A guest post by Samuel Miller
‘The pen is mightier than the sword’
True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!
From the play Richelieu; Or The Conspiracy: Edward Bulwer-Lytton
In short? The written word is powerful. People can be moved to acts of great kindness and humanitarian aid, or they can be moved to acts of intolerance and great inhumanity. They can be motivated to feel true empathy, humour, regret, hope, aspiration even. Or they can be made to feel doubt, uncertainty, anger, fear and hatred. In the hands of a true wordsmith it is a tool or a weapon that can influence the emotions and opinions of individuals and populations alike for good or ill.
The medium of newsprint is a tool, as are radios, TVs, tablets, laptops etc. They lie there harmless to all until someone starts to speak to you through them. It is the intent of the user, the nature of the platform from which they speak, which determines whether they remain tools, or become weapons.
THAT is the power of the media.
To coin a popular phrase from pop culture though, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’, or in the case of our media, what responsibility?
After the broadcast time and column space filled over the past four years by the Uk’s media, do I really need to post links to every video, front page or quote written about Scotland’s electorate, the YES movement, or the Scottish Government? Is it necessary to point out or remind everyone that the language used across the media has been less than uplifting or positive? The writers and broadcasters know exactly what they are doing. They have a stake in the outcome and it doesn’t matter whether that is corporate, ideological, political, or all three together. They are attempting to achieve a goal by any means necessary that is within their power. The aim of the exercise is to remove a potential or perceived threat to their political view/influence, their world view and quite possibly their livelihoods. To be crystal clear, I actually don’t have a problem with their right to earn a coin or believe what they choose. A ‘right’ is not a serving suggestion. I do however, have a major problem with the ‘any means necessary’ part though, which constitutes a massive grey area and which some elements in the media industry find acceptable and exploitable.
They know that the language they use and the narrative they sell affects emotion and opinion. It is pretty much the day job and they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It also has a very real impact on and very real consequences for people’s lives. That’s the part many in media land don’t appear too big on holding their hands up to. When the emotions and opinions they manipulate spill over into harm for the public, the media are just as quick to fill column space with outrage and… ‘sympathy’? That sells too apparently.
Harm can be realised through emotional distress in terms of manufactured anxiety, fear and doubt, or as actual physical harm as one sector of our society is encouraged to mistrust or alienate another. How many times have we seen our public institutions and services undermined by politicians and commentators writing columns as point scoring exercises, misrepresenting demographics, or mis-stating ‘facts’ in order to affect voting intent? What happens if those who read those columns don’t call that emergency number, or don’t call for that ambulance because they have been encouraged to lose trust or confidence that their needs will be met? What happens when politicians the public have been encouraged to vote into power enact societally disastrous legislation? (see under the current administration’s management of the DWP)
The result in all instances is the same… a very real potential for tragedy. As for the public? Collateral damage, electoral coin and seemingly expendable till the next time their opinion requires influencing.
Oh, and the perennial get out of jail free card is insult upon injury. ‘Its a free country. You didn’t have to buy. You didn’t have to read. You didn’t have to watch. You didn’t have to listen and you didn’t have to believe’. No, no I suppose all of that’s true. So long as you choose to live in a cave up by Cape Wrath and foraged for food, you could quite easily avoid media saturation or those who have been influenced by it in your life. This is basically what’s known as a total abandonment of responsibility, or passing the buck. I sometimes wonder if they realise quite how far the effects of their influence go, or do they actually care what those affects may be? Apparently not. I mean they’re just words and its your choice… right? So what is there to feel guilty about or responsible for?
We are all inevitably influenced by our environment, our experiences and those who touch upon our lives. We all choose to trust or believe in someone or something who has an impact on our perceptions. The politicians and the media movers and shakers know this, they count on it. Using the power of blanket media coverage they exploit this behaviour and you in that order, then wash their hands of the consequences by insisting you had freedom of choice.
This debate, this national conversation of ours has been going on, not just for eight or nine years, but for decades and it’s only now coming to a head. How the next chapter in the history of these islands begins is going to come down to the message and the messenger. Look to the example of both recent referendums. Look carefully at the language used by the campaigns, the media, the backers and the supporters. Assess for yourself, the cause and the effect of the language used to influence your opinion by the media especially and consider the fallout politically and societally in the aftermath of both. Do you like what you see?
The UK that we see today is the end result of the narrative created by thoughtless political strategists and delivered by overly invested and/or compromised mainstream media. This is the UK you get to live in when you use language as a weapon.
Well the way I see it, the YES movement have a very different message and a very different messenger. How we, all of us, put that message across in the future will determine how that next chapter turns out.
A couple of handy links:
Audio version of this blog article, courtesy of @lumi_1984