Jack Delano Long stairway in mill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1940
We at the Automatic Earth always try to steer clear of elections as much as possible, because there are no functioning democracies left in the west -no more than there are functioning markets-, and no journalists reporting on them either. Interesting question, by the way: how can a journalist report on a democracy that isn’t there? And where in that setting does news turn to mere opinion, and where does opinion then become news ?
Still, of course we caught some bits of the UK elections along the way regardless. The decisive moment for us must have been when Jeremy Paxman interviewed David Cameron at the BBC, and asked him if he knew how many foodbanks had been added in Britain since he took office 5 years ago.
Cameron, well duh obviously, had no idea, and instead of answering the question he started a flowery discourse praising the many volunteers who work in the foodbanks he didn’t know existed. Paxman cut him short and said there were 66 when Cameron came to power, and 421 now. Apparently in Britain, volunteers are needed to take care of the needy, they’re not going to pay people to do that. You would think that takes care of Cameron’s candidacy, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
At least Paxman seemed to try, but interviews like his should take place on the eve of an election, not 6 weeks before them like this one. That leaves far too much time for spin doctors to repair damage done by their candidate’s ignorance and gullibility. It’s crazy enough that party leaders can refuse to discuss each other, let alone the public, in public. Then again, that too would only be significant if there would be an actual democracy in Britain.
As things are, they might as well have put the royal baby in charge as soon as she was born, or for that matter the newborn macaque in Japan that ‘stole’ her name (at least there was an honest public ballot for that). Or perhaps the adorable little monkey can take over polling in the UK, since we can’t imagine any British pollsters still being employed tomorrow morning, not with the degrees to which they missed any and all election outcomes today.
A whole bunch of ‘leaders’ will leave too, but there’s plenty of shades of dull grey humanoids waiting in the wings to replace them. Besides, though Nigel Farage has often been dead on in describing, in the European Parliament, the inherent failures of Brussels, at home he’s never been more than a sad lost clown. I had to think hard about LibDem Clegg’s first name, even needed to look it up -it’s Nick- , and that sort of says it all: he would do well to change his name to Bland.
And perhaps Ed Milibland should do the same. Can anyone ever really have believed that this lady’s underwear salesman could have won this election? Or did they all just fudge the numbers so they had material to print? Ed Milibland never stood a chance. And Russell Bland can now go lick his wounds from supporting the guy, and no, Russell, saying now that you’re just a comedian won’t do the trick. You’ve been tainted. If it’s any consolation, you screwed up the same way Springsteen did when he played Obama’s support act. No surrender, no excuses.
Milibland, by the way, had one last no-no to offer in stepping down. He tweeted: “I am grateful to the people who worked on our campaign and for the campaign they ran. The responsibility for the result is mine alone.” Sorry, boyo, but that just ain’t so. The responsibility lies at least as much with the people who put you in the leader’s chair that doesn’t fit you, and with those who kept you in that chair throughout the campaign.
All Brits should feel blessed that they’re not in America, where these campaigns, which are equally hollow and devoid of democratic principles, last ten times as long. If your blessings are few, do count them.
But then, we all get what we deserve. If the Brits want to be governed and gutted by the same people who raised the number of foodbanks the way they have, by a factor of seven in five years, and who fabricated the pretense of a functioning economy by blowing the biggest bubble in British history in selling off London town to monopoly money printing Chinese, Russian expat oligarchs and other such impeccable and blameless world citizens, if that’s what the Brits want, then let them have it.
One things’s for sure: Cameron and his ilk, now that they have a majority, will let them have it. And then some. In reality, though, even if they deserve what they get, there’s no vox populi here: the people have not spoken, the people have done what the press told them to do. Like in so many countries, there effectively is no press anymore in Britain, at least not in the sense that we used to knowl; the press no longer asks questions. Which begs yet another question: what is first to go, the media or the democratic values?
Peter Yukes wrote this for Politico just before the election:
The British Press Has Lost It
For months polls have put Conservatives and Labour close with about third of the vote each, and smaller parties destined to hold some balance of power. But there has been no balance in the papers. Tracked by Election Unspun, the coverage has been unremittingly hostile to Ed Miliband, the Labour challenger, with national newspapers backing the Conservative incumbent, David Cameron over Labour by a ratio of five to one.
Veteran US campaign manager David Axelrod finds this politicization of the print media one of the most salient differences with the US. “I’ve worked in aggressive media environments before,” he told POLITICO, “but not this partisan.” Axelrod may have ax to grind as he advises the Labour Party, but even a conservative commentator and long-serving lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch has been shocked. “Tomorrow’s front pages show British press at partisan worst,” Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times rued. “All pretense of separation between news and opinion gone, even in ‘qualities.’”
Excuse me, but how is ‘this politicization of the print media one of the most salient differences with the US’? Which US paper has not long been grossly politicized? It’s a shame Yukes devalues his article with such statements.
And that’s the difference. The whole newspaper industry seems to be affected by the tabloid tendentiousness trade-marked by Murdoch’s best-selling the Sun when it roared, in 1992, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It.” The Daily Mail specializes in political character assassination and the ‘Red Ed’ tag was predictable. But when the paper went on from attacking Miliband’s dead father to a hit-job on his wife’s appearance, the politics of personal destruction sank from gutter to sewer.
In this precipitous race to the bottom, perhaps the Daily Telegraph had the steepest fall. Known as a bastion of the Tory thinking, it had long been respected for separating fact from comment. During this election cycle is was caught sourcing its front pages direct from Conservative Campaign HQ, seeming to confirm the parting words of its senior political commentator, Peter Oborne, that it was intent on committing “a fraud on its readership.”
Well, at least it’s no surprise that the Telegraph does what it’s always done. Nobody expects them to be impartial.
The paper of record, The Times, fared a little better, in that there has been two vaguely positive front pages about Miliband — compared to 18 for Cameron.Meanwhile, the publication that arose in rebellion to Murdoch’s acquisition of the Times in the 80s, The Independent, shocked most its staff and readership by backing a continued Lib Dem/Tory Coalition. Reports said the endorsement was a ‘diktat’ from the wealthy Russian-born owner, Evgeny Lebedev, causing many to mock its original ad slogan “The Independent: It’s Not. Are You?” or renaming it ‘The Dependent’.
Even the sober, tight-lipped Financial Times, which once supported Blair and endorsed Obama, lost credibility. The paper said it backed another Conservative-led coalition because Ed Miliband was too “preoccupied with inequality.” But that magisterial tone was undermined when it emerged the leader writer, Jonathan Ford, was pictured in the notorious 1987 photo of Oxford’s elite hard drinking Bullingdon Club next to the Tory mayor Boris Johnson and just below David Cameron.
A bigger problem would seem to be that Milibland can’t have been far from that club; he attended much of the same educational institutions the other ‘leader elites’ did. Yukes is on to something, but he’s missing the point.
Therein lies the problem, and an indication the newspaper world is a microcosm of a wider malaise. The Conservative politician John Biffen once said “whenever you find a senior politician and a powerful media owner in private conclave, you can be certain that the aims of healthy, plural democracy are not being well-served.” This election that conclave looks like an exclusive club.
Rarely have the economic interests of the handful of wealthy men who own most the press (nine men own 90% of all national and regional titles) appeared so brutally transparent. Most of the conservatives among them don’t like Cameron’s modernizing project, or the fact he looks set to fail to get a majority for a second time. But they fear Miliband with a passion because he threatens their power in several ways.
They fear(ed) Milibland? I don’t believe that for a second. I think it’s much more likely that they’ve all intentionally exaggerated Milibland’s poll numbers to make it look like there was an actual race going on. That they were only too happy to have a guy run against theirs that everybody could see from miles away would never be a contender (maybe if his first name would have been Marlon? or Stanley?)
Plus they have the outdated and somewhat inane electoral system, in which for instance the Green Party got – roughly – one million votes and 1 seat, while the Conservatives accumulated 10 million votes and 331 seats. If you can work that system in your favor, you’re half way home. Moreover, if and when you hire the cream of the crop American spin doctors, as the Cons have certainly done, who love purchasing media, you’re way past halfway.
The system can certainly be given some sort of name, but a functioning democracy it’s not. If anything, a democracy is “A system of government in which power is vested in the people”. Makes us wonder how many clients of the 421 foodbanks and counting have voted Con. and figured they were proudly doing their democratic duty.