There were several reasons I got the arse from my last gig at ABC Radio, the most unassailable being sloppy conduct in the station kitchenette. But I suspect the real cause for this “managed departure” went unspoken. By the end of last decade, I had lost all talent for that game played at all times in traditional media outlets everywhere: I Understand Real People Better Than You.
I am not Real People. I am a socially inept oddball, which is why I, and why everyone, elected to work in media in the first place, a trade where oddness is both anticipated and requisite. I do not now, nor have I ever understood Real People. This is due not just to my oddness, but to a belief that Real People is not a real category. Real People does not represent an actual civic will, but the guilty unconscious of a privileged labour class that knows it is serving up gobshite to a favoured demographic. There’s nothing Real about brand management.
“Let’s do something on farmers’ markets. Real people really enjoy them,” is just the type of editorial guidance that has led me to manage my own departure from dozens of broadcast and print gigs.
I do not believe in this false category of Real People, and if I did, I would argue strenuously against the proposition that they love nothing so much as getting up early on a Saturday to spend 10 bucks on a loaf of ancient grain bread kneaded by the teen maidens of a Christian sex cult. “Real People” — by which we are supposed to mean “most people” — enjoy putting food into their faces with minimum fuss and expense. This, at least, is what I told a senior ABC program manager, a former private school boy on a salary five times my wage. He told me that I was wrong and elite and that I lived in an “ivory tower” and couldn’t ever hope to understand Real People like he did.
[Are you dumber than George Bush? Take this test to find out]
These days, I work from an ivory rental for independent organisations like this one. This publication’s failure to believe both in upholding a single editorial line and in Real People is its curious strength. But Crikey is hardly representative of most media outlets, both corporate and small. In most media offices, the Real People phantom persists to justify the monolithic views on offer. Views that will not be changed, even by facts.
The Guardian made much earlier this year about the tragedy of “post-fact journalism”. But the fact that many people voted “Leave” in the British referendum not chiefly because they hated foreigners, but because they hated poverty, has been largely ignored by that paper, who preferred to address its constituency of Real People who, being tolerant and wise, voted “Remain”. Between 2007 and 2015, real UK wages fell 10.4% the sharpest decline since records began. It’s a drop second only to that in Greece, a nation that elected a bunch of (purported) socialists to government. Twice. And a nation eager, if unable, to extract itself from the EU.
Across the weekend, a substantial majority of UK Labour members elected socialist Jeremy Corbyn leader. The man had a single prominent defender at a publication that otherwise suspended its new passion for “facts” in favour of service to Real People. That Corbyn campaigned relentlessly for “Remain” and engaged Yanis Varoufakis, the world’s most famous former finance minister and a great critic of the EU, to persuade his left-wing base, despite everything, didn’t stop ‘em from calling him spineless. That Corbyn, for whom 313,209 votes were cast in recent days, has seen party membership surge didn’t stop ‘em from calling him unelectable and “no good for our democracy”. Mass democracy is not, apparently, what Real People do. Especially when they do it in very large numbers.
Real People do not vote for an “idealist” like Jeremy Corbyn. Real People vote for Owen Smith, and they eat fennel.
Real People might do that. But most people vote for Jeremy Corbyn, while few people find the time, money or inclination to buy a $6 bulb of biodynamic fennel from the farmers’ market. Most people shop at Coles and Woolworths and have no patience for fennel — biodynamic or otherwise, it’s a very fiddly plant. But at the ABC, this is the food of Real People, even though it obviously isn’t. And if you don’t agree to serve the Real People, well, you’re an idealist or an elite.
If the ABC manager had said to me, “Our core daytime audience is a female leisure class who love spending too much money on specialty vegetables at the shops, do something for them” I might have lasted at that institution. But he upheld the nonsense, as most culture industry workers do, that the needs of Real People inform all editorial decision-making. Most people in most kinds of media have come to believe this fiction absolutely.
[‘Stop the boats’ and ‘let them come’ are both pointless protests]
I am pretty sure that Bill Leak believes that he speaks for Real People, even though most people avoid purchase of The Australian. I am positive that the Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand thinks that his is the Real voice of reason, even though the solitary point he seems to make is how Real he really truly is. I know first-hand that liberal media organisations like Fairfax and the ABC believe that their farmers’ market approach is beyond all ideology. They are all, in their view, speaking the language of Real People.
Being Real, of course, is a near universal conceit. As individuals, we believe that we can observe the real more keenly than all those other fools, and this is a human fault beyond repair. But it has become a critical fault of media institutions, many of which have produced a peculiarly naive culture.
I am just old enough to remember a time when journalists could cynically trash their own work in private. If you asked a colleague, “Why did you write that shit?” they would say they wrote it to please the editor, the board or the lowest impulses of the readership. Maybe they wrote it because they were drunk. Now, they claim their enslavement to a particular view from above as their own. “I wrote it because I believe it.” Real People like fennel and gormless puppets like Owen Smith, and so do I.
The ideas of the ruling class are in every era the ruling ideas, but in this particular era, the people paid to put these ideas into mass circulation are expert at pretending they came up with them on their own. To be fair, this delusion has become all but a professional necessity. If you work for Fairfax, you’d better damn well believe that the key to social justice is “tolerance”. If you work for News Corp, you’re gonna have to know in your bones that “tolerance” is social poison.
If you want to pose questions like, “What do you mean when you say ‘tolerance’, how will it be expressed as policy, and how will its unlikely passage into law either solve or cause any wide social problems?”, you will get little work outside of a place like Crikey. Because you’re an “elite” in an “ivory tower” who is out of step with Real People, which is the word and the idea that has come to fully replace editorial bias.
Real People is an invention that imperils not only the “robust debate” people in media speak of (but so very rarely enact). It has begun to diminish the business of media itself. The gulf between a brand-managed address to Real People and actual people is now so broad, people very often consume analysis so they know what not to think.
If I were being an idealistic “elite”, I might say that Corbyn thrives purely on the strength of his socialist vision. But I suspect his success owes a little to The Guardian, and just about every UK media outlet that has done little but call him “unelectable”, out-of-touch, etc. Others from the material left have been handed this default victory.
Yanis Varoufakis has attributed the electoral success of Greece’s Syriza to media disdain. Bernie Sanders, the presidential candidate who accrued the greatest number of individual donations in US history, benefited from derision by US liberal media. Google search terms for Sanders in the first half of this year were more than double those for Clinton, while his mainstream press mentions were at around a third. Contempt from on high helped him. It didn’t hurt one bit.
Again, some of us would like to claim a victory for the material left, here. But even I’m not sufficiently rusted-on to do that. “Don’t believe what you hear in the media” is a tactic often cynically applied by the right.
Donald Trump is gaining on Clinton not in spite of liberal media scorn, but because of it. The New York Times took up Trump trashing just as soon as it was done with Sanders. That they come across all Tragedy of Post-Fact Society, Guardian-style, and beg for a reason that they have themselves abandoned just seems deeply thick. Especially in the face of Trump’s savvy move to appoint Stephen K. Bannon, director of the execrably successful “alt right” anti-media site Breitbart, as campaign executive. This guy knows how to cast someone as a brave outsider.
[Brisbane Writers Festival knew what they were getting with Lionel Shriver]
Ross Douthat at the Times gets it half right in a recent opinion piece. He credits the liberal sneering of comic broadcasters like Samantha Bee and John Oliver for a portion of Trump’s success. These people tell jokes that are intended for an audience of Real People; they make no new conversions through the force of their opinion, but simply remind Trump voters of what they already know: we are despised by college-educated people.
I have begun to suspect that Trump’s typos on Twitter, which have lately become more frequent, are not the result of pre-debate stress, but advice from Bannon. Trump also has his constituency of Real People, in this case those who are sick of having their spelling corrected by wankers. And so, rather more accidentally, does Pauline Hanson. Her “I am being silenced” claims of persecution and her “I might not know much” policies are, really, all she’s got. But it works.
Some people spend serious money concocting oppression. Former Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, reportedly a performance studies academic, spent his time in the Kremlin inventing imaginary foes for Putin, foes for Putin’s foes and foes, seemingly, just for the hell of it. So just how Guardian editor Kath Viner can say that technology corrupted truth, and the New York Times can say that Trump corrupted it, when political media is so clearly beyond truth is anybody’s guess. You’d probably have to ask one of the Real People who work in my “real” industry. They’re the only people so easy in their bias, they don’t realise the whole world is beginning to see it.
As Crikey editor Cass Knowlton, who disagrees with me much of the time, has written, we do not speak here with one voice. Nor do we address Real People to whom just a single idea can be offered. Crikey writers and readers often call each other dead wrong. But they tend not to call each other elite. There is just a single point of consensus here: no sloppy conduct in the kitchenette.