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Bristol Councils Austerity Budget and media silence

propaganda

The cornerstone of a healthy democracy is a well informed electorate.  To be able to have an objective view on the key issues that effect our lives and how our representatives (or would be representatives as we enter the election period) respond to these issues people need information.  Without this information how can people claim to be making an informed choice and doing anything other than ‘tribally’ voting for the person or party they like best? Our media supposedly fulfills this key societal function of informing people as to what’s actually going on in the world around them, and what our elected officials are doing (or not doing) about it.  Sadly our media lets us down.

There are countless examples both nationally and locally of how our media fails to hold the powerful in our society to account; and how by outrageous bias in presenting the facts (or simply not presenting them at all) it enables politicians and corporate interests to get away with horrendous injustices.  In recent years this can be seen most starkly in the way the popular press runs a plethora of articles focusing on benefit fraud by people at the bottom of our society whilst ignoring tax avoidance by people at the top.  Benefit fraud, whilst being repugnant, is an extremely marginal activity that costs the treasury inconsequential sums when compared to industrial scale tax avoidance by the super rich and multinational corporations, which in comparison receives almost no coverage.

This then creates an atmosphere in which politicians can attack the benefits (and wider welfare state) the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society rely on whilst ignoring the crimes of the elite (who just so happen to be their friend, peers, and in many instances financial paymasters).  It also creates a symbiotic relationship between politics, press and people, where the government cuts benefits to disabled people, the press increasingly only refers to disabled people in ever more negative ways, and people responding to this negative messaging increasingly turn on the disabled.  Since 2007/8 there has been a 213% increase in reported hate crime against disabled people.

Innumerable social thinkers have come back to this issue, to me one of the most enduringly persuasive accounts of this is in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model.  Chomsky and Herman outline the structural propensity for a marketised for profit media to marginalise alternative views and set the terms of reference for debates.  Far from being a conscious conspiracy by the elite, it is more the natural result of the functioning of the market economy in media.  George Monbiet’s recently touched on the issue during his talk in Bristol where he examined some ‘socially constructed silences’.  These are important issues (such as the role of fossil fuel extraction in climate change – a subject which has never been discussed at any of the international talks on limiting greenhouse gas emissions) around which artificial silences have been created in the media (and society at large) to protect vested interests.  Say what you will about Russel Brand but some of his ‘TREWS’ videos highlighting the abject corruption and bias of much of the media, especially the Murdoch empire and the Sun are extremely compelling and convincing (its especially heartening to see how many views his videos on this subject can get, bringing these issues to new and wider audiences) e.g.

This is an issue that isn’t going to go away and we need as many people vocally challenging this state of affairs as possible if we are to have any hope of it improving.

For me, what has really highlighted how poorly we are served by our media locally was the reportage of this years budget setting meeting of the Bristol City Council.  I say reportage but that’s probably a strange term to use as there was none.  Previous budgets were reported in all the local press, the Bristol Post, Bristol 24/7, even the Jack FM website ran a piece of ‘churnalism’ on the core facts.  Previous budgets even made it into national news outlets (not surprisingly as Bristol is one of the largest cities in the UK) like the BBC and the Guardian, etc.  Yet this year there was nothing.  (The BBC decided to report on the recent extension of the Resident Parking Scheme – which will have a small impact on a lot of people and may be extremely important to a very small minority, but surely must be less important and is going to have less of an impact than a budget with millions of pounds worth of cuts to local services?).  Before the actual budget setting meeting itself the local media posted a few token articles from quiet narrow party political positions, explaining various parties position on council tax (inconsequential rises or complete freezes) – without any consideration of the context of the wider austerity budget. For example:

http://www.bristol247.com/channel/news-comment/daily/politics/bristol-lib-dems-pledge-to-freeze-council-tax

The only immediate releases in the wake of the budget passing, was in relation to the threatened closure of Libraries.  Obviously the closure of libraries is a very important issue that impacts on a lot of peoples lives, so it’s only natural it should be reported on.  But again, without the context of the large budget cuts of which the cuts to libraries are just a small part, the reports were quiet useless; and would give the uninformed observer a very misleading impression of which of their elected officials were the most responsible.  Why is there such silence?

Someone has suggested to me that the local media to some extent is prepared to downplay stories overly hostile to the mayor.  Such an explanation would seem far to conspiratorial for me, but the complete lack of coverage for what to me seems to be the most important meeting and event in the council calender does make me wonder what on earth is going on?  I suppose part of the answer must be that because its the second year of a three year budget this individual year could seem less important.  But even so, you’d think they’d give it at least a cursory glance.

If you wanted to know about the budget, the only coverage has come from the websites of local political parties (who are naturally going to have a bias in favor of their Councillors and the position they adopted – or outright lies in the case of Bristol TUSC), or the council website itself, e.g.

http://www.bristol.gov.uk/press/bristol-city-council-sets-annual-budget

These of course just uncritically post rose tinted views about how great the mayor and council have been in managing to pass a balanced budget, and their efforts to ‘modernise’ services whilst delivering ‘fiscal responsibility’.  An insultingly disproportionate amount of text is devoted to outlining the one off additional spending as a result of the extra council tax that was collected last year.  Whilst I’m sure this extra £3 million will be very appreciated, compared to the £90 million (and nearly 1000 jobs) lost over the 3 year period (and the £90 million already lost) its completely inconsequential, and these cuts are only glossed over in passing.

A local press worth its name wouldn’t allow the mayor and council’s official exposition of the events to go unchallenged.  We have to be critical of political authority. Its the only way we can ever hope to challenge corruption and vested interests within our society.  The council budget, and the lack of press interest makes me despair.  When Bristolians go to the polls in May, to make an informed decision surely they need to know how their representatives stood up for them (or didn’t) in this most important issue?  I’d like to offer some indepth analysis of how the different parties voted on the budget, but fear I have made this post already too long.  In short, for very different reasons the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (the later on adopting a more principled anti-austerity line) voted against the budget; the Mayor’s austerity budget passed with the support of an unholy alliance of Conservative and Labour councillors (who for their part exacted slight tokenistic amendments in return for their support).

The mainstream press can’t be relied on.  Our only hope is the development of independent media (like the Bristol Cable) and social media (blogs like Another Angry Voice).  These allow us to see events free from the corrupting corporate influence that so dogs the mainstream press, and offers a place to keep radical and alternative ideas alive.  Read these, create your own media, complain to the Bristol Post and Bristol 24/7 for their shocking lack of coverage, and question everything.  The power is in our hands.

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