Do we BENEFIT from IMMIGRATION? (a brief exploration of semantic influence).

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Can you see what I did there in the title? I conflated two loaded terms together to make one all pervasive semantically primed caption – designed to capture your attention and activate certain feelings and emotional responses that are being subconsciously suggested to you on a daily basis through the myriad of programming on these two topics.

Now, before you start screaming ‘lizard people!’ at me – this is not to say that someone or some group has sat down and decided to use the semantic priming of the electorate to stir up ill-feeling and division against certain groups of people in order to divert attention from themselves. No. That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it?

Of course, if the ongoing demonization of these perceived social sub-groups is not some diversion tactic by the powerful elite, then it must be something else. Stands to reason really. So what else could it be? Here are some options and considerations.

1.            We (as a collective entity incapable of individual thought) are genuinely concerned about benefits/migrants.

Sounds reasonable. I mean, there are no shades of grey here are they? We, the 63 million headed beast known as ‘the electorate’, have come to a majority consensus that we don’t like bene-grants, sorry, I mean, immi-fits, (whoops!) I mean benefits and immigrants.

I suppose that’s because we all wake up every day, covered in immigrants, go downstairs only to find we’ve lost our JOB to an immigrant and that we’re not entitled to any support because the welfare bill is being used by all those bloody benefit claimants. Then, as you walk down your street, which is full of immigrants and benefit CHEATS, you look through their windows and they’re all having a big party around a FLAT SCREEN TV, watching SKY, drinking BEER, smoking CIGARETTES, taking ILLEGAL DRUGS, committing other CRIME and having BABIES at our expense.

What’s worse is some of them are one and the same thing: immigrants on benefits (OMG!). And some of them look just like us so it’s hard to tell which is which and who to hate the most! I mean, we hate our ‘own’ benefit claimants anyway, so what if they are foreign? I suppose that means we hate them twice as much? Does it work like that?

For example, you are trapped in a burning building with two other people: one is a white British benefit claimant, the other is an immigrant benefit claimant. Only two of you can survive. Do you a) save the evil British person cos they’re only ‘one bad’, or b) save the ‘two bad’ evil foreign person because you probably are one too, or c) let yourself burn and let them both live (whatever!), or d) let them both burn as they are evil anyway and you are a better human being than them?

I suppose if you genuinely do hate immigrant/benefits then you will have given this much thought. I mean, ‘hate’ is a really strong word and historically has led to all sorts of problems, so you don’t want to take a subject like hating a whole section of society lightly. It’s not like you would just watch say, one episode of a ‘structured reality’ TV show on Channel 4 and come to this opinion, that would be absurd. (Or worse still – read the opinions of one newspaper and think that represents the whole complexity of the issue!)

2.            You are not so concerned about the individuals who are being targeted, more the impact on the economic situation these issues can cause.

We’ve moved up a notch here from burning people alive, for those of a more academic disposition. It’s not racist to talk about immigration after all, and it’s not elitist to talk about benefit claimants. To give you an idea of the kind of audience this option applies to, listen to any Radio 4 phone-in at the moment, or watch question time.

This kind of opinion doesn’t come from tabloids or scare tactics. How can it when you read broadsheets and watch the neutral BBC treatment of these topics? (mostly commissioned in response to the tabloids and political scare tactics – in order to represent a ‘balanced’ debate of the issues of the day).

Now we’re considering, in a mild mannered and measured way, the IMPACT on SCHOOL PLACES, on HOUSING, CRIME and the NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE. Let alone the overall contribution to THE DEFICIT. We’re talking about immigration CAPS and CHECKS and BALANCES. Also, on what it means to make a FAIR CONTRIBUTION to the STATE. And this is the world of STATISTICS.

Funnily enough, this is also the world where during a three hour debate phone-in, an expert can happily tell us that there isn’t really a problem – that the figures are massively insignificant in comparison to say, financial fraud and tax evasion at the highest level – and yet no one stops the debate and says “oh well, there isn’t much point us continuing to talk about people on benefits and immigrants anymore if this isn’t really a problem compared to these other things.” No, the show continues to debate the none-issue anyway in a weekly series of ill-formed opinion tennis, as that’s what we want to hear, apparently.

It’s tempting to think, when listening to some semi-retired bed & breakfast owner in Torquay waxing lyrical about the strain on the NHS due to immigration, and how it wasn’t like that in ‘my day’, that they are only ever a stone’s throw away from suggesting we put up a big wall around the country and shoot on sight. But it’s okay, because they don’t mind immigrants as people because they met some nice one’s working in the 5 star hotel they once visited in London (even if they did have trouble understanding the accent). And they understand the plight of people out of work on benefits, but why should these people have FLAT SCREEN TVs, and not go out and GET A JOB like they did once in another decade/place/social situation?

You may have noticed throughout this blog that I have been using a lot of CAPS to emphasise certain key words. Not very subtle, and I’m sorry if it seems like I’m typographically shouting at you. The reason however was to see if anything illuminating comes from stringing these words together once I’d finished ironically appraising the broad ‘camps’ of public opinion as presented above.

Option 1 was, roughly, your tabloids and shock TV approach to making ‘folk devils’ out of immigrants and benefit claimants (‘folk devils’ by the way, is a social sciences term for how the media represent  sections of society perceived to be ‘out of order’ with the rest of us – often totally sensationalised and disconnected from the reality of the situation: there are theories that this comes out of political and corporate influence to divert attention and/or good old fashioned profiteering – both seem likely, both are probably true.) Option 2 was your BBC/Broadsheet coverage of these issues which does much the same with a different audience in mind and longer words.

So, we were left with a number of ‘buzz words’ that I have categorised below:

Public Services:

SCHOOL PLACES – NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE – HOUSING – CRIME

Consumer Items:

FLAT SCREEN TV – SKY – BEER – CIGARETTES – HOUSING – ILLEGAL DRUGS

Lifestyle:

JOB – BABIES – CRIME – HOUSING

Economics:

THE DEFICIT – CAPS – CHECKS – BALANCES – CONTRIBUTION – STATE – STATISTICS

Emotive:

CHEATS – IMPACT – FAIR CONTRIBUTION – GET A JOB.

For me, this little list is basically a ‘picture postcard’ of almost every domestic political issue going, with a bit of advertising thrown in for good measure:

  • We all want high quality and easily accessible public services (no brainer). But these are suffering (for reasons such as benefits and immigration) and therefore need private help, unsurprisingly.
  • Owning a flat screen TV with an expensive SKY subscription is apparently the pinnacle of modern existence. Our reward for being good tax-payers. (Which makes it much more annoying when some cheat achieves this without even going to work!)
  • Alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs are almost pitched as envy items for the option 1 readers/viewers. After all, what we all really want (according to that view) is to watch SKY on our TVs while getting intoxicated one way or the other, especially if you are in a low paid job with little prospects. So these migrants and benefit claimants are cheating their way to that ideal. Naughty. Furthermore, for the option 2 view – these are mostly seen as repugnant vice’s, putting moral distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’. For option 2 views, we want to be able to watch our flat screen TVs enjoying moderate legal intoxication. Because, as stated, that is the aim of all humanity.
  • Apart from that, we all want to work, no matter the job(?). Breeding is arguably one of the certain motivations of all life, and having somewhere to live one of the others. If you don’t want to work, you’re probably a criminal (although robbery does involve a lot of heavy lifting I hear).
  • But we can’t have all these thing all the time because of the economic deficit! That’s why we need checks and balances and caps on (all manner of) things. Use the words state control instead: it’s easier and more accurate. Plus we need to contribute to survive, and that’s shown in the official statistics for almost every aspect of our existence. (And again, if you don’t, you are probably a criminal).
  • Which brings us to the ‘idea’ of fairness. Which boils down to: get a job and contribute to avoid the crushing and devastating impacts that cometh to us if we don’t. (Or be a criminal and face punishment).

And who is to blame (at the moment) if we can’t have these things in the way we want, as often as we want, without concessions? One, two three… The immigrants and benefit cheats! Yes! We have an answer to all our problems, as spelled out to us daily in every article, debate, documentary and news item to grace our senses.

Now, Mr and Mrs readers – I hardly need to tell you all this. You are after all probably not who this type of media is aimed at (or maybe you are, I have no way of knowing), and are probably unsurprised about these conclusions. The question I want to ask is BUT WHY? And WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT? I don’t have these answers yet, and don’t think any one person can without consensus, but I would really like to know what those of us who aren’t swayed by sensationalism and rhetoric can do to help those that are. Because this is making a real and negative difference. It’s not the migrants and benefit claimants who are the problem (at the very least, not to any degree of scale as is being portrayed) – it is the media representation (for whatever motives, political and private), and it needs to stop.

Please send your ideas on a postcard to Mr Cameron, 10 Downing Street, or alternatively, leave them in the comments box below.

Thank you for reading.

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How to achieve a fair and unbiased BBC News in 8 easy steps…

I’ll let you into a little writing secret of mine for articles and essay’s – always write the intro after you’ve written the piece so you can explain why it meanders so. In this piece I wanted to write about the failings of the media to fairly represent news. It becomes obvious that I am mostly referring to the BBC, as they are the only outlet in this country that purports to do this by design and in the public interest, rather than for commercial reasons. I should point out that I am quite a fan of the BBC entertainment departments, which I view as being a whole other entity to the beast of the news coverage. I must also point out that I don’t really know how to sort it all out – it’s a common theme of mine that I think it is fair enough to point out an issue and offer some critical analysis, but that it is unfair to expect any one person to have all the answers. Not liking something is a valid enough starting point but it has become a trend to rebuke criticism by saying ‘well – what is the alternative?’ and then mock the person who has raised the problem because they haven’t been able to dedicate their whole life to the issue in question. It is enough to raise a problem and to expect the people who are in an appropriate position to do something about it or explore the possibilities. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to reduce your status in relation to themselves, probably in order to maintain a status quo they are happy with. So with this in mind, please find below, after much meandering, my eight easy steps to achieving a fair and unbiased news story.

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I once caused uproar on an open-forum at my old job when I replied to a thread defending the BBC News against accusations of bias. I think I said something along the lines of:

“BBC news unbiased? Time to wake up!”

It wasn’t the most advanced of arguments but then, it wasn’t the most advanced of discussion forums. I felt I was just adding a ‘vote’ almost to that side of the debate. The forums were in general a mixture of the vacuous, the work related and the occasional thorny debating issue. The users were spread out over the country in various head offices and branches, stealing a few minutes away from work to engage their brain in something that didn’t cause it to melt quite so much as working for a bank does. So what I wasn’t expecting after adding my tiny comment to the already hefty thread, was a reply along the lines of:

“Oh, I bet you’re one of those left-wing hippy crackpot conspiracy theorists who thinks the BBC is controlled by Lizards and who wears a tin foil hat to guard against mind control by the FBI aren’t you? The BBC is the foundation of our unbiased media and democracy, you only have to look at America’s Fox network to realise how good we’ve got it.”

And in one massive, sweeping statement of ignorance, this anonymous responder felt they had destroyed not only my argument, but also my character. They had decided exactly who and what my character was by plucking it out of the stereotype bargain bucket, much favoured by the Daily Mail and most mainstream politicians. You’ve heard it before right? Attack the arguer, not the argument. Classic deflection strategy.

So accordingly, after half an hour or so of calming myself down and not writing the first thing that came into my head (which would have surely got me sacked), I formulated my response. I can’t remember it exactly but the main points were this…

* The BBC is funded by public money, designated by the government. They are at best acutely aware of this, even if they choose not to let this influence them, at worst, they let it influence them.

* It is impossible to be unbiased. Pretending to be is a waste of time. Journalists & editors for the BBC are well rewarded for their opinions, meaning that they hold a certain social and economic position of power. Again, at best they are naturally biased but make a real effort not to allow this to influence their work, and at worst, they allow this to influence their work.

* It doesn’t matter how unbiased your reporting is, unless you cover all news stories, all of the time, with equal emphasis, you are not unbiased. Someone chooses the headline. Someone chooses what time the story gets published and how quickly it moves up or down the schedule. Someone chooses to treat the opinion of a ruling government minister as a news story, even though it is not news. Someone decides which stories on the website are allowed comments. An editor highlights which comments he/she thinks are of note. Let alone the obvious stuff about someone choosing where to point a camera and what to point it at…

* By attempting to be unbiased and represent a range of views, what you end up with is a minority of extreme views at each end of the scale, totally unrepresentative of the majority of reasonable people. You may think that talking to reasonable, none extreme people about issues would be pointless for news reporting, but it is exactly the opposite! Who would you prefer to have on a jury if you had been wrongly accused of a crime? A panel of people who hold extreme and diametrically opposed views, or a panel of reasonable people who listen and asses arguments each with their own merits?

* Just look at it! Honestly, just think about it. Most of the news is pretty much just what has happened today in the world, ranked by our Western interests, but often we are presented with an opinion as a news-story with undue prominence. For example, an MP, let’s say Iain Duncan Smith, decides that his own work and welfare policy is fair. So he holds a press conference and tells them,

“You know that work and welfare policy that I devised? Well I think it’s fair. And I think that the British public agree with me. And anyone who doesn’t think it’s fair is wrong or a loony”.

Okay… he doesn’t say exactly that, but broadly, he goes on the record to reinforce what we already know – that IDS thinks he is right. Put simply… this, isn’t, news. Someone thinking they are right about something is not news, it is self promotion. So how can this kind of reporting be said to truly be an unbiased news story? At the point where a policy is announced, that is news. If a prominent figure raises an interesting objection, that is news. If 100,000 people take to the streets to reject the policy and all it stands for, that really is news. But one man, one privileged man who is already in a position of power and wealth, says that he is the bee’s knees and that we should all agree with him, and the BBC (amongst others) is there like a flash with all the publicity and PR he needs to get that message out to the malleable amongst us, who will take in the day’s headlines either as gospel truth, or as subliminal seeds for further developments. Add to this the fact that people like IDS are fond of plucking totally inaccurate figures out of the air, which are in turn broadcast far and wide by the media, before being retracted a few days later only after the impact of the lie has taken hold, regardless of the consequent truth that emerges. Shouldn’t the media be checking these things before  they print/broadcast?

All this is before I even really get hippy-lefty and point out that the media elite and the political elite are presumably very closely linked. I mean, they work together nearly every day, I would bet that many of them came through the same education system and that there is a various amount of interchanging between the two industries (that’s right, politics is an industry). I would also imagine that as the BBC and the government are essentially symbiotic, something that threatens one’s very existence would be of concern for the other, which is a disastrous premise for an unbiased media! Surely?! I’m not going mad here am I?

Like it or not, the government of the day set the news agenda for the media. In many ways this is just a literal, uncomplicated truth as obviously the news is going to report on what the government says and does. The problem is that this relationship has become extremely blurred. No doubt each major political party has a media guru amongst its ranks whose job it is to encourage and seed the most favourable and comprehensive coverage possible while mitigating and deflecting bad coverage. Surely, part of this job is deciding when and where to hold press conferences, release speeches, appear on interviews etc… all carefully balanced against a tactical media agenda.

The job of the media, our media, is to pick through this and everything else that happens in the world, and decide how to report it. My view is that this complex game being played out every day in the City is counter-intuitive to a good, functioning, free and fair democracy. It has come to the point where you will quite often hear a politician say something like,

“We need to be seen as a party that understands people’s concerns”

… or something similar (note – this is the same type of language I explored in my blog on my former employer the Co-op – linked here https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). And what do they mean by this? They mean that they need to work harder, using the channels available (mostly the BBC news), to present a facade to us, the people, in order to secure themselves positions of great power and significant wealth within our society.

And we all know the upshot of this – even if you believe the BBC gives equal air-time and prominence to all sides of the argument, we end up with robot-like politicians appearing on interviews, repeating a pre-written sound bite over and over and over again, in the hope that it will sink in. Interviewers get frustrated, listeners and viewers equally so, but it continues regardless. At no point does somebody in the industry stand up and say:

“This is nonsense! We’re not having MPs coming on this publicly funded broadcast platform to avoid difficult questions and incessantly repeat party slogans. This isn’t a party political broadcast, so they should not be given this massively powerful tool to convey their message at their own whim and fancy!”

If only we did! Something may change. We may not get the plight of immigrants and benefit dependents smeared all over our screens every day as if they were the cause of the global financial crisis, which was actually caused by a tiny handful of very rich and very influential financial speculators. The BBC even goes as far as offering us ‘austerity’ recipes and tips on living under the breadline, you know, just in case.

So anyway, the title of this blog is ‘how to achieve a fair and unbiased BBC news in 8 easy steps, so here are my initial thoughts:

Step 1. Do not get rid of the BBC. That would be folly. That would be knocking down the house because you don’t like the wall-paper. (Just thought I’d get that one in there – that is not what I am saying here).

Step 2. Report news strictly chronologically. This often happens in a loose shape, but somehow, all those quotes from the PM and such like keep creeping to the top, even when other things have happened or continue to happen at the same time. And if a news story is falling down the ranks because other things have happened, don’t allow some party spokesman to ring in and give you a new quote about the PMs latest policy just in order to bump up the story a bit. You know they do that don’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have teams of people rating and adding comments to news stories in order to push them up the ‘most read’ and ‘most shared’ ratings… It has and does happen. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/08/what-is-astroturfing)

Step 3. If a politician isn’t willing to answer a question directly, without re-framing it or avoidance techniques etc… don’t broadcast the interview at all.

Step 4. (This applies especially to the coverage of protests) – Be a bit utilitarian when deciding how to cover something. If 100,000 people are in the streets protesting, don’t concentrate on the dozen unconnected people who are smashing store windows. Do the maths. It is totally unrepresentative and the BBC do it all the time, which funnily enough has the net effect of putting people off protesting and portraying the legitimate protestors in a bad light. Exactly what you would expect the government to do if they were in charge of broadcasting, right?

Step 5. When a reporter accuses a man in a wheelchair of ‘rolling aggressively’ towards police after he has just been assaulted by the police – sack the reporter and make sure he never works in the media again. (I am of course referring to this travesty of reporting, covered here in a typically unapologetic BBC editors blog)http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/12/interview_with_jody_mcintyre.html

Step 6. Don’t have a chairman who has business interest aligned with that of the ruling political elite and private industries… say for example the privatisation of the NHS which is being blatantly ignored by the BBC. It has been suggested that this may have to do with Lord Patten and his private business interest? Surely not? Not in a free and fair democratic institution! http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/lord-patten-of-barnes-bridgepoint-and.html

Step 7. Ask some frigging challenging questions! Where is the investigative journalism into the financial crisis? Or the links between Tory MPs and private health-care companies? Or the concerns of the many who believe that the ‘deficit’ and ‘austerity’ are cover for an elitist asset-grab? You can label us all loony conspiracy theorists instead if you want, I suppose that’s just easier and doesn’t upset the status quo. So just keep ignoring the swelling presence of the alternative news channels on the internet. I’m sure just ignoring the growing and more challenging public media is the right strategy guys, I’m sure it will all just go away.

Step 8 – Use your own lexicon! If the government decides to re-brand ‘public sector cuts’ as ‘public sector savings’, don’t just wag your tail and do it! I’ve noticed this  trend in recent years. The difference between ‘cuts’ and ‘savings’ is psychologically significant and we shouldn’t tolerate language being used as a surreptitious device to positively spin negative issues. Basically, don’t just read the bloody press release verbatim – use your own language and say it how it is, not how you’ve been told too.

So that’s my starting eight. I can’t think of anymore right now, but this should be enough to get us started. If you think of anymore, please leave them as a comment below!

Just to pre-suppose challenges, as I know some people literally *love* the BBC News, I will say that I believe most journalists and editors are probably genuine and doing a good job, but as always, it is probably the few well-placed and unscrupulous types that cause the damage, plus a cosy institutionalised attitude fostered over generations of privileged access to these kind of jobs. Also, in relation to the alternative of a news channel like ‘Fox’ in America – At least you know when you are watching Fox that they have opinions, no matter how insane! At least they don’t pretend to be mindless automata, without a point of view or an agenda. At least they aren’t pretending not to be biased! If you don’t like it, you can watch another news network and it isn’t funded solely by public money! Worry more about the monsters you can’t see, the ones that aren’t hiding in plain sight. They are the ones we really  need to worry about.

Anyway, I’m off to put my tin-hat on and hunt some lizard people with Elvis and my hippy brethren on the moon. If you think any of this is just a little too kooky and conspiratorial for you – that’s fine, because the world is in great shape and obviously we have no problems and nothing to worry about. There is no inequality, no dubious wars, no unnecessary hunger and death, and no one getting rich in the process. I’m obviously just worrying for no reason and it can all be sorted by voting from some rich white bloke in a suit every 4-5 years. My bad. Sorry.

Some links to highlight some of my points…

Ed Milipede caught in a time loop: (see step 3)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZtVm8wtyFI

MPs linked to NHS privatisation: (both sides – yes, they are all at it)

http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/p/mps-with-or-had-financial-links-to.html