John Bird: Fear sells, but let’s not lose the facts amid the panic

Can we trust the scare-mongering press to navigate us through these troubled political times?

went to the Labour and Conservative party conferences this year because of our Creditworthiness Assessment Bill, which is now passing through the House of Commons. But also to speak at the Fair by Design fringe meetings, held at both events. Fair by Design is a campaign with a simple road map to put an end to the extra costs that go with being poor. It’s a burning injustice that if you’re poor it costs you more money for your credit, gas, insurance and day-to-day living. It fits in well with the work we’re doing about reducing the cost of credit for the most stretched in our communities.

Both conferences were surrounded by pickets against Brexit. Labels and stickers, leaflets and posters and EU flags fluttering with the Union Jack. Humour seemed to be the main tool to get people to change their mind about leaving the European project.

The Tories always seem to dress the most seriously, with men in dark suits and dark ties. As if a load of dentists or accountants had decided to congregate. The Labour lot seemed more fun, more laid back, and perhaps less uptight about the current political situation that the country seems to be in. Why? Because they don’t have to actually skin the cat and deliver the goods as they’re not in office.

I had heard on Question Time a few weeks ago that party conferences were increasingly irrelevant, or were supposed to be. The public don’t tune in as they used to. But that seemed to be far from true. Maybe because there is some suggestion that the current government will be led by another, who made a play in this latest Tory party conference. And of course, at the Labour conference there were flashes of the knives that have been out for their current leader.

You don’t prepare yourself any better by arriving at the scene of the event – Brexit – frightened and shaking

But what is so extraordinary is the panic that spreads as news about these events flow from the media. Breaking news seems a tireless array of speculation and guessing, and occasionally something happens. But it’s the breathless, at times desperate, presentation of news that seems determined to frighten the shit out of the country, and destroy the people’s peace.

But just because Brexit and leadership contests are frightening considerations, in that we don’t know what’s coming down the line, can you really approach the unknowing, shaking like a neurotically informed-by-media voter? Can you face the biggest challenge to the UK’s future (whether it’s positive or not will be decided by time) when the media has made you feel unsure, ill with worry and frightened to the core?

I don’t wish to diminish the gravity of our situation, but you don’t prepare yourself any better by arriving at the scene of the event – Brexit – frightened and shaking.

I knew, and have written about it, the divisive future we are facing when the day after the referendum I met people outraged and screaming bile at Brexiters, and Brexiters behaving as if they had won the lottery. This was not healthy. And it has got unhealthier.

As a Remainer who bought wholeheartedly into Project Fear practised by Cameron and Osborne, and the general BBC version of how the EU was the safer bet, I was disappointed with the result. But I still believe that so much dross and dishonesty was thrown at the voter from both perspectives that I think they probably cancelled each other out.

Elections are always about unfulfilled and unfillable promises that you might actually accuse the lads and lasses who end up winning of being tricksters. Referendums are no cleaner, although we have not had so many.

We need to be informing not inflaming

But surely there is some sense in committing to achieving some compromise, for it will have to come to a compromise however much we hate the idea, by not allowing the press, TV and radio to stir the pot. They are like uncommitted observers, happy (it would seem) that we have got ourselves into a pickle.

The press is having a real problem. It’s losing readers. It’s having its advertising cut. It’s shrinking, much like our high streets. It’s facing the different trading patterns of the vast general public which is undoing their formerly healthy bottom line.

Maybe scaring 10 colours of shit out of us is their swansong, their last ditch stand at trying to create a new product, or extend the life of existing products, by fear and loathing.

I would have thought that what we need at this moment is some very careful analysis that is not about fear and loathing, but hard information delivered without panic. We need to be informing not inflaming.

The fourth estate has recently proved how decisive determining the outcome of politics is. All of the grief around Brexit, if handled at a lower volume in the country, might have got us all thinking beyond scares and fears. Politicians, who decry the press when it goes against them, fight their battles, their takeover planning, their career developments with the full collaboration of the press; and the press, insatiable for content of a conspiratorial kind, provide the platform on which politics can be played out.

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This has got nothing to do with democracy. It is about increasing the income of the private media owners. And fear and loathing has always been a very, very lucrative product.

I don’t know if I trust the press to act as a guide through our increasingly choppy waters. To inform us and reward us with cogent, careful thinking.

Perhaps there’s a reason why current breaking news coincides with a loss of income within the news-breakers trading accounts. Maybe there is a new news product beyond the maelstrom of political events that are coming our way, stirred up and encouraged by a panic-forming press. And maybe you are holding it in your hands, The Big Issue – an antidote, an alternative and a new map. We certainly need one.