When considering the state of politics in Europe and America it is easy to find parallels with the events between the two World Wars. Both today and then, a major financial crisis and the attendant fallout in the real economy is followed by a political shift towards populism. Statesmen and women become backward looking, appealing to a past golden age and seek to identify the culprits for its demise; the national interest is redefined in opposition to the interests of other states and their citizens.
No doubt, there is significant value in these comparisons as we try to make sense of what is happening. Nevertheless, there is one way in which the politics of today is fundamentally different from the politics of the 1920s and 30s.
This difference concerns the role that political news plays in the lives of most individual. Today, politics has become a form of entertainment in a way it never was in the 1920s. Back then, in so far as people were interested in the great events of state, information was consumed from a small number of sources and for short periods of time. Today, that picture has changed completely. Information is available at all hours and from many diverse sources.
In some ways these changes count as progress. The capacity of government to control information has been reduced and the possibility for effective criticism of government policy by the interested amateur has been hugely enhanced. However, the sheer volume of often contradictory sources has also led to the erosion of what we might loosely define as “shared knowledge”; that is, knowledge which is sufficiently widely accepted to serve as a foundation for popular discourse about politics. Online media use algorithms to sift through the glut of information and present the individual with the kind of story they have previously engaged with. In this way, existing biases become reinforced and amplified, making constructive dialogue even harder.
When this increased fragmentation is coupled with 24-hour access to news, consumption of news becomes less about getting informed as a basis for future discussion than about creating narratives that conform to pre-existing biases and assumptions. The news becomes a source of humour, of dismay, of sentiment. In other words, it becomes entertainment. This is not to say that the news we consume will never confound us, will never make us question our assumptions. Of course, it may; but the point remains that, very often, its role in our lives is as a form of reality television.
This point was brought home to me recently when reading a vignette posted by Jeremy Vine on Facebook. Vine related his experience of having been present at two awards functions where Boris Johnson was the guest-speaker. On both occasions Boris turned up at the last minute, horribly unprepared only to then win over the crowd with the same set of cod anecdotes and facile political clichés. The conclusion that I drew from the anecdote is that what Boris lacks in intellectual rigour and integrity he makes up for in humour and charisma. What is apposite to my thesis here is that it is precisely these skills that defines the modern politician. That Boris should be on the verge of leading the UK is testament to the new role of political news as entertainment.
Of course, news has always been, at least in part, a form of entertainment. The old Pathé news reels were shown in cinemas before the main feature. In its form and style, Riefenstahl’s masterpiece of propaganda “Triumph of the Will” is a strange hybrid of reportage and entertainment. Governments of modern European states have always been aware of the power of popular entertainment – both to inform and incite to action. This was as true in Elizabethan London as it is today. However, what is new is the reverse process. It is no longer governments that are controlling media; rather it is media, and the demand that media entertains that now control our politics (if not our governments).
It might be argued that the relationship between humour and politics is actually a healthy one. The power of satire lies precisely in its capacity to mobilise humour in the service of political scrutiny. This much I would concede. Indeed it is worth noting that satirical entertainment is often one of the first casualties of a dictatorship. However, there are important differences between satire in its healthy form and the new kind of news I am bemoaning. In its healthy form, satire coexists with a robust news media whose basic aims are to inform and to offer argued opinion pieces. Indeed, satire would hardly make sense without a foundation of facts shared by the audience. Therefore, as news becomes more fragmented and more ideological, so too will satire become fragmented. Satire cannot rescue a broken news industry.
So, if politics really has become entertainment, what will the results be for our democracy? Some might argue that voting preferences and political loyalties are unaffected by the new media led imperatives. People will still vote for the individuals or parties who best serve their core interests whether economic or ideological. So, for example, people would never really vote for Boris simply for his entertainment value; they would only do so if his proposed policies were preferred.
Now I agree that entertainment values have not superseded all other interests. This is clearly not the case. Nevertheless, as the news becomes increasingly indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment, the relationship between politics and the public will become much more volatile. Politicians will prioritise issues based on their media prominence rather than their real-world significance. The electorate will be much more prone to sudden changes of focus as social media trends are reinforced by news media reporting on those trends. These self-reinforcing priority spirals are already apparent in the way that “viral” Youtube videos are reported on by major news outlets, cementing their popularity. All of this has a tendency to distract from issues that play out in a way that doesn’t match up with the rhythms of the news cycle. It would be a brave man who tried to predict where all of this will take us but one thing is clear; unless we think carefully about the way news is presented we will be in for a rocky ride.