Can We Really Hold The Media Responsible For the Grenfell Tragedy? Yes, And This Is Why.

Following the disaster, the battle for the truth of Grenfell has started. The focus is now on the nature of the inquiry with concerns being raised over its leadership and conduct. As a direct result of his actions as part of the judiciary the Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is viewed with deep suspicion and the initial meeting with residents was fractious.  Centre stage is an apprehension that the scope of the inquiry will be limited to just the local circumstances of North Kensington and not wider issues of social housing.

In previous blogs (here and here) I have suggested why Government and media will want a strictly limited inquiry based on a woeful deficit of democratic accountability. But there is another reason for scepticism.  Any comprehensive investigation must surely highlight the role of the media in using immigrants as a tool to drive their regressive agenda of slashing public servicess while giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

The Murdoch (The Sun and The Times) and Rothermere (Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday) owned press are the obvious culprits, but we must not ignore the role of the BBC in giving continuing prominence to  UKIP and its erstwhile (and future?) leader Nigel Farage despite fast fading support and no Parliamentary representation.  The focus has been on how immigrants are responsible for everything from an inability for people to get GP appointments, through  jumping social hosing queues, to being responsible for clogging up motorways!

But the aim of papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph goes beyond simple populist xenophobic demonisation for its own sake and is really a tool for undermining public services. Services, by the way, used by ALL of us. These papers are implicitly, but effectively, promoting the idea that the populations of weldare states do not want to share their prosperity with others who they perceive as not ‘being like them’  The argument is essentially: if the immigrants get all the public goodies then why should we pay for public services? Consequently, support for redistribution of wealth withers as ethnic diversity, driven by migration, grows. As support for public services and a willingness to defend them wanes so the argument for cutting taxes for the rich, even in a time of austerity, can prosper. Here in a nutshell is the aim of the oligarchical press. More inequality, more wealth for the 1% and the less well-off, indigenous and immigrants alike suffer. All built on a perception of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, NOT the facts!

The Grenfell Tower catastophe is where the overt xenophobic element of the media agenda converged with with the associated undermining of support for public services. Regulation influenced by corporations, cheap materials, outsourced safety checks and an attitude of anything goes  The reports of other councils such as Camden has revealed the true extent of the crisis, but it extends well beyond hosuing.  For example, why should I support an NHS if immigrants clog it up and I cannot access the service I paid for? So the case for a privatised service is advanced with the wealthy able to affors care and associated big profits for the peers of the paper owners.

A former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Nick Pearce  examined the issue  in an article entitled Diversity vesus Solidarity: A Progressive Dilemma!. He stated:

Attention to the drivers  of public perception on race and migration.  the role of the media in shaping public opinion on race, immigration and ethnic diversity is well documented but relatively poorly researched (particularly in relation to specific groups such as asylum seekers).

How many more Grenfells must there be before the real aim of the media agenda is understood and exposed?

Banker Mark Carney; Secret Plans Show an Instinctive Avoidance of Accountability.

During World War II, much to the annoyance of his leader Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan insisted on holding Prime Minister Winston Churchill accountable for his actions. His reason was twofold; firstly believing that it was absurd to fight an authoritarian regime to simply abandon it at home and secondly, the belief that no matter how effective Churchill appeared to be, mistakes and inefficiencies were possible. I think Bevan was right

So the recent reports of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney holding confidential dinners with investment bankers and finance directors should ring alarm bells. The rumours of ‘secret deals’ as reported by The Independent newspaper is unacceptable. But as a banker, Mark Carney is naturally inclined to avoid accountability. Take two of the international groups which Carney is a senior member (for now),  the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) and the G20 Financial Stability Board. Neither of these bodies have any form of democratic accountability. Incredibly, the ESRB which has responsibility for avoiding another 2008-style crash is run by the European Central Bank (ECB) along with individual National Central Banks, the very people who failed to see the disaster in the first place. The ESRB, of which Carney is a Vice-Chairman, makes politically sensitive decisions and the fact that it that merely reports to the European Parliament is dangerously misrepresented as accountability. Lack of proper control means these bankers cannot practically be fired, demoted, reprimanded or subjected to a pay cut!

Make no mistake, Carney is either being disingenuous or simply naive in  claiming he is not behaving politically. The idea of an independent Bank of England is a fiction and the role of Governor in particular is highly political. But in any case the demand that banks and regulatory authorities should be independent has somehow come to imply that these bodies are unaccountable. For all the populist nonsense about him being a ‘rock star banker’ he is a public servant paid by you and me and we have a right to know what he is telling these financial special interest groups. This is especially so when his audience wield considerable influence as donors of the Conservative Party. Irrespective of the issue of Brexit the stench of oligarchy is strong and inevitably provides more fuel for extreme right wing advocates . Carney tries to dodge accountability under the guise of acting in the best interests of the nation but as Bevan would clearly have understood, this must be demonstrated openly.

Senator Bernie Sanders is Right About Oligarchy; But the Warning is Over 2 Thousand Years Old!

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to  two specific aspects which concern us at this time.  Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers.  Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.

So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline.  In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about.  As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.

But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks.  For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power.  Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:

The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth.  Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.

Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around!  Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets.  Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.

In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system.  They state:

Over time,  crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure.  when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.

Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States.  Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.

In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time.  The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts.  But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber.  The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.

So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on.  Then draw people’s attention to it.  Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing.  But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!