This is why we can’t have nice politics

Today, I fell across a short video clip that provoked me enough to grasp my dusty old blogger’s pen once more. See below.

I am no fan of Brexit, and I am no great fan of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn either. As such, my automatic reaction to the video above probably should have been something like this tweet. Here, a liberal Danish political assistant opposed to Brexit says “How difficult can be it be to give a straight answer to this most central question for the UK?”

My reaction was very different, in fact. I saw the video and could not help but think that I was witnessing a perfect example of the tragic, but inevitable clash of modern democracy: The unstoppable force of a “clever” journalist who literally repeats the same question six times in a row. Against the immovable object of a politician delivering a well-rehearsed and mostly evasive answer 5-6 times in a row. This is the stuff that breeds disillusionment with politics in general and western democracy in particular, I thought to myself with a sigh of hopelessness.

This, to me, is not good political journalism worthy of applause. No matter what one might think of Brexit or Corbyn. Instead, I see it as a piece of audiovisual footage designed primarily to provoke. It is engineered to have one group of people “cheering for their team” and another group cheering for the other. Ladies and gentlemen of Twitter-ville, I present to you the dishonest politician versus the victim of a smartass journalist? Pick your side! React! Retweet! Release the river!

Seeking the truth? Or hunting for retweets?

As a matter of fact, I found myself sympathizing with Jeremy Corbyn (I don’t think I’ve ever thought or said this before). Of course he has his tactical reasons for evading the question – Labour has plenty of pro-Brexit voters to fight for. But honestly, his fourth answer to the journalist is very close to what I would have answered in his place, as well: “A referendum took place, a decision was reached, we have to respect the result of that referendum and negotiate a trading relationship with Europe to defend jobs and living standards in this country.” It is a sober and pragmatic stance, putting people’s vote, but also people’s jobs and Britain’s economy first without any musings about national sovereignty. This is what matters, because it is now that the UK is negotiating this future relationship. We all know that Corbyn was a lukewarm Remainer at best. The 2016 referendum result will not be undone. So the 5th and 6th repetitions of the question are utterly pointless.

So why was I provoked to write this? Because it is a clear-cut example of “news as entertainment” rather than “news as enlightenment”. As Jonas, a friend of mine, put it when I discussed it with him, this is a perversion of mass media’s ideal role as a fourth power that keeps in check the other three (legislature, executive and judiciary). The Channel 4 interview is not meant to foster a debate about the country’s political course or the substance of the negotiations. The point of the interview is to provoke and hopefully end up in a late-night news comedy show, spawning more views, more retweets and more advertisement profits.

Where to point the finger first

I conclude with an admission of personal weakness and abject poverty of constructive ideas. I do not know how to decelerate the unrelenting 24-hours news cycle nor the proliferation of social media as a primary distribution channel for political news and debate. I probably feel a bit like the many people threatened by globalization might feel when they want to reverse something they dislike (free trade, technological change, globalization), but which labeled as irreversible. So I sympathize with them as well, even though I’m in a different position and even though I also fall into the trap of mocking such voters for picking populists over so-called pragmatists. The perception of powerlessness can be very real and very powerful indeed. It is not a nice feeling, but I have no answers right now. Hopefully smarter people than me can find a way to adjust our society’s course away from the twin evils of polarization and apathy. I know that I am not immune to either of these forces.

If anything, at least this video should remind people that the ills of our democracy are not always the fault of politicians. It is just so often the fault of media (who justifiably seek ways to maximize profits in a tough marketplace). And of course it is also (perhaps primarily) the fault of me – and us – and all the consumers of media, news and entertainment out there. To paraphrase both Joseph de Maistre and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight at the same time, in a consumerist democracy, we get the politics we deserve – and not necessarily the politics we need.


PHOTOS:  John Cleese-themed graffiti in pedestrian tunnel in London (found on PxHere under CC0 Public Domain) – because one needs a silly walk after such bleak thoughts