Manufacturing Outrage

One of the things I enjoy about this blog is that it attracts readers and commenters from across the political spectrum. This is positive not because it increases the volume of readers (which for a very non-profit amateur operation is largely irrelevant) but because it enables a different kind of discussion, particularly on issues such as Iraq and terrorism for which the area of common ground between the democratic left and the democratic right should be quite broad.

A lot of the time the posters here link to items of news or comment in order to prompt those kind of discussions. Sometimes though we take a stronger line ourselves and make very clear what we think about the opinions coming from the media. And it is interesting to note the reaction when we take a strongly critical position.

Frequently when we criticise the likes of Galloway, T.Ali or Pilger, far leftists rush into the comments box to urge us not to deal with these opinions and instead to concentrate on the ‘real issues’.

And interestingly this week, when those I would not count as part of the ‘democratic right’ chose to lash out at the Spanish people rather than think through what really might be going on in Europe, some of our rightist readers urged us not to worry about the likes of Steyn and Sullivan and to concentrate on the ‘real issues’.

My defence of this approach to a weblog is quite straightforward.

I’m not one of those who sees something earth-shattering in the developments of weblogs but what can be said of this form of relatively cheap and easy online publishing is that it allows those of us who don’t have access to the opinion pages of newspapers or the round-tables of radio and television discussion forums to have an in-put into the debates. And a lot of bloggers, myself included, are a bit disappointed with some of the commentary we find in our media.

There is no escaping the fact that reactionaries on the left and right do have a significant platform in traditional media. Pilger and T.Ali are published globally and are frequently invited to talk at events around the world. Sullivan and Steyn have their articles published on both sides of the Atalantic.

Why? Because newspapers like this sort of stuff. Strident, provocative, even offensive, opinions get people talking and in the final analysis they sell papers, they move units. It is political pornography.

Remember that after 9-11 thousands of Americans started logging on to The Independent’s website in order to be outraged by Robert Fisk. The Guardian’s website saw a surge in readers from the US, some of whom were perhaps liberals looking for a different view than that found in their own media but a good number were surely following links from conservative websites directing them to something that would stimulate their outrage.

Outrage can be produced in two ways. There is writing that prompts anger against it because the readers disagree so strongly with the views of the writer and there is writing that itself consists of encouraging rage against something (George Bush’s Third Reich or the Cowardly Europeans depending on your taste).

I think the papers realise this and they are trying to profit, quite literally, from it. So while there are no tits on page three of the Independent, Fisk goes on the front page in big bold letters.

The conservative Spectator occassionally has writers from what is considered to be the ‘left’. Who have they chosen? Not thoughtful social democrats but one who believes Slobodan Milosevic has been persecuted for his ‘socialist’ views and another who believes that a person telling him he had never seen a shredder in Iraq meant that it didn’t exist and so the Iraq war was based on lies.

More blatant is the case of the Daily Mirror where not only do we have Pilger but we also have Christopher Hitchens to outrage annoy the Pilgerites. You could call that balance of course but I tend to think it is a bit more cynical than that. Far from having a media that fabricates consent, we have a media that manufactures outrage.

Now I can already hear some of you saying, come on Harry, half your blog is made up of ‘look what Galloway/Steyn is saying now” and in some senses that would be a fair criticism. But the problem is this – if such views are ignored then the danger is that the debate becomes one between those who believe America is the enemy and those who believe it is the Europeans, or at least that they are part of the enemy.

Of course what really matters is that voices of reason are heard in the mainstream media and blogs such as this one probably don’t make the slightest difference – I’m not under any illusions about that.

But unless we are just doing it for a laugh, we bloggers, in our own small way, also have to make choices, decide what our priorities are.

I think the loud voices who seek to turn Europe against America and America against Europe need to be responded to and so, in our small way we will continue to try and respond to them. As Jonathan Freedland said about the slurs on Spain – “this cannot go unanswered”. Likewise we will continue to expose the ‘peace movement’ and try to show why they cannot even justify their own name.

This is not just about journalism. We live in age when the media has unprecedented influence and importance. We also live in a time when there is widespread fear and confusion and where the decisions of politicians (and in democracies voters) are no longer a matter of domestic dispute but international importance. My fear is that if a nervous public is constantly fed a diet of demagoguery then there will eventually be an impact where it matters.

But at the same time, part of the fight involves not losing sight of the real issues. There have indeed been much more important things to talk about than whether the Spanish are cowards and the rest of us appeasers. In particular there is a very important discussion begining among the European left about Iraq.

More of that later.