Sunday, 15 November 2015

Press Narcissm and 'Public Opinion'

Narcissus didn't simply fall in love with himself, but mistook himself for another. Similarly the press apparently misrecognises its own chatter as the rumblings of the 'Public', of the multitude, or of the Zeitgeist itself:

"It's too late for Jeremy Corbyn, the public's already decided what it thinks of him" (Telegraph 12/11)

"British public backs David Cameron over Jeremy Corbyn 'terrorist-sympathiser' attack." (International Business Times October 2nd)

"Jeremy Corbyn seems to be opening up to public opinion - after being seen out and about with The Sun under his arm". [The Sun]
We the demos, the people, are offered an image of what 'The Public' are thinking. The public is 'furious' or 'outraged'.. but this is always merely a supposed public, presented for our silent consumption. 
'Public opinion' assumes there is a subject called the British Public who speaks, in the same way as an individual speaks. But the demographic designated by 'The British Public' is split  and fractured according to class, ethnicity, gender and other factors, but the spectre of "The British Public"  suggests that there is a national - British - interest that supersedes any class or factional interests. (And, conversely, polls that look at opinion by class, gender, ethnicity etc are largely ignored.) There is no univocal 'British Public', but as a phrase it's rhetorically useful in identifying enemies or cynically passing off journalistic opinion as something else. 

Public opinion polls are not an exception to this but a prime example.   Polls are not seismographs registering the tremors of debate and dissent across society. They do not drill down into the commotion of the multitude. They entail not questions that the public are debating,  picked up belatedly by the media. Rather they are the media's questions, fired at members of 'the public'.
 HuffPost UK Poll Exclusive: One-Third Of People Think Jeremy Corbyn Is 'Britain-Hating' And 'Terrorist-Sympathising' After David Cameron's Attack"
Or, more accurately: 1034 people respond to leading questions couched in David Cameron's language.The numbers themselves are relegated to the small print and there is almost no info as to how the demographic was sourced - as usual consumption triumphs over production. This 'poll' serves only to perpetuate and add legitmacy to Cameron's puerile rhetoric, a rhetoric resting on misrepresentations and flawed assumptions. 

The terms in which polls are couched serve to bolster and legitimise the orthodoxies and loaded rhetoric of the largely Conservative press. Opinion polls are flash plebiscites whereby a few hundred randoms are enlisted to serve as the voice of millions and ratify taken-for-granted assumptions or prefabricated outrages.   In an age when there are now so many other means of gauging what large numbers of people are preoccupied with and discussing, a sounding of a 1000 or so people as to pre-determined questions is an anachronism 

There are many forums for the free-associations of citizens, offline and on, but the media is not really one of them.  Increasingly the public, or rather the multitudes, groups and factions which this term disguises, are speaking to each other, and have no need to be informed of what Public Opinion is because they are too busy forming it.