Public service “waste”, public sector cuts and “deficit reduction” are being conflated. In some ways this is testament to the ability of capital to dictate the very terms and frame through which the public at large are encouraged to understand and talk about politics and economics. The neo-liberal ideologues have captured the territory and frames for understanding. How has this happened? And how is this representational ‘trick’ performed?
Allow me, for a moment to suggest some possible explanations.
1) Limited Understanding: It is possible that some/many of the journalists that operate in news media have a limited understanding or frame of reference. Not every ‘business’ journalist is versed in economic theory. Thus, when called upon to ‘report’ on government cuts and government response to the crisis (of capital) the most obvious explanatory framework is to be found in official documents and press briefings.
2) Sourcing: Journalists often rely on particular trusted sources, that is, official sources that have the information directly from “the horses mouth”. News and journalists are reliant on information, and on verified information in order that they are able to tell news stories. Of course I am not suggesting that all journalists merely parrot official rhetoric, even if on some occasions this can be “proved” to be the case, merely repeating it here serves no purpose and in fact rather clouds the issue. The task of sourcing information from trusted verifiable sources is more complex than an overly simplified and reductive analysis of the relationship between journalists and government spokesperson allows for. Nevertheless, sourcing, official spokespersons and reliable contacts are still a consideration when considering the framing of news stories and news narratives.
3) Discourse: Most, though not all politicians seek to narrow the debate, and shift it on to familiar terrain. Journalism is similarly discursive. Discourse necessarily “defines and limits frameworks of understanding”. Media organisations and the journalists therein, unless they are fully versed in wider economic theory; or through political expediency; ideological agreement; or just plain inability to critique, allow this discursive narrowing to take place. In modest defence of journalism and journalists, broadcast media in particular is not very well suited to drawn out discussion or lengthy essays that might extend the narrative framework. However, the upshot is that we are now in the position whereby the ruling coalition have been able to say “look at the mess left by the last administration” ad infinitum; and “look the cuts are essential, they’re not our fault”. With regards the first point, it’s wearing rather thin and thankfully, people in the public sphere are now beginning to tire of this narrative and explicitly stating so. With regards the second point though “look, the cuts are essential/necessary” it’s a bit more of a struggle to propose an alternative narrative and it’s a further demonstration of discourse in action. What it demonstrates is that the elite political class have managed to impose upon events their own partial frame through which to view the political debate. Political and economics journalists have a habit of reproducing dominant themes as “common sense”. Note here:
BBC’s own economics correspondent when reporting on the IMF’s response to George Osborne’s spending plans. “The IMF today gave Osborne’s plans the “thumbs up”” …and by way of explaining who or what the IMF are, Flanders then says that they periodically visit countries to undertake an “economic health-check”; Robert Peston then explains that according to the IMF, Osborne’s plans “demonstrate good housekeeping”. The IMF are able to be presented as mere rational agents of impartial, neutral observation. These linguistic tropes are important, and they’re in the service of neo-liberal ideology. Locating them in the logic of the domestic – “good housekeeping”; the medical – “economic health-check” and the informal – “thumbs up” frames them as non partisan, rational and at worst, neutrally interested in “our” wellbeing. One could just as easily discuss the IMF, CBI et al in the context of a collection of neo-liberal interest groups whose principal concern is that the system of socialisation of loss and privatisation of profits is maintained and further strengthened. That this is never the explanatory framework gives us some clue as to why “necessary cuts” established itself as the ‘obvious’ solution.
So, then, this is the discursive shaping of events by news and current affairs journalism. In the current economic conditions, it is a partial failure of political communication reporting, broadcasting and journalism that this crisis of capital can so easily be represented and reported as “public sector profligacy”. Perceptions of what constitutes fairness are being effectively (stage) ‘managed’ by rhetorical flourishes and discursive tricks that frame the debate(s) too tightly. In this environment, we cannot allow those that stand to gain the most set the terms of the debate….what to do, how to counter it? How to offer a counter argument to the ‘obvious solution’
This logic is being challenged by a growing band – one might in fact call them/us “a coalition (well, they are very “now”) – UK Uncut #UKUncut @UKUncut. This coalition of concerned citizens and tax-payers are challenging the rhetoric of “inevitable cuts”. Firstly by having a targeted and well researched message, able to be simply communicated to people, UK Uncut are, in the classic style of informed, political and critical analysis making explicit the links between tax avoidance/evasion and brutal public spending cuts. They/we are attempting to inform and then explain and contextualise some of the unfair and unjust taxation avoidance/evasion (potato/potarto) schemes in which some companies indulge. It’s quite a task to challenge the established conventional rhetoric but it’s beginning to gain traction.
The dominant frame for over thirty years now has been that taxation is seen as confiscation (Janet Daley used precisely this rhetoric last week on BBC Question Time). However, there is an alternative view, helped no end by it being true. It is as follows:
Corporations cannot function without the state, or at least without the infrastructure that is provided by central state funding via forms of taxation. This infrastructure underpins society and subsequently ‘produces’ citizens/consumers that consume the products in the first place.
• Without healthcare employees would be sick;
• Without education employees wouldn’t be able to read or count or function;
• Without sanitation rubbish would line the streets, bins wouldn’t be collected;
• Without police, shoplifters could not be apprehended, there would be theft; Without courts, shoplifters would not be brought to justice
• Without street lighting shopping streets might be no go areas after dark;
• Without public transportation employees could not travel to work.
The point here is that fair and progressive taxation provides the educational, social, civic and civil infrastructure that produces the conditions in which capital (or businesses) can operate and flourish. Corporations have an obligation to the society in which they operate – and from where they derive their profits. This gathering of loosely organised, leaderless campaigns are beginning to have some impact and it is chiefly through the medium of Twitter and Facebook. However, these new forms of media and communication only go so far. Wonderful as they are for organisation, tactics, flashmob announcements etc their impact is increased once the wave of protests hits a critical mass and is then given due prominence in mainstream media. It is hoped that this coverage in the mainstream forces the agenda, shifts the paradigm or at least asks the questions and makes explicit the link between taxation (avoidance); deficit discussion and public sector cuts. What news journalism tends to do is to compartmentalise, order generically, or in philosophical terms, discursively form. So that public sector cuts can be discussed, but mainly within the terrain of “necessary, unavoidable deficit reduction”. One of the many great things about the developing UK Uncut movement, is this referencing, this drawing together, this explicit linking together of, for instance: raised tuition fees; 100% funding cuts to Arts, humanities and social sciences at university; upwards of 330,000 public sector job cuts with tax avoidance and evasion, UK Uncut and associated and loosely affiliated groups are doing a service that most mainstream journalism is failing to do. It’s a small but a necessary step, that might just gain significant momentum, raise public awareness of the unfairness being meted out in the name of “necessary austerity”.
On that note, please do campaign and join in, or start your very own Uncut protest. In Tunbridge Wells this very weekend, along with over 40 other towns, we’re doing just that. The symbolically important town of Tunbridge Wells is staging a protest at Topshop with perhaps as many as 100 people taking part. If protest comes to Tunbridge Wells, then perhaps the moment of critical mass has been breached. Join us…or anyone else this weekend and let the tax avoiders know, their tax arrangements are helping to cause untol;d misery to thousands of people; that they have a civic responsibility, and that their chicanery will not stand.