It’s the ‘primary definers’, stupid! – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

It’s the ‘primary definers’, stupid!

Like many a disbelieving, frustrated, angry and bereft “Remainer” (the 48%) I signed the petition. I did so not because I favour another Referendum (I think them a terrible, divisive, binary means of seeking and claiming democratic legitimacy). Nor did I sign because I have any hope that the current result can be overturned. Nor, I should say, do I think the result ought to be overturned. Such action might very well finally fracture our already weak democracy and lead to social upheaval. But sign I did. I did so because, in our unrepresentative system, it felt like an act of solidarity with other like-minded citizens and with migrant communities now living in fear and facing increasing levels of intimidation and outright racist attack. Perhaps less importantly, I signed as a means to display that I am firmly one of the 48%. In the midst of a personal ontological crisis, amidst the growing social, political and economic crisis, signing the petition became one of the means by which I could register my anger, bewilderment and utter dismay at the result.

I remain frustrated by such calls to “respect our democracy”. Democracy exercised on the basis of misinformation is not democracy, it is a corruption of it. The “Brexit” campaign had the hallmarks of a mis-selling scandal, “Take Back Control” becomes the “democracy” equivalent of mis-selling PPI.

But over the course of the last 6 days, I have been told to “accept the result”, because, after all “that’s democracy”. However, I remain frustrated by such calls to “respect our democracy”. Democracy exercised on the basis of misinformation is not democracy, it is a corruption of it. The “Brexit” campaign had the hallmarks of a mis-selling scandal, “Take Back Control” becomes the “democracy” equivalent of mis-selling PPI.

Media scholars are of course well-versed in the theories that our politics is laced with, or even structured around misinformation. That it may seem hackneyed, does not though invalidate the claim. Misinformation ensures that the political class and fourth estate effectively works to disenfranchise a mass of the population. To reduce democracy to merely placing one’s cross on a piece of paper is simplistic at best, false at worst. Democratic empowerment can only be achieved if that cross is made with a degree of knowledge to hand. However, in the case of the EU Referendum, such knowledge is significantly blurred, or even withheld from the very people “exercising their democratic right(s)”. The entire campaign(s), both Leave and Remain – but particularly the Leave campaign – seemed, not only to run on, but glory in reductive simplicities.

Post-result, when the lies on which the Leave Campaign were built came tumbling down around us, (turns out, those experts dismissed by Michael Gove may have had a point) I have also been told “Politicians lie…we all know that”. While this may be true, it is hardly a robust defence of democracy. As alarmingly, in the course of the same debate, it was explained “…we accept the premise that politicians are going to lie in order to achieve their end goal”. But we must reject that as the frame, as the starting – and end – point. We might suspect that they lie, but to accept it is too passive a response.

The problem with “knowing” and passively “accepting” that politicians lie is what it does to us. It cultivates cynicism. Hearing the lies but accepting them as “the way things are” undermines our already fragile and unrepresentative system. It leaves “us” – the voters – with misinformation on which to base our decisions; and it leaves “them” – the elected – with a “mandate” to do with as they please. Its logical end-point is disenfranchisement.

But if politicians lie, how do they get away with it? To understand this, we must examine the relationship, the nexus between politics and media. Above – referring to politicians – I used the term “withheld”, but this is a problematic term. Of course we may suspect deliberate misinformation, deliberate malfeasance, deliberate “withholding”, but is the same true of our media, of journalists, editors and owners? Even without ethnographic or political economy research, by using a range of well-established methods, we can assess the ways in which journalism operates, its practices, its forms, and crucially, its relationships to power. Or to use Tuchman’s phrasing, to assess the extent to which news is the “ally of legitimated institutions.” From this, we can draw some conclusions.

To quote Stuart Hall et al

“In the main, journalists position themselves so that they have access to institutions which generate a useful volume of reportable activity at regular intervals.”

What emerges, we might call:

“… professional ideological rules in journalism. The important point is that these professional rules give rise to the practice of ensuring that media statements are, wherever possible, grounded in ‘objective’ and ‘authoritative’ statements from ‘accredited’ sources. This means constantly turning to accredited representatives of major social institutions … Journalists, in attempting to fulfil ‘public interest’ aims and present authoritative accounts, purposively seek out those who already appear knowledgeable, authoritative or representative … as such they reinforce as well as reflect power imbalances by awarding such ‘primary definers’ greater visibility and legitimacy”

Though written thirty-five years ago, the clarity and accuracy still resonates. To paraphrase (and bastardize) a well-worn truism. “It’s the ‘Primary definers’, Stupid”. The “Primary definers” primarily define the terms, the frames, the discourse. Who were the most high-profile primary definers of the (two) Leave campaigns? Gove, Farage, Johnson. Granted authority by way of location in, or proximity to institutions of power. Over the course of the campaign, these three primary definers gained legitimacy by their status, they were reported on as legitimate social and political actors; what they said, mattered, and what they said, at important points, turned out to be false.

When the (necessary) complexity of politics is reduced to slogans, and when even those slogans turn out to be false and undeliverable, calls to “accept” that politicians lie, and that “That’s democracy!” ring a little hollow.