Friday, 29 April 2011

Of revolutions, royal weddings and referenda

Having managed to get away from the hurly-burly of the hype-mill associated with everything media-oriented for a while my return to the grind brings with it a fresh sense of perspective on what we're looking at.

Just a few months ago a wave of popular disorder disgraced the protest marches which wended their way through Britain's national and provincial capitals, with sporadic outbreaks following all the way down to more recent weeks. Orthodox wisdom credited new communication methods as providing the means for a practical innovation which could help build a new activist political movement - Tehrani flashmobs were cited as examples where an autonomous anti-establishment mood could flourish and bloom despite dictatorial controls and pervasive censorship, which in turn helped stimulate the so-called Arab Spring across that region.

Rather than being instituted by dubious politicians in dusty statutes riddled with dirty caveats freedom of information is instead carrying the masses and is being confirmed as a perennial necessity equivalent to any chartered right.

But the fightback has already begun.

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal and the subsequent furore over super-injunctions should suggest that the failure to provide any sense of standards transformed the cherished liberty to know into a peculiarly British bun fight, one which just coincidentally happened to explode in time for the Easter holidays... with a hot cross (mildly embarrassed) scottie.

Well, at least it heated up just long enough for the debate over changing from crosses to numbered preferences to be pushed completely from the front pages, and again just in time to be relegated by the more traditional tabloid fare of the original uber-celebrities doing what they do best: holding a right royal knees-up.

Whilst our national culture seemingly gets evermore dominated by and saturated with footballers and comedians it can sometimes come as a bit of a surprise that this ingrained ritual is still capable of replacing more practised spontaneity, but it is and it's a sign we're such masters of it in this country that we can swing further faster from one extreme to the other; from satire and shock at 10 o'clock, to satin and silk at 11 o'clock. Who can distinguish between actually massively popular and actively massively promoted any more?

In a sense this question is the same as that facing voters when it comes to how we wish to vote in future.

The difference between Britain and, say, Syria, is a matter of openness.You might get carsick stuck in a tailback as you attempt to reach Stonehenge for dawn at the solstice each year, but your first glimpse of Palmyra through the twilight from the camel caravan will be a once-in-a-lifetime never-to-be-repeated capture-the-goosepimples pilgrimage. Where radicalised Syrians are pitching themselves into a violent existential struggle, us more phlegmatic Britons are trying to muster the energy to get our knickers in a twist over how we'll decide what to get disappointed over next.

It's the same underlying questions of liberty and authority, but it's the completely opposite way of handling the situation; communicating back and forth about it and quantifying opinion to a level where a legitimate mandate can be used to reinforce the effective mandate which state power could (or at least can try to) enforce.

And this is where the role of intermediaries becomes significant. Even having a blog to express an opinion becomes a location which creates a duty to do exactly that. Organised media functions through a veil of connections, and though you shouldn't ever call it propaganda you can be sure someone is still pulling the strings in an attempt to influence you.

I'll admit I'd recently got out of the habit of watching, listening or reading casually to anything which could attach itself to a 'News' category - for the simple reason none of it was new, all of it was highly predictable and where the adverts were less interesting than the real thing I started to get distracted by looking for the bias. All too often the art of influence is as much in what you exclude from comment as what you include, and this creates an ambivalent atmosphere where even if it's a slow news day and you end up blatantly manufacturing gossipy headlines or spinning the same political hook the skill in catching and netting opinion can be found in manipulating running orders and juxtapositions more commonly than in any typically emotive languange. It's hypnotic. It's osmotic. It's pure contextualised understatement which gets you without realising.

'Mere coincidence', they disclaim - so you can bet there won't be many documentaries on how the Charles and Diana spectacular in 1981 distracted patriotic attention from the inner-city race riots and steepling unemployment of that time. And again they'll disclaim that this is 'only proper' since Wills and Kate should be freed from the ever-present spectre of that previous farcical romance to prevent besmirching the occasion ...the undercurrent which dare not speak its name!

This does all create a sort of balance if you think about it. Neither do they shout boastfully about what they are actually doing, nor do they tip any wink to what they hope they can avoid mentioning.

Yet at the same time the mood of the crowd before, during and after will be decisive in shaping attitudes. The intensity of focus on the event will be huge (and it will be because a sunny May morning to do a live OB from St James' is both plum and a peachy pick), but, unfortunately for those in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, unrivalled.

The vast array of sideshows and spin-offs will provide ample opportunity for individual and reflected social self-expression. And this will all be formulated in the ceremonialised format for widespread public discourse - like the biggest village fete you ever saw. With millions on the streets and congregating out in the open, nudging and barging through the crowds you won't be able to hide your hints (and you'll be lucky to hang on to your cocktail sausage on a stick).

Each of the choices, from the guestlist and the seating arrangements to the music and their manners will be pored and agonised over. Will you say she looks just wonderful? or will you weigh up whether you prefer her dress to the 30-year-old ivory and pearl extravaganza? Will you keep your eyes open for and scream at any gaffe, quickly acknowledge any occasion before moving on, or just revel in the spectacle?

And will you remember that the eyes on you make you part of the feedback system and capable of changing minds too?

Whatever you do decide consider how you made your mind up, and while you do, maybe you can spare a second for all those people elsewhere seeking shelter from the tanks and bombs which restrict their ability to speak out.

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