Newspapers And The Breakdown Of Political Reporting

People knows that politics, like sport or entertainment is often a carefully scripted drama tailored for public consumption. Like boxing fans at the Olympics, the audience knows in advance the result is probably fixed but it pretends otherwise.

It wants to pretend. The public is eager for legends and is eager to assist in creating mythology, whether it surrounds a football player or a politician. Fans will ignore facts that don't fit the myth and will create legends that support it.

In moments of doubt, they chant. Chant to banish thought, chant to stimulate adrenaline, which banishes thought.

You can't blame the media. The power of the Press is breaking down. The voters are willingly deluding themselves.

For a long time politicians could use the newspapers and broadcasters to limit the discourse - limit the issues that are raised, control who can speak or be heard. They could disguise the hand that pulls the string and pretend that their plans and schemes were simply a response to "events, dear boy, events".

It is not the Internet that has weakened the power of the press. It is the breakdown of homogeneity in a society that shared a common outlook, that considered many issues settled and agreed.

The voters still willingly play along, limiting the issues that they will consider in casting their vote. Think of the man reading The Times on the train. His world, all he needed to know, was in those pages. It's not that the newspaper circumscribed the news. It presented only the news that he needed:  People who did not matter to him, his social circle and his job, were not mentioned.

That's breaking down. Not because people stopped reading but because the readership and society is less homogeneous and it no longer needs The Times to reflect who's in and who's out. The broadsheet  newspapers no longer represent the class which take decisions and which runs society. Nor do politicians come from a homogeneous, ruling class. Modern party politics requires lobby fodder that votes as required, with very few exceptions.

Political writers must pretend the people they interview actually make the decisions. They are trapped in a medium of declining relevance but that's not because people just stopped reading newspapers. It's because there is no conversation between politicians and the society from which they come. There is no constituency.

Newspapers and broadcasters could break out of this trap if they talked about the decisions behind the decisions, of the action off the pitch as well as on it. But that would require newspapers to identify and align themselves with a constituency rather than the government and journalists are too closely connected to those they write about.

Journalists have a rule of thumb. Any story must include the information: who, what, when, where and how. A minority of journalists also ask why, which is the only question that has a chance of revealing motives. All the rest is scenery. Even why is not enough. Journalists must dramatically broaden their terms of reference. That means becoming experts, sometimes greater experts than those whom they interview.

The Greek playwrights worked this out a millennium ago. Our newspaper columnists and television pundits put a question to a politician knowing they will get a false answer, and then turn to the audience and deliver a commentary based on false premises.

That is why the Greek playwrights, when satirising the politicians of the day, took it a step further, using the Greek Chorus. It did the job of reflecting, holding a mirror up to the politician as he was represented on the stage.

The politician claimed credit for winning a war; the chorus recalled the men who profited from blood and terror . Or the other way: the chorus sang the praises of man's humanity to man, creating a crushing irony as some self-seeking politician concluded his conspiracy.

It was a kind of two-step verification that did not let the rulers set the boundaries of debate, impose their version of history, their brand of political amnesia.

The comment sections on newspaper web sites provide something similar but it thrives, sadly, because of the poor quality of much reporting.

Newspapers cannot survive by default, leaving truth and verification to their readers.

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