Hackgate exposed where power lies. It lies within the media, not with voters. It’s time we stopped for a second, and acknowledged what that means.
But we can’t. Because even the press dining out on Hackgate, and those behind it, don’t want to acknowledge the power that was revealed within their institutions. Without that acknowledgement there is no accountability for the loss of democracy it underpins. This is a systemic problem that does not adhere to the current left/right political spectrum sold by the political press it afflicts. At all. There are no mechanisms by which the press can be held accountable for the way that power is used and we are only just learning the extent of the problem. The culture of an isolated political press motivated by money and power, and it’s effect, is currently on trial at Leveson. (not journalism as is the perception given out…).
That power appears to rest in the ability of a small pool of narrowly informed commentariat, to keep debate about some of the widest reaching global, national, economic, political and social changes for a century, narrow enough that it doesn’t visibly challenge the parameters acceptable to our political parties and media organisations. The problem is more advanced in the US, the pool is smaller in England. So the changes we are seeing do not get real discussion. Spots are allocated within this for tokens. For example Owen Jones for ‘chavs’/young ‘independent’ left ‘thinkers’, Laurie Penny for the young revolutionary/feminist etc. I am not sure what David Starkeys job is, although am fairly clear what Toby Young represents.
The smallness of that pool, and the bleeding of the walls between that tiny bubble and the rest of us, mean this generation of commentariat are the first who will be expected to recognise it, and to see it to challenged. They are also the generation of commentariat in place, as the corrosive effect of this system on democracy has become apparent. Social media is a tool which gives the impression of equality and egalitarianism. The visibility of the small social network that governs politics and media, has demonstrated how inequality is maintained and widened.
The journalist’s privilege of being one of a small number of people with the tool to communicate no longer exists. Twitter was the writers watercooler long before it was having revolutions, the cross over has illuminated how an elite social network underpins media and politics. A myriad of talented writers who just watched their industry become a a twitter X Factor, with rewards in the tens of pounds, and exist in the same virtual circles as those who receive the benefit of that unfairness.
This piece was originally intended as a response to Mic Wright, when he wrote about the situation at the Guardian. He said ‘saints below the line’ were paid pittance to participate in a debate where leading columnists were paid very large sums. My addition to that post was going to be that that the £85 paid to the countries most marginalised people was payment for legitimising a debate where big name columnists perpetuate their permanent structural invisibility from politics. It is exploitative. This, at the core of why I stopped writing for the Guardian early last summer. What I need to say cannot be said from the source of the dysfunction.
Mic is one of a generation of writers whose career disappeared before his eyes. The disappearance of the paid career of writing, symbolic of a demonstrable ‘elite grab’ of our media. Not of a lack of success. His profession is now called content generation and doesn’t pay much. Luckily he has bucked the trend and unlikely many is now doing ok. Mic’s point was about the lack of money available on the ground floor for writers and the effect this has on public debate.
I stopped writing this, when a few posts later he named Laurie Penny and Owen Jones in a post which expanded the theme. It was an an article about the frustration caused by the facile debate of our narrow commentariat. The reason I paused, is that I largely agreed with Mic. We have a rotating table of about a dozen commentators, all similarly narrowly informed and shaping our political discourse. The pool of commentariat is too small, and the walls between it and us too thin, for Mic to comment without naming names. That I didn’t want to write the rest of this, for the fear of hurting the feelings of Laurie in itself demonstrates the problem. Because this is an issue which isn’t going away.
Media studies degrees for working class kids are useless, even though the highest paid jobs in the country are in media and communications. So are journalism degrees. That particular field is a social network, the one where power lies. Social networks do not provide accountability or viable entry for those who need to challenge them. ‘Spots’ are filled by people speaking ‘for’ the groups excluded from political debate. Usually elite educated educated young people, whose connection with the issue they write about is tenuous if it exists at all. One currently speaking ‘for’ chavs, while laying the foundations of a political career which has so far gone from Oxford, alongside the head of unions he has never worked to be member of, Parliament, to the Labour Party. A variation on the SPAD circuit. His ideology and all those factors ensuring his analysis suits his aims, conscious or not.
You could not spend an evening with students at Oxford and not be stunned by the awareness of the immense power that has been, and is, concentrated there. Of the immense posssibilities an Oxford Education brings. Even if not a guarantee of success. I find it difficult to believe Laurie or Owen spent years there and are unaware of the extent of that privilege, or how the power concentrated in that network has created their positions.
Mic is right in just about everything he says. But Laurie and Owen are not responsible for creating the spots they fill. Nor the political spectrum they sit on the fringes of. It wouldn’t have been reasonable for Laurie to turn down opportunities and career progression, or to expect her not to feel proud of her achievements. I have read Owen Jones, and even if his analysis is off to the point where what he does is exploitative and harmful, he appears sincere. That’s why they are chosen.
Laurie is not required to know everything. The experience she cites to Mic, is precisely what one would expect of someone with her age and experience. It doesn’t make her perspective less valid. It does disqualify her from being perceived as an expert on so many things, and the fact that she is placed in a position where she is expected to a be voice informing public discourse as an expert on things she could not possibly have the capacity to understand, is the problem. Not her inability to do the impossible.
The mainstream left wing press, likes to elevate people into impossible positions, treat them as infallible and then knock them down, or let the right do it. The current main purpose of the left wing press is to defend the poor from absurd accusations of the right, and validate those accusations with response so the status quo can continue. Owen apparently deeply believes that what he says is in the interests of those he speaks ‘for’. The narrowness of the commentariat pool, and the use of these young people as experts on topics they do not have the capacity to understand never mind disseminate, sets them up as fall guys for the failure of the media they are not yet at the heart of. Those who Owen’s current popularity benefits, are fully aware of the incongruence of his position and the likelihood of him being able to maintain it.
The role of Laurie and Owen, is to be ‘the left’ in a mainstream media devoted to a right wing agenda. Between them, they are to present a picture of ‘the left’ orbiting a centre of capitalist realism and neo-liberalism, with the elite social network they come from representing the wider left. To absorb criticism for it, and have their personality override ideas. To perpetuate mainstream debate, by offering expected dissent. The reason ‘the left’ see those who dissent as ‘inconsequential commentators’, is that the left has operated as little more than a media and politics entry route for quite a while.
What I think Mic underestimates, is the extent to which our political media is a gristle mill feeding off it’s own young. Laurie’s allocated spot, was to represent radical politics on the fringe of a left/right spectrum. When the centrist position is bullshit anything outside it needs to be discredited. The abuse she receives a required perk of the spot she was given.
I know Laurie, and I haven’t met a commentator given and abusing power and privilege. She is very young writer, who has experienced a certain type of privilege, who is open about that, and who is learning. She is talented and her writing is developing, her outlook maturing. She is seeing the world during one of the most extraordinary times in history. And she has a great view. Which she tries to use responsibly. That is the point of the type of writing Laurie does. Her perspective is valid and honest. She doesn’t know how limited it is, and would have no reason to- she would be torn to shreds for acknowledging it. That she is moving beyond the spot created for her, despite the best efforts of those who created it, is entirely her own doing, that that spot was never open to the majority of writers, regardless of talent, not her doing.
The days of massive salary columnists sealed from the effect of their words, would appear to be dying with the balance sheets of newspapers still trying to sell a political debate that has jumped the shark. Both Laurie and Mic are in different places within this system, both being treated badly by it in some way. Laurie’s response to Mic understandable in the context of the attention Laurie receives. Owen’s treatment of me as a troll, comes from the same place. The twitterstorm Mic got for challenging Laurie, nowhere near the level she has to block and ignore daily.
The familiarity of name her ‘success’ brought, used to justify some of the most grotesque bullying by quarters of the political press she is operating in, often with knives coming from much closer to home than the right. (BTW Paul Staines take a bow, you big brave boy). Many in the elite radical political circle she comes from, publicly turned on her when she matured into the type of writer who would occasionally challenge their outrageous behaviour and it’s effect. Her social network naturally has to become more important to her because of the sheer volume of abuse her work brings, mostly abuse about the the social network she is forced to rely on to insulate her from abuse. The first few years of being a successful columnist today pay less than working full time in Burger King did yesterday. This generation of commentariat unlikely to see Toynbee salaries or careers that long.
This is the culture that maintains the status quo. The commentariat is turning into a coconut shy, people set up on pedestals with labels for the sole purpose of being knocked down.
You couldn’t write the post Mic wrote without naming someone. That tiny pool of commentariat IS the tool by which our facile political debate is maintained. I can absolutely see why Laurie sawd Mic as trolling, but what she dismissed was the challenging of the system she is fighting to change. It is unfair that her place in it, ensures the anger at that system is aimed personally at her, but that is the place she occupies in a system which is the problem so it can’t be avoided. In yesteryear she would have been removed from it. I think Mic has written about Laurie before. I think Laurie was already probably aware of his name and some of those posts probably upset.
Both Owen and Laurie write often about the need for anger. A blog post is a long way from anger. When the media is unaccountable for the power it has, and that power is upheld by a social network- then occasionally challenging that is going to involve hurt feelings. Mic was right in his response, Laurie’s response to him understandable. The problem is that the rest of Laurie’s response and that of her supporters validated everything Mic said. The challenge for both Laurie and Owen, is how they face up to criticism of that sort.
That is why social networking is going to give the most complete view of the death of the liberal class, circa 2012.