Wednesday, 13 August 2014

From Manufacturing Consent to Manipulating Conflict

The media has been slow to adapt to the new technological environment and numerous journalists have lamented the way the public has used social media to respond to their excesses and their failings. Twitter has exploded on occasion as journalists, previously considering themselves untouchable, inhabitants of ivory towers protected by the patronage of a right-wing billionaire proprietor, were free to produce as much hate and disinformation as they liked. They did this in the knowledge that people living in the real world would never have the opportunity to respond, much less to call them out on lies, hate-speech, omissions and all the other tricks they use to distort and misinform.

That changed, almost imperceptibly at first, with the arrival of Twitter and other forms of social media. The Great Unwashed suddenly had a voice. Probably the first media outlets to capitalise on this were ones like the Guardian, which responded by developing its online, interactive Comment is Free section, still one of the best forums for discussion of news issues. Other papers have followed by allowing reader comments below the line but these have never functioned in quite the same way.

Gradually however the media began to realise that posting controversial articles in these areas provoked more comments and as such guaranteed more hits. The more hits an online paper gets the better its advertising revenue so they had an interest in promoting this kind of material.

For broadcast media however, already struggling as advertising revenues drain away to the internet, the problem was that replicating this in their media was difficult. Some started parallel online sites but these simply did not get the volume of hits that online newspapers received. Something clearly had to be done.

The answer was to fabricate conflict situations live on air. Two implacable opponents were deliberately set up against each other. This is something politicians used to get into but their spin doctors and media management teams have generally warned them off these days, and for good reason. That left the general public. Fortunately there are plenty of members of the public, working for special interest groups or part of minority groups who will argue, often rancorously, with each other, live on air. Now, unfortunately for the broadcasters, people in these groups are becoming increasingly wise to this and wary of taking part in these “discussions”. 

The solution? Set people up. Warring parties were enticed into studios for ‘discussions’ or ‘debates’ without knowing who their opponents would be. People were recruited to go on air feeling unprepared but knowing that if they did not they would be ceding the floor to their opponents; better at least to show there is some opposition rather than allow their lies to go unchallenged.

This is the background to the recent behaviour of the media in the case of trans people. Editors have realised that, every time a trans person speaks there is a group of fanatics called TERFs ready to oppose them, and if the trans people get reluctant to speak, get a TERF on in the first instance and force their hand. The notion of “balance” is thus recruited as an excuse to subject trans people to abuse and harassment live on air as a kind of “entertainment”. The purpose of current affairs programmes, to inform and educate, is twisted into drama or soap opera. sacrificed on the altar of ratings, these media outlets no longer function as informative but as sites of live, personalised drama.

Trans people have become one of the media’s target groups as “balance” can be used as an excuse to set up a well-prepared bigot, fresh from chewing the curtains, against some unsuspecting trans person, hoping to educate a world largely ignorant about trans people.

The media is clearly taking this opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. It is no longer acceptable to put a racist up every time a black person is interviewed, or a religious fundamentalist every time a gay man or lesbian is on. Editors know that the timespan is limited in which they can get away with including a transphobe every time a trans person gets the opportunity to get a hearing.

Paris Lees’ refusal to take part in such a set-up (I assume at financial cost to herself also) hopefully marks the end of this window of opportunity for transphobic abuse. The incident, in which she refused to be set up by Newsnight, probably marks a Wendepunkt in media-trans relations. The media will find it much harder to set up trans people from now on. 

Perhaps they should go back to informing and educating and leave the drama and soaps to those who can do them honestly.

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