As part of the BBC’s Democracy Day, BBC 4’s The World at One included an interview with Philip Coggan, billed as an Economist columnist and author of The Last Vote. (He’s also the author of Paper Promises, and The Money Machine: How the City Works, two books about finance that hold no terrors for the prevailing orthodoxy.)
Coggan began by saying that “democracies”, by which he meant countries that elect their governments, I think, were suffering by comparison with Singapore and China, which seem more efficient. He went on to suggest that there were “bottom up” and “top down” problems. The public have become disenchanted with politicians, because they haven’t had the prosperity they were promised. Meanwhile national politicians continue to pretend that they can tackle problems like terrorism, climate change and tax evasion that can only be address internationally. As a result, people are turning towards “extreme” parties.
The presenter Martha Kearney raised the question of the media’s role in driving popular “disillusion”:
Martha Kearney: Are there other factors at play here in terms of people’s disillusion with politics, I mean, what about the role of the media?
Philip Coggan: Yes, I think that the media does play a significant role. We’ve seen in the US, for example, people who watch the basic news on the main channels decline and people who watch the politicised news on Fox Nes, MSNBC and so on, go up. We’ve also seen the internet rise, people get a lot of their sources of news from the internet and they tend only to focus on those sources of news that confirm what they already believe. So we’ve had this big rise in conspiracy theories. It took twenty four hours before the first conspiracy theories about the Paris attack occurred. When people believe that thing, when they believe that their electors are frauds and that they are conspiring against them, that only makes them turn to people with very simple solutions on the far right and the far left and that’s very dangerous.
This exchange is odd from a number of angles. For one thing, most British people aren’t slumped in front of Fox or CNBC. The BBC is still by far the most important single player in the UK media system. That’s why more and more people have taken to demonstrating outside its offices, something that hasn’t featured prominently on #bbcdemocracyday.
When it comes to the fundamentals of economic and political organization the BBC works strenuously to keep us all in a state of innocence. Remember, this is the news organization that told us that quantitative easing “is like filling up a petrol tank with imaginary petrol”. It is similarly willing and able to keep itself out of discussions about how the established media have contributed to “public disillusion” (the choice of words is telling).
Instead of a conversation about the role that the BBC plays in the current political order, and how it might be reformed as part of a new constitutional settlement, we are treated to Mr Coggan’s thoughts about American cable news and conspiracy theories on the internet.
The whole performance smacks of a kind of paranoid complacency.
[Update: George Monbiot has written a piece for the Guardian about public service broadcasting. Like Mr Coggan he spends too much time talking about North America, but he is more clear-eyed about the problems in mainstream coverage, it seems to me.]