Today the papers and broadcasters will indulge in their annual game of trying to slip a joke story past their readers and viewers. It is all good fun, but like all good fun it highlights what it also obscures. The joke works by taking it for granted that the rest of the coverage – all the other stories, on other days – isn’t a succession of absurd fictions. The rest of the time the news is just fine. The moment of misrule, when the facts are not sovereign, is just that, a moment. We can relax and enjoy a moment of relaxation. Everything works as advertised. And that’s just as well. If it didn’t – if the media were systematically unreliable – how would we even know?
Our enjoyment of the joke is a symptom.
The media are, as a matter of fact, predictably, even reliably, unreliable. The 364 days a year that aren’t April 1st abound with grotesque untruths, misleading precis and demented frames of reference. We can argue about the exact nature of the mechanisms that lead to this unreliability. But it is clear to anyone who has been paying attention that powers outside, and self-interest within, media institutions shape coverage in ways that leave us misinformed in key respects.
When we try to understand matters of peace and war, or the financial sector, when we try to grasp the nature of the state, and its economic counterpart, the corporation, or when we try to appreciate the role that the media themselves play in society, we are offered coverage that is whimsical, half-witted, or abjectly perverse. Anyone who doubts this should briefly review the coverage that preceded the collapse of the dot.com sector, the invasion of Iraq, or the 2007-8 credit crisis.
They might also take a moment to wonder whether widespread hacking of MPs’ phones by the News of the World has had any impact at all on the political process in Britain.
The prankster god under whose sign I am doomed to live my life has ensured that my book is to be published in the United States on April Fools’ Day. And funnily enough The Return of the Public offers America the means to avert constitutional collapse. Self-government without reliable information is a fraud, perhaps the most sophisticated fraud ever devised in a world so tirelessly inventive of – and avid for – deceits. Information will only be reliable when each of us have a hand in its production. This is the heart of the book’s argument.
If the media remain unreformed then the joke will still be on us, whether we are laughing along or not. On the other hand, if something published today were to save the Republic and bring down the Empire, well now that would be funny.
Those of you who like to keep track of these things can read my first piece on creating an alternative to the Coalition’s cuts agenda over at the New Statesman blog. I’ve also made a partial return to political paranoia, with a piece about agents provocateurs over at Verso.
In other news someone called RaffJones has given us what we all needed but didn’t know we needed – and you know, that’s very much like the case for media reform, when you think about it. They’ve mashed Withnail and C3PO, obviously, and not a moment too soon. (h/t Popbitch)
This time next year we’ll be millionaires, if the Bank of England has its way,