The contempt for democracy

Think about this while you read press coverage of the student protests.

This is a cross-post from Enemies of Reason

We'll read a lot about these student protests today. Much of the rage will focus on the fact that an elderly chutney maker had his car kicked in by some people on his way to see Michael McIntyre and Cheryl Cole perform in his honour. Some will deplore the breaking and burning of things by those whom Kay Burley would label as "insurgents". Some others, maybe a smaller number, will wonder if it's a tremendously excellent thing to charge at children with police horses or drag other people out of wheelchairs, or bash them over the head with batons, and all of that – but probably conclude that, yes, sadly, it's actually OK.

One thing that might come up a few times is the idea that a protest of this nature shows "contempt for democracy". If it is, you have to ask: who showed contempt for democracy first?

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to tell people that you have certain policies, become elected because of their votes on the basis of what you've said, and then once you're safely in power for five years, turn around and say, "Look, I'm awfully sorry but things have changed – that manifesto which we said was our manifesto is more of a 'holding manifesto', to be broken open in the unlikely event that we ever get elected with an overall majority; and it is to be entirely ignored if we become part of a coalition, when we can cheerfully reject some or all of our promises?"

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to not tell people that you're going to introduce something like tuition fees in the first place, but then, once you're safely elected, and having given no indication that you're going to introduce tuition fees, introduce tuition fees?

Does it say something about politicians' contempt for democracy, perhaps, that the country can go to war with a foreign power that poses no threat to it, based on no legitimate evidence whatsoever, and that no citizen of that country should have a say in the matter; that entirely peaceful protests should be completely and utterly ignored because it is history, not citizens, who are the real judge of a prime minister, and besides, God told him it would all be all right?

No, of course not. Have a patronising pat on the head and a biscuit to make you feel better. None of that is contempt for democracy at all; that's just part of the rich ebb and flow of parliamentary life, which is so very vital and important to everything getting done. Well, if people told you what they were going to do, or did the things they told you they were going to do, how on earth could things function then? It would almost be as if you were voting for parties based on certain principles, or values, and that they would stick to them, or something. And that would never do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder