The commercialisation of our news media and the ease with which unethical and egocentric politicians can cynically manipulate public opinion is now reaching extreme proportions.
In the UK the political interests of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were advanced successfully because their bombastic personas and simplistic messaging were picked up so widely in media. It is a sad fact that news outlets with the largest readership maintain their dominance through sensationalism and gossip, rather than educated and informed journalism. This works well for those who have few scruples and are comfortable operating in that environment.
The circulation of printed newspapers have plummeted in the UK over the past six years and the dominant newspapers include the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. I used to read the Independent and the Guardian when I lived in the UK over twenty years ago and I was shocked to note that the Independent's circulation is now not much more than the population of Invercargill and the Guardian's has been halved since 2010 (now only 160,000). The Daily Mail dominates the online news space, with a monthly audience of 29 million, with little reporting of substance. Throughout the Brexit campaign it gave enthusiastic coverage of Johnson and UKIP's Farage with limited journalistic scrutiny.
In the US, against all predictions, Donald Trump won through a relatively modest campaign budget and the huge media exposure of his outrageous statements. Fox News is probably the US equivalent of the Daily Mail and its prominent news host, Sean Hannity, publicly endorsed Trump months before the election. The right wing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, is an influential voice for many working class white Americans and he was also strong in his support of Donald Trump. Jones' radio show is syndicated across 130 stations and claims to have 80 million video views a month. Facts and balanced reporting are not usually associated with Hannity or Jones and yet their opinions had a huge influence on voters.
Neoliberal, conservative governments have increasingly served the interests of multinationals and the banking and finance industries over the majority of citizens. To ensure their political success they have had to appeal to the very people who have been exploited through their policies. The working classes in developed countries have not fared well in a free market environment. Global competition has resulted in limiting wage increases, destroyed unions and reducing working conditions. Conservative governments can only be elected if they can shift attention from the real consequences of their policies, including increasing corporate welfare at the expense of spending on the welfare of ordinary citizens. The US Federal Reserve ended up spending $7.7 trillion to bail out financial institutions that had failed because of corrupt practices and greed. Fossil fuel companies continue to enjoy annual subsidies of around 6.5% of global GDP (even New Zealand gifts $46 million to the oil and gas industry), despite the fact oil companies dominate the top twenty of the worlds richest.
Restricting public access to information, denigrating academic and scientific opinion and encouraging the development of personality based election campaigns has served conservative politicians well until a recently. While the working and middle classes have watched wealth distribution shift to an upward flow to a wealthy few, their growing frustration has seen the rise of two distinct politcal ideologies. In the US this saw the grassroots development of the Tea Party, supported by the less educated working class. The younger generation of the middle class supported the Occupy movement. While both movements lack leadership and sustainable organisation they represented a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
The growth and freedom of commercial media was once used effectively by the conservative establishment to disperse its spin, however, the increasing sensationalism of news and erosion of journalistic ethics has seen more colourful politicians capture the limelight. To the less educated Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson provide simple messages that resonate and support their prejudices. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders encapsulated the idealism of the Occupy supporters with their principled stands and authenticity. Unfortunately the news media with the widest reach in both the US and UK have always attacked the left (note how Corbyn's Castro comments were framed) and so now we see Trump as the President Elect and Boris Johnson as Britain's Foreign Minister.
In New Zealand our National Government has been supported by talk back radio and through commercialising public TV. John Campbell got shunted into the underfunded public radio and Mike Hosking's right-wing rants are promoted through prime time television. Apart from Winston Peters most of our populist and most bombastic politicians are found in the Government caucus. Key, Brownlee, Collins and Parata will be celebrating the latest polls.
Now that news is being treated as entertainment, and populist personalities dominate politics, we must prepare for a future that will resemble a disaster movie. Nothing sells news better than disasters and we can depend on Boris, Donald and John to deliver. Human suffering and climate change will make great stories.