Thursday, 11 October 2012

Debased media discourse does not promote the common good

The furore over the case of school teacher Jeremy Forrest and 15 year old pupil Megan Stammers going off together hit the headlines recently.

It reminded me of my early days at Wanstead High School when the headmaster Donald Mackay ran off with a sixth former. The year was 1973 and just as with the Stammers case, the press were crowded round the school gates.

Mackay was an austere authority figure, a man to be respected if not feared. The idea of him running off with a sixth former came as quite a shock.

These cases though it would seem are less unusual than many imagine. It is believed that one in six of the population know someone who has had an affair with their teacher. This does not make it right but does cause pause for thought about the great moralising that occurs when these incidents hit the press.

There is a real smell of hypocrisy about the media outlets that sell many of their products based on the sexualising of youngsters at younger and younger ages and then get up on their high moral horse when one of these incidents occurs.

The coverage of the Stammers and Forrest case had all the hallmarks of the 24 hour news era. A local story that broke about a teacher running off with a student. It rapidly became a national story, dominating news bulletins for days until the couple were found in France. Legions of reporters camped outside Bishop Bell School, offering regular updates.

When there was nothing to update the journalists had to look for new angles. The immediate one ofcourse being to seek to blame the school in some way.

The question is what is the point of this type of coverage, what does it add – if anything – to the national understanding of events? Is the media fulfilling its informing, educating and entertaining role? Yes, it provides good copy for news and broadcast outlets but what does it do for the common good?

Another recent story that attracted huge coverage was that of the murder of the two women police constables in Manchester. Again saturation coverage, though this time the story took on the additional aspect of some in the media seeking to obtain a change in the law and/or policing. The killings were seen as a reason to arm the police. This made no sense whatever. But from a media angle if it could be claimed that something had changed, then it would be a case of problem solved, let’s move on to the next one.

Fortunately, there has been no great uptake on this particular knee jerk suggestion either by the police or the government.

This approach though has led to the demise of rational discourse in the media on crucial issues. It is now all about quick fixes and polarised debates. So there cannot be a reasoned debate on important subjects like immigration and benefit fraud. The wrong solutions come about often because the wrong question were being asked in the first place.

Crime provides a classic example of the limitations. There is a general perception among the public that crime is rising, the reality is the opposite - it is falling. Many media outlets instead of telling the good news about crime, prefer to criticise the credibility of the figures in order to further promote the false view that crime is rising.

Another part of the crime debate is the use of prisons. The previous Justice Secretary Ken Clarke tried to reduce levels of incarceration. He argued prison does not work. Yet again the media debate tended toward the old mantra that it does work and the more people that can be locked up the better. The fact that nearly every method of measuring the effects of prisons on individuals suggests that they do not work in stopping reoffending didn’t matter. Better to reinforce prejudices, mistaken beliefs and continue with expensive ill conceived policy made on that basis.

The move toward 24 hour saturation coverage, angled toward quick fixes and polarised debates is degrading the public discourse. As the crime and prison examples prove, it does not bring about the best solution for society based on the common good. Indeed it may bring absolutely the wrong approach and bad policy.

This is not a reason in the era of the Leveson inquiry for more restrictions on the media but maybe for some reflection on what it is for. Is it simply about sensationalism, quick fixes and coming up with the wrong answers to the wrong questions - all based on the need to sell media products? Or is there a higher calling to promote measured coverage with rational wide ranging debate aimed at promoting the common good.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, you make a well-argued and presented case. However, with the recent revelations about Michael Crombie, Head of Music, and his activities makes me wonder of there was not an unhealthy culture in operation. I was also a pupil at the school when Donald ran off with Anne and was astonished at how the press were allowed to openly enter the school and talk with pupils on the Monday after the story appeared int he papers. Michael Hunt