Saturday, 28 March 2015

Bristol Councils Austerity Budget and media silence

from by William Quick

The cornerstone of a healthy democracy is a well informed electorate.  To be able to have an objective view on the key
issues that effect our lives and how our representatives (or
would be representatives as we enter the election period)
respond to these issues people need information.  Without
this information how can people claim to be making an 
informed choice and doing anything other than ‘tribally’ 
voting for the person or party they like best? Our media supposedly fulfills this key societal function of informing 
people as to what’s actually going on in the world around 
them, and what our elected officials are doing (or not doing)
about it.  Sadly our media lets us down.
There are countless examples both nationally and locally of
how our media fails to hold the powerful in our society to
account; and how by outrageous bias in presenting the facts
(or simply not presenting them at all) it enables politicians
and corporate interests to get away with horrendous injustices.
In recent years this can be seen most starkly in the way the
popular press runs a plethora of articles focusing on benefit
fraud by people at the bottom of our society whilst ignoring
tax avoidance by people at the top.  Benefit fraud, whilst being repugnant, is an extremely marginal activity that costs the
treasury inconsequential sums when compared to industrial
scale tax avoidance by the super rich and multinational corporations, which in comparison receives almost no
coverage.  This then creates an atmosphere in which
politicians can attack  the benefits (and wider welfare state) the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society rely on
whilst ignoring the crimes of the elite (who just so happen to
be their friend, peers, and in many instances financial pay-
masters).  It also creates a symbiotic relationship between 
politics, press and people, where the government cuts 
benefits to disabled people, the press increasingly only 
refers to disabled people in ever more negative ways,
and people responding to this negative messaging 
increasingly turn on the disabled.  Since 2007/8
there has been a 213% increase in reported hate crime
against disabled people.
Innumerable social thinkers have come back to this issue,
to me one of the most enduringly persuasive accounts of
this is in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 
Propaganda Model. Chomsky and Herman outline the 
structural propensity for a marketised for profit media to marginalise alternative views and set the terms of reference
for debates.  Far from being a conscious conspiracy by the
elite, it is more the natural result of the functioning of the 
market economy in media.  George Monbiot’s recently 
touched on the issue during his talk in Bristol where he
examined some‘socially constructed silences’. These are 
important issues (such as the role of fossil fuel
extraction in climate change – a subject which has never
been discussed at any of the international talks on limiting
greenhouse gas emissions) around which artificial silences
have been created in the media (and society at large) to
protect vested interests.  Say what you will about Russel
Brand but some of his ‘TREWS’ videos highlighting the 
abject corruption and bias of much of the media, especially
the Murdoch empire and the Sun are extremely compelling
and convincing (it's especially heartening to see how many 
views his videos on this subject can get, bringing these issues
to new and wider audiences) e.g.
This is an issue that isn’t going to go away and we need as
 many people vocally challenging this state of affairs as
 possible if we are to have any hope of it improving.
For me, what has really highlighted how poorly we our
served by our media locally was the reportage of this years
budget setting meeting of the Bristol City Council.  I say
reportage but that’s probably a strange term to use as there
was none.  Previous budgets were reported in all the local
press, the Bristol Post, Bristol 24/7, even the Jack FM
website ran a piece of ‘churnalism’ on the core facts.
Previous budgets even made it into national news outlets
(not surprisingly as Bristol is one of the largest cities in
the UK) like theBBC and the Guardian, etc.  Yet this year
there was nothing.  (The BBC decided to report on the recent extension of the Resident Parking Scheme –
which will have a small impact on a lot of people and may
be extremely important to a very small minority, but surely
must be less important and is going to have less of an impact
than a budget with millions of pounds worth of cuts to local services?).  Before the actual budget setting meeting itself
the local media posted a few token articles from quiet narrow
party political positions, explaining various parties position
 on council tax (inconsequential rises or complete freezes)
– without any consideration of the context of the wider
austerity budget. For example:
The only immediate releases in the wake of the budget
passing, was in relation to the threatened closure of 
Libraries.  Obviously the closure of libraries is a very
important issue that impacts on a lot of peoples lives, 
so it’s only natural it should be reported on. But again, 
without the context of the large budget cuts of which
the cuts to libraries are just a small part, the reports
were quite useless; and would give the uninformed
observer a verymisleading impression of which of their
elected officials were the most responsible.  Why is
there such silence?
Someone has suggested to me that the local media to
some extent is prepared to downplay stories overly hostile
to the mayor.  Such an explanation would seem far too conspiratorial for me, but the complete lack of coverage 
for what to me seems to be the most important meeting and 
event in the council calender does make me wonder what
on earth is going on? I suppose part of the answer must be
that because its the second year of a three year budget this individual year could seem less important.  But even so, 
you’d think they’d give it at least a cursory glance.
If you wanted to know about the budget, the only coverage
has come from the websites of local political parties (who are naturally going to have a bias in favor of their Councillors
and the position they adopted), or the council website itself,
These of course just uncritically post rose tinted views about
how great the mayor and council have been in managing to
pass a balanced budget, and their efforts to ‘modernise’ services whilst delivering ‘fiscal responsibility’.  An insultingly disproportionate amount of text is devoted to outlining the
one off additional spending as a result of the extra council tax
that was collected last year.  Whilst I’m sure this extra £3m will
be very appreciated, compared to the £90m (and nearly 1000
 jobs) lost over the 3 year period (and the £90m already lost)
its completely inconsequential, and these cuts are only 
glossed over in passing.
A local press worth its name wouldn’t allow the mayor and council’s official exposition of the events to go
unchallenged.  We have to be critical of political authority.
Its the only way we can ever hope to challenge corruption
and vested interests within our society.  The council budget,
and the lack of press interest makes me despair.  When
Bristolians go to the polls in May, to make an informed decision surely they need to know how their representatives stood up for them (or didn’t) in this most
important issue?  I’d like to offer some in depth analysis of
how the different parties voted on the budget, but fear I
have made this post already too long.  In short, for very
 different reasons the Liberal Democrats and the Greens
(the latter on a principled anti-austerity line) voted against
the budget; the Mayor’s austerity budget passed with the
support of an unholy alliance of Conservative and Labour councillors (who for their part exacted slight tokenistic
 amendments in return for their support).
The mainstream press can’t be relied on.  Our only hope is
the development of independent media (like the Bristol Cable)
and social media (blogs like Another Angry Voice).  These
allow us to see events free from the corrupting corporate
influence that so dogs the mainstream press, and offers a
place to keep radical and alternative ideas alive.  Read these,
create your own media, complain to the Bristol Post and
Bristol 24/7 for their shocking lack of coverage, and question everything.  The power is in our hands

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