The Scottish Parliament was to have voted this week on triggering a second referendum on Scottish independence. Instead the vote, due on Wednesday, was deferred by the Parliament’s Presiding Officer who felt that contributions had been affected by events elsewhere.
Some Members of the Scottish Parliament felt the debate should have been suspended out of respect to those affected by shocking events at Westminster. Others believed suspending the debate would be to give in to terrorism. The Prime Minister claimed on Thursday that the attack on Westminster Bridge was an attempt to silence democracy but that democracy would always prevail.
There are many threats to democracy in the UK, some more dangerous than others. Simon Wren-Lewis has been writing doggedly on the links between the media and powerful political and economic interests. In this post he describes two media archetypes which he calls “truth purveyors” and “propagandists”. Some would argue, as he acknowledges, that all mainstream media is essentially propaganda – aiming to privilege those voices that support the economic system over those who would wish to challenge it. But Wren-Lewis is surely right to note that in the UK, non-UK nationals are treated by the UK Government “with a complete lack of humanity”, licensed by a media which has dehumanised refugees and immigrants. Immigration is the outstanding example of the right wing media’s punitive approach to people who, through no fault of their own, need help. Those unlucky enough to need welfare support know how it feels to be stigmatised. Why be surprised that those with large amounts of money would prefer not to fund government action to support those with none? Except that such a view is economically perverse.
As insidious as the othering of refugees and welfare claimants is the attempt to delegitimise the arguments of those who take a different view. Take this example from the Scottish Daily Mail’s Home Affairs Editor Graham Grant who argues that the independence debate is a smokescreen designed to cover the Scottish Government’s economic and public service failures. “Like a child on the naughty step, denied access to their parents’ iPad, Miss Sturgeon is in full tantrum mode…” The First Minister is presented as a child contrasted with the grown up Prime Minister for whom politics is not a game, the same Prime Minister whose government’s austerity agenda has caused the UK economy to stagnate whilst cutting taxes. Even the comparison is infantile, an argument that might be heard in the playground, rather than a response to fundamentally democratic questions.
But it is important to recognise that such arguments come from a place of fear. The Daily Mail is a very scary place. As one journalist quoted in Adrian Addison’s portrait of the paper, Mail Men, Editor Paul Dacre “is still setting up a culture of bullying and hate in the building … An atmosphere of insecurity, bitchiness and fear permeates the entire paper. It’s a hideous, joyless place to work.” And the media itself is a place of fear. As Graham Davey observes, people who watched negative news bulletins “spent more time thinking and talking about their worry and were more likely to catastrophise… when you think about a worry so persistently that you begin to make it seem much worse than it was at the outset and much worse than it is in reality”.
The news makes us fearful and fear is a poor basis for decisions on how we live our lives. It is corrosive of our institutions and our communities. Fear of others and a disrespect for difference is literally lethal. In The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket quote sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In the Chicago heatwave of 1995 poor African Americans who lived in areas of high crime and low trust experienced higher levels of mortality than Hispanic communities. They “were too frightened to open their windows or doors, or to leave their homes to go to local cooling centres established by the city authorities. Neighbours didn’t check on neighbours, and hundreds of elderly and vulnerable people died. In equally poor Hispanic neighbourhoods, characterised by high levels of trust and active community life, the risk of death was much lower.”