Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Question Time in the House

I woke up this morning to TV’s morning news coverage of “Question Time” in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. As theater, of course, “Questions for the Prime Minister” can be quite entertaining. (And I admit to having watched it often myself in years past. And, back when I was in Toronto, I occasionally a visitor to watch “Question Time” in the Ontario House – tamer, to be sure, than Westminster, but still somewhat entertaining as live theater.). Holding elected officials accountable is surely something to be valued in any free society. To the extent that – in a system based on “Parliamentary Supremacy” - “Question Time” contributes to a culture of accountability, it is, I suppose, a good thing. Still, I suspect, it is watched as much for its entertainment value as for anything else.

Surely, that must account for its prominence on the morning news today. Once again the news media got to do what it so loves to do – focus on scandal, and not just focus on scandal but focus unremittingly and utterly unrestrainedly on scandal. Certainly, something so prosaic as the debate about raising the debt-limit in the U.S. can hardly hope to compete with the entertainment generated when prominent people are caught in problematic situations!

Let it be stipulated that the offenses allegedly committed by certain British “Red Top” Tabloids are reprehensible. That said, their behavior has long been reprehensible. And it was only marginally less reprehensible when the victims were royal princes, politicians’ children, or other public persons/ More to the point, a narrow focus on the particular offenses allegedly committed by those “Red Top” Tabloids may let the rest of the media – the so-called “mainstream” media, which prides itself on its ”journalistic” ethos – off the hook. Does anyone seriously doubt that the debasement of our political culture in recent decades has been exacerbated by the priorities of the media?

Nor should the “class war” dimensions of this scandal be ignored. Traditionally, Tabloids have entertained the “lower” classes. Higher status people typically read higher-brow “mainstream” media, whose journalistic “standards” were relatively coherent with the values and conventions of their class. There may be much to be said for those values and conventions. Not being a post-modern person, I feel free even to propose they might be morally better. Not that long ago, even those who enjoyed scandal-centered tabloid journalism might have agreed. The widespread revulsion to the extreme behavior allegedly perpetrated in this case seems to cut across class lines – suggesting that many still would agree. That said, the class component of some of the outrage remains evident. Murdoch himself is a successful entrepreneur who has achieved wealth and influence far beyond his class origins. From a more traditional upper class perspective, perhaps there may be some satisfaction is seeing him brought down a notch, while at the other end of the spectrum there may be the customary satisfaction of the less well-off at a rich man’s fall from grace.

If, as a result of what is now happening in Britain, news media became more restrained and focused more on helping citizens understand the really important issues confronting our society, then something good would come of this. There is, however, a reason why I phrased that last sentence in the subjunctive and conditional moods.

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