In recent years, public life in Britain has become an increasingly unruly affair. Scandal follows scandal as the financial sector, parliamentarians, News International, the BBC and the secret state find themselves exposed to sustained scrutiny of a kind that would have been impossible only a decade ago.
It sometimes seems that a media-political complex created before World War II, in which two political parties assisted by a state broadcaster manage a duopoly of sentiment, is running out of road.
The causes are complex. Citizens no longer rely on one newspaper with broadcast news for balance. Instead, we are increasingly likely to use social media to draw in information from diverse, and sometimes disreputable, outlets.
We can piece together information from a number of newspapers, blogs, and national broadcasters, from US networks (world leaders in resigned satire), declassified papers, and still-classified documents courtesy of Wikileaks. Meanwhile whistle blowers operate on a vastly greater scale. Chelsea Manning could fit more data onto a couple of computer discs than Daniel Ellsberg could have carried on a flatbed truck.
But the fundamentals of the change are perhaps to be found in the financial crisis. The notion that markets and competition determine the distribution of wealth collapsed when the government used the public faith and credit to rescue a failing private sector. The main political parties, the state apparatus and the major media continue to ignore the implications of this collapse.
They desperately want to go back to the old days, when they could enjoy all the delights of office while blaming “the markets” and the need to compete with China for everything the public didn’t like. As long as they deny reality they cannot begin to restore their authority.
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Of course, we can overstate the extent to which things have changed. The government still has considerable communicative powers. Aided by its many friends in the print and broadcast media it has been highly successful in its efforts to sell a kind of compensatory sadism, in which benefit claimants and immigrants take the brunt of popular resentment that might be more justly directed at the financial sector.
But something fundamental has nevertheless changed. The idea that “they” – the people in charge – know what they are doing, no longer persuades. Meanwhile, popular constituencies can keep stories alive in a way that was once the sole province of the major media. These stories are beginning to touch on matters that were almost entirely off-limits only a few years ago, notably the integration of the media with the secret state and the political economy of blackmail.
There are signs that the state is taking steps to restore order. On July 14, Prime Minister David Cameron, announced GBP 800 million ($1.3bn) of new money for “Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance” (ISTAR). It isn’t possible to say for sure where the ISTAR money will end up.
Defence and intelligence officials are not famous for their candour. But we can make an educated guess. In 2010, an unnamed MI6 officer giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry explained that “we do mainly Humint and GCHQ do mainly Sigint, and various other, you know, ISTAR and so on”. So it looks very much as though the money was being given to GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).
On the following day the government, working with the official opposition, rushed new legislation, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) bill, through the Commons. While it insisted that DRIP was only a tidying up and clarification of the existing law surrounding online surveillance, the haste with which the bill was passed and the absence of proper parliamentary scrutiny make it seem like something more sinister.
And indeed, according to a number of experts in the field, the new law is “a serious expansion of the British surveillance state”. GCHQ was getting new powers to go with its new money. As the Snowden leaks demonstrated, GCHQ is a lead agency in the fight against extremism, and extremism is whatever the state says it is.
Two days later on July 17, the BBC’s head of news, James Harding, announced changes to the corporation that combined cutbacks on investigative programmes with plans to “run an integrated multiplatform operation, with On Demand and UGC [user generated content] and Social roles placed at the heart of the operation”.
The established order in Britain looks to be trying, through expansion of the surveillance state and a reorientation of the BBC, to reassert control of the public sphere in the face of disruption from social media. It knows that it will not survive in its current form if it does not keep effectually public speech within certain limits.
At the end of July we learned that during the financial crisis one of the country’s major banks, Lloyds, manipulated the interest rates used to calculate the fees it paid for accessing support from the Bank of England. A bank was defrauding the public at the very moment it was being saved. Imagine a drowning man with the presence of mind to steal the lifeguard’s wristwatch and you begin to understand how the dominant sector of the British economy operates.
Modern states face formidable technical challenges and the United Kingdom is at the forefront of efforts to address them. But it is not clear that technology will fix things here. The deep structure of legitimation – the story we tell about how rewards are distributed in society – has been exposed as a lie and each new scandal only adds gothic details to what already looks like a house of horrors.
Only the truth, the whole truth, will start to put things right.
Daniel Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His third book, The Magic Kingdom, will be published in September.
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