(Ask Who Gains From A) Culture Of Fear

Today was a glorious late summer day – largely clear sky, hot, quite still. Perhaps a little too humid to be perfect, but very, very nice indeed. A good day for riding up on the Ridgeway, so that’s what I did for an hour-and-a-half, with Charli for company as normal.

In the whole time we saw passed two walkers – and that was it apart from a horse and rider some distance off. To be up high, undisturbed and – by dint of being on bikes rather than anything motorised – not disturbing anything or anyone either is a real pleasure. Accepting that we’re operating within the realities of living in this over-crowded neck of the woods, it’s hard to think of a better way to get away from the day-to-day.

As with the ride around south Oxfordshire villages the other week, the urban world of riots and ‘disorder’ seemed totally and utterly alien as we rode today. The media has been going on about record numbers being in prison as a result. It’s very difficult to know what context to view things within. The reports vary but there’s probably been around 3,000 people arrested in connection with the riots. Let’s say there were, I don’t know, 10 times more than that actually involved? Even if there were 30,000 people in total engaged in ‘disorder’ over those nights across the whole country, that’s a tiny proportion of the total population, a tiny proportion of those that could have been involved. Given that – in theory – we all could have joined in, surely that makes looking at the numbers involved as a proportion of the population valid.

It always pays to be mindful that there’s a lot to be gained for ‘the establishment’ in creating a culture of fear. A lot of social control can be exercised in such a climate – witness the ‘war on terror’. And you’d be a fool to imagine that there’s not a small coterie at the top that’s in each other’s pockets – crossing all the ostensible divides between political parties, the media and business. Whether the churches are still listened to within that coterie is perhaps a moot point, and quite how the armed forces fit in these days is also less obvious than it might have been, but you can be sure both groups are there somehow too.

The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they assume an awful lot of intelligence on the part of the conspirators, and an awful lot of people staying silent. The theories are generally far-fetched and bogus. The absence of an active conspiracy, though, doesn’t mean there’s not a tacit collective attitude towards how things are handled, towards what norms are asserted.

Meanwhile, it’s sometimes surprising what turns out to be reality – like the British and American secret services’ co-operation with Qadhafi’s Libya that’s just starting to leak out. It’s tempting to say ‘you couldn’t make it up’, only you could.

It’s also worth remembering that back in March there was a large scale disturbance in Tottenham but it went unreported by anything but the local Tottenham press. The main media channels were preoccupied with the Japanese earthquake and its ramifications. If the more recent trouble in Tottenham hadn’t been reported so hysterically and without sensible context, it has to be at least extremely unlikely that there’d have been the escalation we saw in London and elsewhere.

The role of the fourth estate should be scrutiny but we all know that’s rarely what they do anymore. Investigative reporting has almost died out. At the same time the quality of what is put out by the various media channels seems to be increasingly poor – either vacuous or plain wrong. And all the time the audience for the mainstream media is declining. I find myself wondering what’s going to be for the best. If we were all receiving less homogenised bullshit, if we all end up with our world views gathered as we see fit from an increasingly diverse range of sources, will that be a good thing or bad? It’s tempting, sometimes, to think it will be for the better. But on the other hand, if there’s no ‘mass media’ at all, then when something does emerge that really needs the coverage then it would be all too easy for that kind of thing to be brushed off. It would have been easy to bury the MPs expenses scandal if there was no mass media.

But on the other hand, again, the real efficacy – or otherwise – of the mass media as things stand needs to be questioned and not taken for granted. The consequences of that expenses scandal haven’t been far-reaching – quite the opposite. There’s any number of other issues that can quite properly be called appalling that either aren’t or are only barely covered now. I don’t know what the real consequences of losing any genuinely mass media might be. Their claim to be something positive in society is, at best, unproven.