Ipsos-Mori have published a poll asking whether people are happy with their local areas. Surprisingly, at least for this country’s miserabilist tendency, is the fact that 72% of the population of Great Britain are satisfied with their local area. This could be better of course, the Netherlands have a stonking 95% of people happy with where they live, but it paints an overwhelmingly positive picture of the country.
Giles Wilkes maintained a watch on what he called the Miserabilists, those that abound and constantly reassure us the country is going to the dogs. Most people seem to think that their area is not going to the dogs and, since you know best how your area is doing, I think it is safe to presume that the country is not is as bad a state as many people would argue. Crime is going down for example, although you may not have heard about that. There is lots going for modern society: If you need another example then let me just say Tobacco Enema.
Alex Massie mentioned this in the context of a discussion on immigration he’d been holding with his commenters over on his Spectator blog. Alex Massie is a proper liberal and as with all proper liberals he broadly favours open borders over immigration restrictions. You will note in the above that the almost irritatingly satisfied Dutch live in a country with a very high population density which somewhat gives lie to the idea that immigration and population growth are a significant problem for quality of life. Likewise, Canada, Australia and the United States are all countries with a high proportion of foreign born residents.
It is often said that the Press exert a tremendous power of the population, shaping how they think, and usually against their own best interests. Think of the largely negative reporting on trade unions, the dreadful science reporting and the scaremongering over drugs, paedophiles and the nanny state. The classic example of this thinking is reflected in the 1992 General Election. After the votes were in and Labour had lost the Sun claimed that “It woz the Sun wot won it” as it swung itself fully behind the Tory campaign in the last few days. Research was done examining the voting intentions of Sun readers and it showed a swing from Labour to Tory, ergo it was in fact the Sun wot won it.
I have a problem with this thinking. You see, it wasn’t the Sun wot won it. There was a shift in everyone’s voting intentions, not just those of Sun readers. The Sun simply backed the winner then, as usual, made venal attempted at self-aggrandisement. The Press didn’t lead the public it followed them and all too often I still think this is the case. This is quite an upsetting way to look at the country. If the press are vile and making the general public vile through misinformation, then it absolves my fellow citizens of blame. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the case and it seems people actively enjoy reading Richard Littlejohn and seek out disgusting slurs on gays and immigrants.
Unfortunately I do not have empirical backing for my claim that people view the country in a worse light than they do our local area, but I would hope that this is an acceptable assumption without further verification. If we accept that then we have a theory that people want to view the wider world in a more negative light than reality would allow. People want to see themselves as sensible so this means seeking out media which reinforces their view. This explains the popularity of papers which are quite frequently misleading, the world doesn’t give them the stories which their readers want so they make them up.
This all got me wondering whether or not we inflict the miserable quarters of our societies on ourselves. Numerous blogs have been created to monitor the media but I am beginning to wonder if they are tackling a symptom not a cause. They do great work, and I enjoy reading them immensely but blogging (and life in general) is about making an impact, and I am not sure if tackling the press directly is the best way to go about changing the press.
Chris Dillow has mentioned John Kay’s Obliquity and suggested that some tasks are bet approached obliquely rather than directly. For example, trying to boost profits by cutting staff and putting up prices might backfire and reduce them, letting your employees listen to the radio might boost productivity and profits. Ben Goldacre has highlighted some research that underlines why an oblique approach might be important in tackling misinformation.
Where you might have expected people simply to dismiss a correction that was incongruous with their pre-existing view, or regard it as having no credibility, it seems that in fact, such information actively reinforced their false beliefs.
Being told that what you believe – such that immigrants are benefits scroungers- is wrong – because migrants are in fact large net contributors to the treasury – can backfire and make you cling on to your erroneous belief all the more strongly. Media watch blogging (for want of a better name) is common. Brad DeLong does it, Liberal Conspiracy has its own blog feed for it and most bloggers have a sideline in criticising the press. So it is worrying that by pointing out the errors in the media there is a danger you will merely preach to your choir and further entrench the beliefs of those you really need to challenge.
I don’t have any original answers for improving our media, but do I think we already have a working toolkit. Challenge individual stories is important but will only ever be part of the solution. We won’t be able to end, choke, kill, grind into the dust, eviscerate (delete depending on level of vitriol) the career of Richard Littlejohn et al by showing them wrong, we can only get something approaching accuracy by removing their base and challenging the wilful ignorance on which they depend.
That means campaigns to support migrant rights. It also means supporting LGBT rights where we can. etc. Bringing the oppressed into the mainstream and giving them the power and privilege that stop them being a profitable target is the only way to ensure that reporting will improve. Catholicism and Catholics were once treated with the vitriol which today greets Islam and Muslims but it has largely ceased. It was not because it was untrue that it stopped, the “no popery” brigade were always wrong, it stopped for two reasons; Catholics stopped being an oppressed minority and asserted themselves and many people came to know Catholics and tire of hearing lies about them. The answer it seems is organisation, organisation, organisation. Fact checking blogs should be a part of it but I have worries about how effective they will be in the medium to long term.