or on Tommy Robinson. All of this contributes to weakening democracy and public life, and pouring oil on burning flames.

We have to find different ways to be able to have public conversations, or we may find that the answers which emerge are even more unpalatable than those currently on offer. That does not mean we can go back to the ways of liberal authority and society and our supposed betters thinking they know best. Somehow we have to start taking the first steps in respecting each other, those we disagree with, and creating different cultures from those around us. We don’t have much time to do so, but if the harbingers of Trump and Brexit aren’t enough, we cannot say we weren’t warned!