In the February 2013 issue of The New Criterion, James Bowman, media critic for that indispensable periodical, comments on a media scandal currently brewing in Great Britain. The trouble is, most of the panjandrums in the London press don’t regard it as a media scandal at all. To them the blow-up started off as a political scandal and transmogrified into a police scandal—but, since few people on this side of the Atlantic have ever heard of these goings-on, I must first describe the events in question.
Here’s what happened: late last year Andrew Mitchell, a Tory MP and, indeed, Chief Whip, bicycled to a meeting at 10 Downing Street, which hardly seems scandalous. On the contrary, it made him seem a “man of the people” who was concerned about “lowering his carbon footprint,” etc. But when he attempted to leave 10 Downing on the Westminster side, he was blocked by a recently installed security gate.
According to police reports, when told by the guard to dismount and go through a different exit, he began to shout obscenities at the police and even insulted the officers by calling them—horror of horrors—plebs. Allegedly, some onlookers claimed to be shocked by this loutish behavior, prompting one of them to write to his own MP to complain. The man’s email was of course leaked to the press, as was the police log of the incident; since the stories jibed, Mitchell was eventually forced to resign his post as Chief Whip in the wake of what inevitably came to be called Plebgate—despite his vociferous denials that any such contretemps had occurred. Bowman picks up the story from there:
Two months later, just before Christmas, investigative reporters for Channel 4 found that closed-circuit television footage from a security camera at the scene did not bear out the official police account of events. Moreover, the sender of the email purporting to be from a member of the public who had witnessed the whole thing was in fact another policeman who had not been near the scene. It was further pointed out that the supposed incident had taken place at the same time that members of the Police Federation, the union representing the rank and file, were protesting against government cutbacks to police pay and benefits. . . . What had started out as a political scandal had suddenly transformed into a police scandal.
Police involvement in lying and destroying a man’s reputation for political gain is of course a genuine scandal. But so is media collusion in that same campaign to drive someone out of public office for something he never did. Perhaps, though, “collusion” is not quite the right word. Rather, the police played the media for the suckers they proved to be. For the media, the whole event was simply too juicy to pass up, even though the story lacked independent corroboration from other onlookers. As Bowman nicely puts it:
The caricature of the arrogant and unfeeling Tory toff obviously suited their “narrative” best, but if that was no longer operative, the newly unveiled image of the corrupt and lying policemen would do almost as well. Either way, they had a painted devil on a stick to display to a scandal-hungry public. . . . Little or no notice was taken nor any mention made of the fact that, in pursuit of the gaffe, the media had allowed themselves to be used—to put it charitably—by people with a political agenda that was obviously furthered by blackening the reputation of an innocent man.
In pursuit of the gaffe: that’s the key. These endless episodes of manufactured outrage are but the flipside of political correctness and the invented grievances that are their stock in trade. Let one stray remark or phrase escape the lips of a politician, especially if he’s conservative, and the hounds of hell are soon after him (but notice how Vice President Biden gets a free pass when he’s doing his schtick, at least most of the time). I am reminded of an observation Alasdair MacIntyre made as early as 1981 in his justly famous After Virtue, to the effect that moral and political discourse is now little more than mutually traded expressions of indignation.
But things are much worse now than they were then. Now platforms for the expression of opinion have so multiplied that opinion-mongering is a virtual international cottage industry. Worse, the “sellers” of these wares are now so many that buyers can dictate the terms of sale, “demanding ever more outrageousness in return for their limited attention,” as Bowman deftly puts it. Do you want to draw attention to your presence on the Internet and increase the hits made on your blog? Just say the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut never happened, as one professor recently opined. And so a kind of Gresham’s Law takes over, where the trashy and the preposterous drive out the genuine and reflective. Consider this example Bowman brings up to illustrate his point:
Hence, for example, Richard Dawkins [can say] that bringing up a child in religious faith is worse than subjecting it to sexual abuse. An opinion that would have been considered a self-evident absurdity and only laughed at a decade or two ago is now taken seriously because it can be exchanged for a high price in outrage—outrage both from those who agree and those who disagree—which is the media’s coin of the realm. Increasingly, in order to be heard you have to be wrong, and the wronger the better, since simple or minor wrongnesses, never mind rightnesses, are ten a penny. Being outrageously right, on the other hand, is less and less possible, not only because there is an inherent calmness and reasonability about the truth that does not lend itself to such excitement but also because truth tends to be familiar and to lack the novelty—always an essential ingredient in outrage—of error. As a result of the media market for outrageousness, it has become harder and harder for truths, particularly unpalatable ones, to be heard at all.
We have all learned from his Republic that we live in Plato’s cave, that dreary netherworld where opinion always trumps truth. The difference now is that the din of opinion has become nearly unbearable.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. His most recent book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology received the 2012 Book Prize from the Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue.
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