First there were attacks on Westminster, London Bridge and Manchester, before the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. There were also so-called “retaliatory” attacks on innocent Muslims, such as that in Finsbury Park. The impact of this series of tragedies on the country’s cohesion cannot be overstated.
Add to this a sense of deep national anxiety, laid bare in a warning last week from the Social Mobility Commission that “without radical and urgent reform, the social and economic divisions in British society will widen even further, threatening community cohesion and economic prosperity.”
The reason for this crisis? A failure to translate political concerns into social action, a widening gap between rich and poor – and crucially, a loss of faith in the country’s core institutions, including the media.
As journalists who have borne witness to the now critical erosion of trust in the mainstream media – alongside the not unrelated deterioration in the standards of reporting on certain minority groups – we feel things are reaching a breaking point.
Trust in the British government, which was already low at 36 per cent at the start of last year, fell to 26 per cent by the beginning of 2017. The UK now ranks as a “flawed democracy”. Meanwhile, trust in the media fell from 36 per cent in 2016 to 24 per cent. Less than a quarter of Britons trust our industry.
With the rise of fake news, vlogging and social media, a growing portion of the public is tuning out mainstream media outlets. In many cases, consumers no longer believe in the media’s responsibility to hold itself and others to account.
There was a time, as journalists, when we would argue back. The media is the government’s watchdog, we would say. We are in this to tell the stories of those who can’t get their voices heard. We want to highlight corruption and inequality. But these days, it’s harder to believe our own words.
The truth is, the media increasingly looks and sounds like the bubble of the liberal elite, as it is so often tarred.
What accountability is there when a man who cosies up to the very political powers his outlets are meant to keep in check controls huge swathes of the media? Just last month, Rupert Murdoch’s sons held secret talks with the communications regulator Ofcom in a bid to persuade it to approve Fox’s planned £11.7bn buyout of the 61 per cent of Sky it does not already own.
Alongside this expanding monopoly, we’ve witnessed the death of local news, meaning the stories of regular folk no longer receive the platform they should. A powerful elite grows its media influence, while the many struggle to get their concerns heard in a local paper.
These days, when you go to marginalised communities for their voice, it’s easy to understand their reluctance to speak to the media – the same media which labels their immigrant parents “cockroaches”, their jobless friends “scroungers”, their young men “hoodlums”?
If you’re wondering why there are so many conspiracy theories about the underlying causes of the Grenfell fire, or what has happened in its aftermath, it’s because many working-class communities no longer believe that the media is even interested in asking the questions which matter to them.
It was clear to anyone on the ground in the area that the mainstream media was not welcome, as they were not seen as holding those responsible to account. As one man pointed out to us: “Some boys around here have done time for a lot less than killing 79 people – who’s going to jail for this?” We wish we had the answer.
The truth is, our industry is complicit in an accountability vacuum that ignored years of concern expressed by residents in the wealthiest borough in the country over their homes literally being firetraps. To say residents were abandoned by the state is to say too little – they were and continue to be ignored by their elected councillors, unworthy of basic interaction with the elected Prime Minister, and largely viewed with disdain by a media just hankering over a riot story which can convert public sympathy into the more usual contempt dished out to inner city folk.
For those who have no faith in official sources of information, conspiracy theories are the only truths. And frankly, can you blame them?
The sight of handwritten missing notes in plastic sleeves plastered on lamp posts – as if families were searching for their lost cats – is a visual representation of utter neglect. No government to lean on, no media to highlight their reality. This is the alternative space an increasing number of people now inhabit.
Conspiracy theories reflect the fears of those who don’t believe there is a watchdog willing to speak truth to power and ask how many bodies were (are?) actually in Grenfell? How many survived, or were ordinarily resident in the block? Who is asking the right questions to the authorities on behalf of those whose family members and friends are missing? Where are the stories of the homeless victims, who we know haven’t come forward, due to their immigration status?
The truth is, sometimes reality is actually scarier than “conspiracy theories”. And sometimes conspiracy theories reflect the alternative narrative, fuelled by unheard truths. Marginalised communities see a stark contrast between their experience and the media’s divisive language – and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
From national radio show hosts being given a platform to spew hate and demonise minorities, to former EDL leaders invited on Good Morning Britain only to, in the words of the host, “stir up hatred” against Muslims, to commentators who have made it their profession to use insidious rhetoric designed to cast suspicion over anyone who identifies as an immigrant or worse, a refugee. These words have real-world consequences for the safety of those whose voices are so often left out of the narrative.
There has never been a more pressing time to consider how to restore trust in the media’s practices – a review, dare we say it, of our ethics and standards as journalists.
And yet, in the face of such a crisis of trust in public institutions, last month the government announced that the second part of the Leveson Inquiry (the first part having cost £5.4m, resulting in essentially nothing new) earmarked to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press, has been abandoned.
Despite their claimed association with gagging free speech, media guidelines have, in the past, offered some pretty valuable lessons on how better to report on sensitive subjects, including when it comes to marginal identities.
One such example is how the PCC (press regulator Ipso’s predecessor) sought to influence the way newspapers cover the transgender community. It asked journalists to consider whether an individual’s transgender status was genuinely relevant to the newsworthiness of a story, also encouraging the use of pronouns that the person would use to describe themselves. Why is such consideration not offered to other misrepresented groups?
For all the journalists expressing sympathy with distorted portrayals of marginalised groups, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Sympathy is cheap. What we need is a watchdog which can ensure the worst strands of xenophobia, racism and prejudice aren’t given a platform to spew hate.
Keep the free speech tears for when we’re not counting bodies and acid attack victims. It’s time we addressed the deepening inequality in this country, currently entrenched by an all-too-often self-indulgent media bubble. That would be a first step towards regaining the trust of those who feel the media doesn’t speak to or for them.
Salah-Aldeen Khadr is a journalist, filmmaker and media anthropologist. Myriam Francois is a journalist and academic at the SOAS Centre for Islamic Studies.