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As we enter a new year of political uncertainty and economic instability, what better time to assemble a cast of renegade thinkers to rake over the wreckage of the previous year.

The Renegade Inc. team did just that. Sociologist, Lisa MacKenzie, anthropologist and author, Dr. Jason Hickel, and the Middle East based journalist Sharmine Narwani, joined Renegade Inc host, Ross Ashcroft, to discuss what happened in 2019.

Disorientating

A key feature of 2019 in the UK was the way in which the mainstream media disorientated the electorate as a result, among other things, of its distorted general election coverage of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. In a recent article for The Morning Star, journalist Ian Sinclair highlights how “newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.”

The media’s negativity directed towards Labour was embodied in their repeated anti-Semitism accusations. The huge discrepancy in UK newspaper articles containing ‘Labour Party’ and ‘anti-Semitism’ before and after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader, indicates the extent to which the allegations were completely unfounded. By contrast, the numerous racist statements made in public by Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, went largely unmentioned.

Jason Hickel picks up on this latter point:

“Johnson is on record with actually explicit anti-Semitic statements in addition to Islamophobic and racist and homophobic and virtually everything else. And yet the media seems to have almost nothing to say about that. It’s astonishing, actually”, says Jason Hickel.

The author adds:

“Johnson went so far as to celebrate the idea of recolonizing Africa. “As far as Johnson is concerned, you don’t need to speculate about the nature of his views, it’s right there. And yet that didn’t really become a story.”

The tendency for the media to create often one sided and false political narratives in this way clearly has implications for the proper functioning of democracy. Rather than speaking truth to power, its role is akin to that of an establishment stenographer. Since, as Sharmine Narwani puts it, “the public mimics everything they read”, the media are part of the problem not the solution.

The death of investigative journalism

Lisa Mackenzie claims that investigative journalism is effectively dead. The trend over recent years has been to move away from investing in well researched and complex stories towards those that shout at each other the loudest. Mackenzie asserts that this latter form of journalism is turning the public away from important issues like the political weaponization of anti-Semitism and Middle-East conflicts.

According to the sociologist, these issues only had a limited impact on public mood when it came to voting at the election. In MacKenzie’s view, there is a lack of appetite for these kinds of stories among the working class.

In relation to analysis that extends beyond the domestic sphere, there appears to be resistance among readers to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. As a journalist who specializes in Middle-East politics, Sharmine Narwani claims that fewer and fewer outlets are willing to publish her work:

“What concerns me as we enter 2020, and what we’ve seen in 2019, is this narrowing of all discourse on anything that is remotely controversial. And media is absolute complicit in that. Mainstream media are pretty much stenographers at this point”, says the journalist.

The death of democracy

Jason Hickel posits that Labour’s election loss effectively means that media reform, including within the BBC, is now out of reach. But even if Corbyn had won the election, the democratic media reforms he touted would not necessarily have led to a greater diversity of opinions. This, according to Lisa MacKenzie, is because a structural fault-line lies at the heart of a system beset by nepotism and local media retrenchment.

Sharmine Narwani countered this view by arguing that these problems can be offset as a result of the emergence and growth of an independent, transparent and accountable media that push points of view not represented by the established media.

Brexit defining election

Despite the media bias against Labour, Lisa MacKenzie says that the election was nevertheless defined by Brexit:

“Brexit has been almost like a vehicle that pulled the curtain back from The Wizard of Oz that revealed a bunch of useless, mediocre people who don’t know what they’re doing. That includes the media, politics, the commentariat and academics”, says MacKenzie.

By contrast, Narwani claims that the election represented a second referendum on Brexit that can’t be intellectualized rationally. “It also is a reflection”, says Narwani, “of splits that are happening globally in most countries and most continents.”

The journalist adds:

“For me, it means the world is turning. OK. You didn’t hit it this time. It doesn’t matter. England’s going to chug on. It’s a work in progress everywhere. This is a hopeful time”, says Narwani: “Look in your personal lives when change happens, it’s so painful. The times you grow in life, the times you learn, are the ones where you experience pain, not joy or pleasure. So this is just the world turning. It’s like the end of a world war, because that’s the kind of change we’re seeing. It’s not a little change. It’s a massive change across the board.”

The notion that growth ultimately emerges out of pain, is not shared by Jason Hickel:

“We’re looking at unprecedented popular struggles happening around the world right now. That’s extraordinary. That gives me a lot of hope. But at the same time, capital is powerful. What we’re seeing is that capital in the global market is desperate to find an outlet for a surplus. It’s looking everywhere, desperately. The elections are partly a consequence of that. The extent to which money was piled into the Leave campaign and into the media to swing things, means that capital will not go lightly”, says Hickel.

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