Tag Archives: media

Getting the Fear

In which The Author can see the fnords

Yesterday’s Daily Express (a mid-market UK tabloid ‘news’paper) had the banner headline NEW FEARS OVER UK BABY BOOM.
I happen to know this because the Ancient Mariner (one of Aberdare Library’s cast of unfunny comedy characters) was engrossed in it when I walked in. Unlike me, who reads the paper on his lap (or on the desk), he holds it up in front of him to parade his prejudices to all comers. He’s clearly one of those people who likes to hide behind his daily diet of health scares and racism, rather than face the Real World head-on.
I don’t know the full details, but given that rag’s editorial ideology, it’s almost certain that the baby boom in question isn’t being caused by native-born, English-speaking, white, middle-class Anglicans.
[A digression: There’s a very good reason why I don’t know the full details. I wouldn’t touch the Express, or its nearest rival the Daily Mail, unless I was wearing full biohazard kit. I find their poisonous outpourings to be dangerous enough at thirty yards. I won’t even go near their websites. I know I’m running Linux, but those are two viruses which I don’t want anywhere near my computer.]
Therefore, I could be entirely wrong about the content behind yesterday’s screamer.
I doubt it, though.
In fact, thinking about it again last night, I couldn’t remember the last time the Express or the Mail ran a front page which didn’t include the word ‘fear’. (In the former case, it was probably a headline about Diana, Princess of Wales.)
Four days out of seven, the cause of general panic in Northcliffe House and the Northern & Shell Building will be a deadly disease or other medical condition: cancer, HIV/Aids, diabetes, obesity, Ebola, or (the current front-runner) the Zika virus.
The last time Mother mentioned something she’d ‘read in the paper’ about anti-depressants, I had to interrupt her mid-sentence.
‘What ‘paper’ was that, then?’ I asked. ‘Was it in Nature, PLoS, The Lancet, the BMJ, or JAMA? Or that world-renowned, peer-reviewed scientific journal The Mail on Sunday?’
Call me cynical, but I’ve only ever met two journalists with degrees in science. Neither of them work in what used to be called Fleet Street.
If there’s not a naturally occurring threat presently facing the UK population, there are plenty of man-made ways to make Middle England shit its collective pants: pollution, climate change, GM food, nuclear meltdown, same-sex marriage, designer babies, computer terrorism, the oil running out, suicide bombings …
Alok Jha, the former Guardian science correspondent who’s now with ITV, has written a book called 50 Ways the World Could End (Quercus, 2014). It should provide Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre with enough front page horror stories to last the rest of my lifetime: solar flares, strangelets, black holes, information decay, DNA degradation, asteroid strikes, ice age, pole shift, nanobots, the Artificial Intelligence takeover … (See ‘It’s Not the End of the World‘ for a wry look at the last apocalypse we were looking forward to.)
The runaway 2016 Top of the Poops (not a typo), and every saloon bar philosopher’s current obsession, is the movement of refugees from civil or cross-border conflicts. We in the ‘civilised’ West are directly or indirectly responsible for starting probably two-thirds of these, remember. (Directly through our membership of NATO, and/or our slavish devotion to US foreign policy since the 1950s. Indirectly, as a legacy of our imperial ambitions, or our belief that we had the right to impose arbitrary boundaries on nomadic peoples after the end of the Great War.)
We’re constantly being told that these poor displaced buggers will ‘engulf’ us, and that we’ll become a minority in ‘our own country’. (Always assuming they haven’t blown us all up first, of course.) That’s the message which pumps out of our televisions and radio sets, and gets splashed over column acres of newsprint every month.
Is it any wonder that, according to a substantial proportion of people in Aberdare, anyone with a non-white face must be either an ‘asylum seeker’ or a ‘potential terrorist’ (or both). That’s the received wisdom of just about every ‘Red Tory’ (i.e. right-wing Labour voter) in the Cynon Valley these days, in fact.
What must they must make of Fatima in my local chippy? She wears a hijab, but looks and sounds eastern European. It must be cognitive dissonance a-go-go for the knuckle-draggers of Trecynon. Maybe they just go for a curry or a kebab instead. After all, it’s obvious they’re not local, isn’t it?
It’s hardly surprising they believe this. Most of them lack the basic skills required to read a quality newspaper like The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian – all of which are available in the reference library debating chamber in Aberdare six days a week – or even i. This handy little paper costs justs 40p a day, and offers much better value than the comics it rubs shoulders with in my local Spar. The crossword isn’t too bad, either.
Instead they fall back on the mid-market tabloids (not too many long words or much in the way of informed analysis), or slide even further back down the Reading Tree to The Sun and the Daily Star. Failing that, they just parrot the rolling headlines on BBC News when they’re pontificating in the pub.
A recent opinion poll found that only 16% of UK voters thought they knew enough about the debate to be able to make a choice in June’s In/Out EU referendum. They’re obviously not getting much in the way of information from the media then, are they? Yet this is arguably the single biggest issue facing our country today.
Instead, pretty much all they read or hear are variants on ‘asylum’, ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘crisis’, ‘swamping’, and other provocative language designed to appeal to the Little Englander mentality of Nigel Farage and his pals.
In Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s cult SF Illuminatus! trilogy, they explain one of the ways in which the secret rulers of the world keep the population in a constant state of low-level anxiety. It’s an extension of the theory explored by Vance Packard in his controversial examination of the advertising industry The Hidden Persuaders. Mr Packard claimed to know the secrets of ‘subliminal messages’ which were concealed in ads (mainly in the cinema) to boost sales of certain products.
Although his work has been roundly criticised since, the two Roberts picked his idea up and ran with it for quite some distance.
In Illuminatus!, the fantasy goes (roughly) like this:
At a very early age, schoolkids are shown the word fnord on the board.
At the same time, their teachers tell them, ‘Don’t see the fnord. If you can’t see it, it won’t eat you.’
Naturally, all newspapers, books, television programmes, advertisements, billboards, radio broadcasts – just about every work in every medium – include the word fnord. Although the grown adults can’t consciously see it because of their early conditioning, their mind still triggers those childhood fears of being eaten by the fnord. Their systems are therefore in a low ‘activation state’ (as the behaviourists called it), and their brains are more amenable to reprogramming.
When the anarchist crew of the Leif Erikson rescue New York cop Saul Goodman from his kidnappers, they set about breaking down his mental conditioning. They know they’ve succeeded when Saul looks up from his newspaper and says happily, ‘I can see the fnords!’
I know it’s SF, and I know it’s a satire, but in essence that’s the sort of thing the papers and broadcasters are doing every day. The papers I’ve singled out surround their particular brand of fascism with populist articles about soap operas, actors and pop singers, and other ‘celebrities’ which largely appeal to a female readership. This guarantees that they make their way into respectable households across the country, and the ideas spread by stealth instead of by overt means. It’s hard to imagine any terrorist group managing to get that sort of ad-supported mass exposure, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
Northern & Shell (the owners of the Express and Star, plus their Sunday counterparts, seem to have a particular relationship with Lidl, the German supermarket chain. They sell a limited range of papers and magazines at the checkout; a cursory glance suggests that most of them are published by N&S. I’ll have to make a note of them all one day, when it’s quiet enough that I’m not blocking the aisle, and then look them up in Willings Press Guide to see who the proprietors are.
I’ve certainly never seen a copy of The Guardian or i on sale in Lidl in Aberdare. Maybe they fly off the shelves first thing in the morning, before I have a chance to get there. I don’t know.
But it means that the customers get to choose from a very limited palette of opinion and ideology. They probably aren’t even aware that this narrowcasting is taking place. Less than fifty metres up the road, the old Gadlys Co-op sells the whole range of daily papers. The Pakistani family who run it have had the business for years. But the people behind the checkouts in Lidl are white and British (except Mei, who’s Chinese, and a young Irish lad who recently started there). The people of the Gadlys and Trecynon can get their daily dose of ideology from someone who looks vaguely similar to them. So that’s all right then, isn’t it?
Instead of embracing the global village, as I’ve been doing since before I was consciously aware of it, it seems that the inhabitants of Little Britain (which is even less funny than the BBC’s alleged comedy show of the same title) have retreated into one corner of their wattle-and-daub hut.
Cowering in the darkness, they tell each other stories about the strange people outside the hut. Most of these have been handed down through the generations, or passed on by Chinese Whispers. Very few of the inhabitants have ever been outside the hut, except in organised hunting parties or during raids on neighbouring huts.
A tiny handful have ever spent long enough outside the hut to meet someone who didn’t speak the same language, or who didn’t believe in the same folktales, or who didn’t know the same tribal songs. They keep their experiences to themselves, because they’ll be called ‘mad’, or ‘possessed’, or thrown out of the hut entirely.
And someone, long ago, once met somebody from outside the hut who was so totally fucking amazing that they decided to get married and start a family. Nobody from the hut ever spoke to them again.
Cautionary tales, you know.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1993) defines terrorism thus:
Terrorist principles and practices; the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, esp. into acceding to specific political demands; the fact of terrorizing or being terrorized.
Maybe it’s not terrorism we should be worried about, but Fearism. I’ll have a stab at defining it here:
Fearist principles and practices; the systematic and low-key indoctrination of a population into following a pernicious and hate-filled ideology; the control of mass news media by governments in order to perpetuate their ideology; the fact of fearizing or being fearized.
Don’t have nightmares.

More Questions and Answers

In which The Author puts his two penn’orth in

On Thursday evening I revisited one of my old haunts – the University of South Wales. I used to know it as the Polytechnic of Wales, back in the late 1980s and early 90s, when I worked in the campus bookshop. In September 2009 I returned there, when it was the University of Glamorgan, as a decidedly immature student. On Thursday I was there in yet another guise – as a fairly new member of Plaid Cymru.
My friend Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies is one of five candidates seeking a place on Plaid Cymru’s Regional List for the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections. The first hustings took place on Thursday evening, in the conference centre at the University of South Wales. I had a choice of going there, or to the meeting in Cardiff next week. It’s twice as expensive to get to Cardiff as it is to get to Treforest, so Thursday seemed to be the obvious choice.
I suppose I’d better explain what the Regional List means. The Welsh Assembly has sixty members. The forty constituencies across Wales return one member apiece, using the first-past-the-post system. Another twenty members – four from each of Wales’s five regions – are returned using a method of proportional representation called the d’Hondt formula. I won’t even try to summarise it; if you’re interested in the number-crunching you can find more information on the Welsh Assembly’s own website. If that fails to shed any light on the subject, you can read a further explanation by Prof. Roger Scully of Cardiff University here.
Dafydd is pitching to be selected for the Regional List in South Wales Central. The other hopefuls are the party’s current leader, Leanne Wood; Neil McEvoy, a councillor from Cardiff with an impressive track record; Shelley Rees-Owen, a councillor from the Rhondda who stood in the May 2015 election; and Owain Davies, a surprisingly young-looking chap, originally from Cardiganshire but now living near Cardiff. The final selection will be made using the single transferable vote system. Is it any wonder the British people rejected a switch to PR when it was offered a few years ago? First past the post may result in endless decades of Labour domination in areas like ours, and safe Tory strongholds in middle England, but at least it’s easy to grasp.
There was a very pleasing turn-out for the hustings. I got there fairly early, so I was the third person to register to vote. Rowland (Dafydd’s father) turned up shortly afterwards, and introduced me to a couple of his friends while we were waiting to go into the conference room. We distributed some of Dafydd’s leaflets while the room quickly filled up. (The back wall folds away to double the space available, which is a useful feature.) Gwyn and Joyce came in and said hello. Peter F. waved across from his seat. I was surprised that David Walters wasn’t there, but Rowland was the bearer of bad news: David’s father had passed away the previous day.
The proceedings were quite straightforward, unlike the voting system. Each candidate spoke for six minutes under the watchful eye of chairman Chris Franks. After they’d set out their respective stalls, they all took their seats and fielded questions from the audience. When Mr Franks was noting down the names of people who’d raised their hands, I rather nervously put my own hand up. Dafydd and Leanne both spotted me and smiled. I’ve only met Leanne once before, when she came to Aberdare to support Dafydd’s general election campaign in 2010. That was quite encouraging.
The questions were wide-ranging and well thought out. A couple of people asked about issues relating to education; someone else raised the staffing problems in the NHS; one chap was very scathing about the Cardiff Local Development Plan. Barry Jones, a chap from Mountain Ash with a keen intellect, asked about Plaid’s take on TTIP, the ‘free trade’ agreement which could conceivably override national sovereignty in the interests of multinational corporations.
I was conscious that time was running short, and I wondered if I’d get the chance to put my question. However, Mr Franks wasn’t calling people in strict order, so I was quite surprised when he read out my name.
I got to my feet, smiled at the panellists, and started to speak (in English, needless to say – the Welsh language is a subject for another blog and, probably, another unfinished project!)
‘On election night, about two hours before the polls closed, a mate of mine came up to me.
‘”Steve,” he said, “I still haven’t made my mind up who to vote for. I can’t decide between Plaid and UKIP.”
‘I sat him down and read him the Riot Act for five minutes.’
That got a chuckle, so I knew I was doing okay.
‘My question is this: How do we raise the profile of the party so that non-Labour voters see us, and not UKIP, as the default option in 2016?’
I sat down and Rowland patted me on the shoulder. Dafydd tackled the question first, and called me by name when he was answering, which I thought was good of him. As a fairly ‘green’ member of the party (in both senses of the word) I was being welcomed into the fold by the chairman himself.
All the nominees agreed that it was important for Plaid Cymru to engage with local community campaigns, trade unions, arrange mock elections in secondary schools, and keep its name in the newspapers. We’ve got to promote our policies and present a viable alternative to the Labour status quo when the Assembly elections roll around next year. We’ve got to increase our representation in local councils, and prove that we can come up with something other than the same old same old.
They’re dead right, of course. But the aim of my question went rather deeper than that. Yesterday, listening to PM on Radio 4 as usual, I heard the customary Friday evening chat between Eddie Mair and Any Questions host Jonathan Dimbleby. As soon as Mr Dimbleby listed the guests for that night’s programme I texted Rowland:
Flashback to last night’s Q&A – Farage is on panel of Any Questions tonight. Again…
On Thursday night, this is exactly what I was getting at. I don’t know how many times people from UKIP have been on Any Questions and Question Time in the last five years. It has to be a few dozen at least. A few months ago I sent an email to PM (see Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics). It included a rather sarcastic PS aimed at the editor of the show, in which I highlighted the disproportionate amount of airtime devoted to Nigel Farage and his merry men. Consider that it took them nearly twenty years to get any representation in the UK Parliament, peaking at an extraordinary two MPs before falling back to just one in May. The Scottish National Party got hours of airtime and acres of press coverage before the last election, and reaped the dividends mightily.
Plaid Cymru has been around since 1925, currently has three MPs and a solid bedrock of support in Wales, and Leanne Wood gets an invitation to meet one of the Dimblebys as and when they deign to catch a train through the Severn Tunnel.
It probably didn’t help matters on Thursday night that I was sitting next to a former newspaper editor who went on to work as a press officer for the Wales Office. Surely Rowland – of all people – can use his extensive network of contacts, and wealth of experience in the field, to raise the party’s media profile.
Plaid’s lack of national coverage is something which we’ll need to look at seriously in time for next May. If we can’t get on (at least) a level playing field with UKIP, surely we can do better than just sitting outside the fence and wishing the BBC would let us have a kickabout once in a while.