Over the last week, a critique of the press has been gaining ground.
“Journalism is missing the mood the country. We don't want blame, we don't want argument as if this were a General Election, we want a contribution to the national effort to get us out of this crisis. We want hope optimism and faith in our country. We need less negativity.”
@effiedeans, 18 April 2020 - 3K retweets, 12K likes.
Effie Deans - a self-described "pro UK Scottish blogger" - wrote this tweet up as a blog post two days later. Her words were widely quoted and remixed, often unattributed, and seem to have inspired the content of a text-image that did the rounds on WhatsApp before being shared by Alan Sugar on 27 April, to 14K retweets and 42K likes.
A poll from Ipsos Mori on 29 April asked people how well various media groups were holding the government to account.
More people think journalists are doing a good job asking questions at the Government's Coronavirus briefings than a bad one (43% vs. 28%) - indicating that the sentiments expressed by Effie Deans, Alan Sugar and their fans aren't a majority position. TV and radio journalists also got net positive feedback - but newspaper journalists in general are more polarising: 30% think they're holding government to account well, and 30% don't.
Why does this matter?
Some hope that coronavirus might have changed everything and brought a Britain sorely divided by Brexit back together. The vociferous disagreement in response to this text, or series of texts - much as they make authoritative claim to "the public mood" singular - indicates that this is not the case. However, its sentiments clearly have a resonance for many - and I think we can use it to read a populist mood, and to explore how that has changed and evolved since the chest-beating retro-nationalism of Brexit.
What is the worldview revealed by this series of texts? What are the underlying beliefs, values and metanarratives they reveal? How might media - and the Labour Party - cross this divide and reach this audience?
1. The coronavirus isn’t "political”
To be fair, it’s a stretch for most outside the most convoluted parts of science & technology studies to see a virus as, itself, political. The coronavirus is instead terrifyingly inhuman, this ‘organism at the edge of life’. It does not choose who does or does not get infected. It acts upon the world, but I would contest that this is 'agency'. It is incredibly flattening to call it “power”.
Yet how the virus spreads, and the impacts it has clearly are political, by any normal definition: these factors are determined by decisions that belong to the realm of government: decisions on NHS funding, school closures, and freedom of movement.
Nonetheless, the fact of populist resistance to calling this "politics" remains. This bears evidence to the hollowed-out state of politics in the UK: people equate "the political” with the party-political, and as such all criticism of the government becomes seen as party-political point scoring. Understood as such, this behaviour is not unreasonably disliked: people are dying here, please can you stop your tribal games.
Have people forgotten that politics might also mean much more than this, too? Or has there never been much public understanding of the political at all?
Of course, "politics" is not easily defined: politics may be that which concerns the state, or it may be the process of conciliating different interests and of non-violent conflict resolution (Bernard Crick). It may be the exercise of power, and influence over the actions of others - or the distribution of resources: politics is about ‘who gets what, when and how' (Harold Lasswell). Hannah Arendt postulates that there is nothing that is ‘essentially’ political, and politics can appear anywhere. It’s vague to the point of meaninglessness to say that everything is consequently political - but everything has the potential for it, nonetheless.
Yet not the coronavirus, in much of the popular imagination. There’s a desire for this time of social distancing not to be associated with the thing that has driven us apart. Instead, populist Britons seem to desire a space outside of politics. If only a wholly ‘natural’ disaster were possible.
2. The battle against coronavirus is a war
War is already a commonly-borrowed metaphor for illness - one is brave, one fights and battles it, as cancer sufferers in particular have objected to for some time.
War turns out to be a particularly potent populist metaphor for coronavirus, however. It (supposedly) creates a space beyond the political, where the crisis isn’t the fault of anyone in the nation but an enemy, outside. And it brings to mind what’s felt to be a glorious past - of the Blitz, remembered as another time of heroic British stoicism while sheltering from an unseen aggressor.
The war metaphor also brings with it calls for “morale”, and “supporting our side” (patriotism gets a little muddled up with team sports, I think), which explains the various populist injunctions on the importance of positive thinking and good news.
In her blog post, Effie Dean writes that:
“A person or a people who believe they will win in the end is much more likely to do so. This is why morale matters so much to armies. It has on numerous occasions seen a smaller force beat a larger force. Morale can cause miracles not merely in battle but in illness. Being brave, optimistic and full of faith does not guarantee that you get better, but it helps. Thinking your case is hopeless and you are bound to die sometimes guarantees that you do. This is what the country gets that journalists don’t.”
The government is equated with the nation, and the press is, by this account, expected to function as a form of state propaganda. Dissent is unpatriotic.
Boris’s continued associations of himself to Churchill really have paid dividends here.
3. A desire for authority
The populist texts being shared are explicit in their instructions to sit down, shut up, and respect the government's authority. "We do not need or want blame. We do not want constant criticism of our Government," says the text-image. "If we had had the modern journalist profession in 1940, we would have lost the war," claims Effie Dean.
Political science research on authoritarian governance has recently resurged. In the UK and the US, elections in 2016 revealed the declining relevance of left/right political alignments in favour of an authoritarian-traditional vs. liberal-progressive schism. Traditional factors like class and income were little better than a guess for predicting voting intent, the British Election Study found, whereas authoritarian positions like 'Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?' or 'Are you in favour of the death penalty?' had 70%+ predictive power. NatCen reported similarly: 72% of those holding ‘authoritarian’ views voted to leave, compared with 21% of those holding ‘libertarian’ views.
It's perhaps not a surprise that a viral pandemic should encourage authoritarian attitudes - there's really little better.
Another finding from the political science research is that “Authoritarian attitudes have been consistently linked to feelings of disgust, an emotion that is thought to have evolved to protect the organism from contamination.” It’s proper Mary Douglas “Dirt is matter out of place” stuff: viral sickness promotes desires for order and control (Liuzza et al 2018). People more sensitive to disgust perceive greater threat from outside, and are drawn to concentrated power structures that emphasize submission to authority, social conformity, and hostility towards outsiders. There’s even a “parasite stress hypothesis” (Murray et al 2013) which suggests that “societal variability in authoritarian governance may result, in part, from variability in the prevalence of disease-causing parasites.” This sounds far out, and their cognitive causal mechanisms seem questionable - yet other research has found that “democratic transitions in North America and Europe were preceded by dramatic reductions in the prevalence of infectious disease," though, so the correlation is at least interesting.
So much for the country being brought together. With the epidemic threat likely to last for years, this authoritarian / liberal-progressive polarisation seems likely to continue.
4. The desire for Daddy
In the UK, this populist desire for authority meets a centrist desire for "grown-ups" - and produces a kind of paternalism.
As one viral tweet has it: “Journalists continually posing the question "When is lockdown going to be lifted?" are the adult equivalent of children asking "Are we there yet?" on a long car journey.”
Daddy is in the front seat driving, and Daddy knows best, and Daddy will take care of us. The country is cast as his children; and any disagreement or dissent, simply childish.
Of course, Daddy hasn't actually been steering the nation though this crisis: he's been on holiday at Chequers and in hospital and getting engaged and having a baby. But recognising that your parents are fallible is the trauma of maturity. It feels safer to keep on being baby.
Sometimes the desire for paternalism goes further, into flat out submission. "At its very core, this is a nation of subservient bootlickers," sanaa said to me on Twitter. It's a kind of beta-authoritarianism; it's what happens when people internalise class hierarchies into their very souls. I hate to kinkshame but it's repellent.
5. Nobody likes a critic: positivity, politeness, and trying one's best
On Twitter, a doctor challenges Effie: "Over 14000 people are dead. And you want positivity?"
"Positivity is necessary to stop there being still more deaths," Effie preaches back. "You should know this if you are a doctor. To deny that optimism plays a role in getting well is frankly unscientific."
"If people could cure disease with positive thinking, I'd be out of a job," says the doctor. "To suggest otherwise is callous, at best."
Effie doesn't seem to care - much as she criticises the critics for not being nice. The preferred morality is a primary-school one, where the government is to be praised for "trying their best". The daddy/child metanarrative is reversed: now Boris is six, and struggling in the second-from-bottom maths set at school, and we have to praise his efforts and not his mediocre test results.
I might prefer to continue the war metaphor: sometimes “trying one’s best” just isn't good enough, not when thousands of people end up dead.
6. The role of journalism
The text-image continues this demand for positivity: "We want and need a constructive contribution to the national effort to help us out of this crisis. We need hope, optimism and faith, with less negativity and more positive support from these journalists."
There's a lot to unpack, here - starting with a sort of collision between British politeness and conflict-avoidance, and what feels like a rather more American cult of positive thinking. The military-sporting metanarrative resurfaces here: we must support our team against the enemy, and journalism is seen as, essentially, a propaganda function, indistinguishable from state PR.
This both obviously insane - what of the role of journalism to expose the truth? - and gestures at a more serious and difficult question: who and what is journalism for?
Journalism is not to serve those in power, but it is in some way to serve the reader. Journalism has some duty to reflect their values (though I would rather say 'class interests'...); I am uncomfortable with a journalism that's purely didactic and seeks instead only to instruct people on what their values and interests should be. Yet I think it's fair to say that this is where many people feel journalism is failing them. I can't agree with the populist call for a 'nicer' journalism, but I recognise a nugget of truth in the critique nonetheless. The left concurs, pointing to the incredibly narrow demographic writing for major newspapers, and the continued dominance of a 90s New Labour class of columnists.
Who is journalism for? It's a reasonable question - many would say, left and populist-right, that it's written to serve the interests and perspectives of a political-economic an elite, not them.
A related issue is that good news rarely makes a good story: it lacks tension, conflict, narrative drive. Newspapers are including a bit of coverage of heroic charity volunteers and saintly nurses, and opinion columns outline the lessons to be learnt from lockdown and the world that might be built after this. But there's value in recognising that people want more of the hopey-change thing. More solutions journalism. Publications might usefully listen to this.
Why does this matter?
The task for both the media and the Labour Party is to be able to communicate across these metanarratives - these different worlds of perception. “That’s what you get for a decade of Tory cuts” might be true, but it doesn't win anybody over. Politics requires persuasion: how can they assert the value of what they do in a way that’s legible to people with different values?
One strategy could be to borrow some of the populists' language. Questions about testing and PPE are undeniably in the public interest, yet half of the public doesn't recognise this. So what if journalists used their words? The "sit down and shut up" authoritarianism might not translate, but the 'values' stuff does.
There's also a desperate need to assert the value of journalism. This requires three things: education, assertiveness, and listening.
The UK has no civics education, and as we repeatedly see, most people do not really understand the difference between journalism and PR. We need behind-the-scenes TV programmes in newsrooms and on investigative journalism beats, revealing the vast work of sourcing and triangulation and fact-checking that lies beneath the smooth prose of the final reported piece. Where's the reality TV show set in a J-School course? The Instagram Lives from outside the news conference, the Stories taking readers through the process of pitching, reporting, writing, editing and publication. "How is truth made?" is a hell of a story. Why aren't newspapers and the BBC telling it?
Second, there's a need to assert journalism as the machinery by which democracy is made accountable. When journalists challenge the Prime Minister (or Dominic Raab) on the daily briefings, they need to speak in the name of the British people, not their publications. Now Piers Morgan is part of the reality-based community again, perhaps he could write a column on this.
Third, listening. Increasing trust requires real feedback loops between publication and audience. The publications are getting smart on article analytics, but how much audience research do they do beyond that? We need readers' editors at every major paper - and empowered ones, with claws. The Guardian has Elisabeth Ribbans newly in this role. Her reporting on "How readers play a vital role in shaping the Guardian's coronavirus content" includes mention of the creation of a new, 'good news stories' vertical, Hope In A Time of Crisis, in response to demand - which vindicates my assertion above that readers want this! Viewers of Piers Morgan's breakfast TV show are calling for the same - and he too is acknowledging them. The Guardian's Communities team is also providing regular opportunities for readers to share their stories - which means regular places where readers can see people like them in the paper's pages, not just Zone 2-dwelling columnists. This, too, can help.
Ultimately the populism expressed in these texts is of a less hostile variety than we've seen recently. It comes, clearly, from a place of fear and concern - and is calling above all for reassurance. I don't agree with half the solutions it calls for - but I think there's ways of responding productively to this popular mood, nonetheless.