Other problems with the press

When the French philosopher Jacques Derrida said everything was language and therefore ‘there is no outside the text’ he was only stating the obvious: that politics and society are so highly encoded that what we exchange every day are signs, not realities. The power of the language system which is our public culture is total. We can’t get outside it. We can’t hope to communicate truths, only equivalences. Listen to journalists interviewing politicians and politicians talking to each other and you’ll realize you knew this already. You don’t need philosophy to point out the public language trap, but perhaps it’s worth knowing that Derrida wrote reams of stuff in which he never came to the point, because he didn’t want, himself, to be pinned down in language, and made to mean this or that. His philosophy of the true message never arriving was formed in an age in which the mediatization of everything was still shocking. For years he withheld his photograph from the press, until he gave in. Like many of us, he was weak. He was also handsome and quite liked being famous, and had a love-hate relationship with being drawn in to the establishment.

My Derridean feeling about the press in its Leveson hour of torture  – but actually Lord Justice Leveson has already done all the torturing he will have been allowed to do, the point of the inquiry was never its findings – is the difficulty of the press using the same language as the politicians and the PR industry. They’re all one big industry that just goes round and round, telling us what they think we should know and buy and vote for, these three kinds of action often scarcely decipherable one from the other. Together these three sectors form an establishment one might call the politico-journalistic complex, which represents the world to us as they claim it is, was and should be. Reality. Hannah Arendt once defined totalitarianism as depriving other men of their reality. I won’t go quite so far as to call the politico-journalistic complex totalitarian, but it could do with voluntarily contracting its power over what it thinks of as the truth. It’s been a time to squirm for me, this past week, with politicians and journalists combining in self-defence, because it reinforces my impression of how closely they stand together. Theirs is the circle in which meanings are always completed, the very opposite of what Derrida would see as the nature of our human condition. If anything is significant or successful they rework the signs into something politically advantageous or journalistically newsworthy.

Art has to go out on a distant distant limb to come anywhere near attacking them. If it wins a prize or draws an audience its power to speak from outside the circle is already diminished. We saw it with The Thick of It. Politicians and aides and journalists started calling it their favourite programme, desperately trying to annexe its power by telling the world: look, we can even laugh at ourselves, that’s part of our empire.  An unconscious gesture, maybe, but one that any philosophical review of the ways of the press would want to wake them up to. I read somewhere it set the teeth of one of the programme producers on edge. He knew exactly what that appreciative insider audience was trying to do.

Leveson won’t tell you this, dear friends in the press, but I will: don’t try and reduce my experience of life, or that of anyone else who hasn’t asked you for some promotion, to what you think you know. You, a corporation of your own, understand everything in terms of some industry, brand, PR product or ‘political position’. But you’re not art and you’re not real life, and both of those forces should be allowed to contain you.

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