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Hell in a handcart Media

Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

I’ve had the misfortune to share airtime with writers from Spiked magazine on a few occasions now. I’m not a fan: the magazine is reliably on the wrong side of any issue you care to think of, rushing to the defence of the world’s worst people. I fear that giving them airtime helps legitimise often appalling views, and I now refuse to go on a programme if they’re part of the so-called debate.

It’s the kind of publication that regularly churns out nonsense of the “surely the real racists here are the people calling racists racists?” variety.

Spiked writers variously argue that climate change is scaremongering, that feminism has gone too far, that women being abused on the internet need to grow a thicker skin, that trans people are dangerous to society and that Tommy Robinson is a true hero. It appears to have a very similar agenda to thinktanks such as the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, organisations with opaque funding  pushing what can best be described as a hard-right agenda.

They remind me of the Sirius Corporation imagined by the late Douglas Adams: “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

If like me you’ve ever wondered how a publication that began as Living Marxism became a mouthpiece and apologist for the hard right, a friend of climate change deniers and an enemy of equality, the answer appears to be simple.

Money.

Lots and lots of money.

I’ve always thought Spiked was a shill for somebody, but I didn’t know who that somebody was. Enter George Monbiot, who Spiked really, really hates. Writing in The Guardian, he notes that Spiked has received at least $300,000 from the Koch brothers. As he explains, the Koch brothers are:

…co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

If you were making a story about corporate villainy, it’d be hard to invent a better pair of bad guys. And these particular guys are using their money to try and change the world through a three-stage model of social change.

Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Thinktanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”… They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements.

Spiked’s editorial stance fits very well inside that: it fights for the implementation of policy change, change that just happens to be entirely in line with the objectives of its funders. Again and again it supports policies that would benefit rich industrialists and rails against policies that might inhibit their ability to make enormous sums of money.

Monbiot:

Above all, its positions are justified with the claim to support free speech. But the freedom all seems to tend in one direction: freedom to lambast vulnerable people.

And its political stance is consistent with that: if it’s good for vulnerable people, then Spiked is against it.

$300K is the figure Spiked has admitted to, but dark money gets its name because it’s hard to trace: it’s highly likely that there are other sums from other organisations that just happen to share the same agenda.

This isn’t just about a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. It’s about the growing use of dark money to pervert media and politics. Dark money appears to be helping fund Spiked, and it appears to be funding the parade of think tanks that get so much airtime. It funds far-right rabble-rousers and social media astroturfing. Enormous sums of money are being spent to advance the interest of a tiny group of exceptionally wealthy people.

As Monbiot puts it:

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

As Finley Peter Dunne famously said, journalism’s job is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Dark money turns that on its head.

That’s not to say journalism shouldn’t have a viewpoint. I like John Harris’s argument:

Even partisan commentary can be rooted in the principles of good journalism, so long as it does not ignore uncomfortable facts, blindly offer support to parties or leaders, or distort actuality to score political points.

But that’s exactly what dark money wants to pollute. As soon as you accept dark money, all of your output becomes suspect.

This is important, and incredibly dangerous. We call the media “the fourth estate” after Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1787 that “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In a civilised society the media is there to hold power accountable, not to act as its apologist or its cheerleader.