Is there really an alternative? The mainstream media and the limits of public debate over austerity

Mainstream media can still have a critical influence in prescribing limits to potential policy solutions, and thus determining the nature and scope of reform. After the 2008 financial crisis mainstream journalists became complicit in the reassertion of an ideological paradigm. Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

Justin Schlosberg
22 June 2016

Flickr/mrgarethm. Some rights reserved.

In the immediate aftermath of the global financial collapse in 2008, something extraordinary happened in newsrooms across Britain and much of the developed world. For a brief moment, fundamental questions regarding the efficacy and ethics of the market system became commonplace. During this apex of the crisis, it was barely possible for even conservatively-minded journalists to avoid pondering the failures of capitalism. Professional journalism itself was to be roundly criticised for its failure to predict – and even prevent – the economic meltdown that followed the closure of Lehman Brothers, on that fateful day in September.

In the wake of the Lehman collapse, with some of the world’s largest banks poised to follow suit, governments on both sides of the Atlantic were faced with an imminent decision of whether and how to intervene. Given the scale of the crisis, the idea that the state had a role to play in containing it and stemming the damage caused to the wider economy, quickly became an accepted norm. It reinforced the narrative that de-regulated capitalism – central to the neoliberal project began in earnest by Thatcher and Reagan in the early 1980s – was no longer working. And it pointed the finger at a culture of greed and excess that had fermented in its wake, along with concentrated private power.

But it was precisely at this point – no sooner than the brief rupture to a decades-long ideological paradigm had surfaced –  that mainstream journalists became complicit in the reassertion of that very paradigm. Indeed, it was during deliberation over how the government should respond to the immediate fallout from the crisis that public debate – as reflected through the mainstream media –  became systematically contained once again.

Mike Berry at Cardiff University provided a vivid insight into what this containment looked like and how it emerged. In a study that focused on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme  (widely perceived as an agenda leader in professional news circles), he showed how the ‘bailout’ package proposed by the UK government was generally preferred by banking executives and other financial elites in the weeks leading up to the decision. These figures were by far the most prominent sources featured on the programme, voicing their support for a huge injection of public funds into the most endangered banks in return for preference shares (rather than voting shares) and without any guarantees about lending to the wider economy or controversial remuneration structures for bank employees. The cost to the taxpayer was to be a generation of austerity.

At least one alternative to the government’s bailout plan was nationalisation; an option endorsed, amongst other, by Joseph Stiglitz, a nobel prize-winning economist and one of the world’s leading commentators on the financial crisis. But proponents of this alternative were not featured at all on the Today Programme during the weeks leading up to and immediately after the bail out decision. Whilst some degree of debate was admitted, this fell far short of nationalisation being considered at any point as a credible option.

Such is the ideology of ‘There is No Alternative’ – or ‘TINA’ as the phrase has become known. Originally popularised by Margaret Thatcher in her repeated dismissal of arguments against economic liberalism, its sentiment was echoed in Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’ following the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, signalling “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” It was also revived by David Cameron in 2013 to justify the programme of public spending cuts that duly followed the bailout, triggering a fall in the living standards of the poorest not seen since the great depression: “If there was another way I would take it. But there is no alternative”. 

This fostered an arena of debate that was largely restricted to a choice between moderate austerity and ‘austerity max’; with the mainstream media reflecting and reinforcing the boundaries of political consensus across Europe. In defence of TINA, the dominant framing attributed the causes of austerity to the excesses of government spending on public services during the decade or so leading up to crash (rather than the unprecedented and unparalleled spending on the bailout that followed it). It thus obscured the excesses of a de-regulated banking system and, in a remarkable ideological twist, austerity became a correction to too much government. 

Of course, that dominant framing has not gone unchallenged. The growing popular mandate of the SNP, the grassroots movement that put Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party, and the etching of slogans like “the one percent” into the public consciousness are all testament in some way to the power of the ‘fifth estate’: grassroots and participatory platforms that resist and redefine mainstream news discourse, and which can in turn have a profound influence over it. But we should not be fooled into assuming that a level playing field has surfaced. Mainstream press and broadcasters still, in the main, have a much wider reach across fragmented audiences, and a far deeper reach into the corridors of power, as demonstrated by testimony at the Leveson Hearings. And elites – including media owners – still provide most of the agenda ‘cues’ that determine the issues of salience in public conversation, even if the narrative does not always evolve in their favour.

The upshot is that although the mainstream news agenda rarely offers an easy ride for the powerful, it can still have a critical influence in prescribing limits to potential policy solutions, and thus determining the nature and scope of reform. We only have to look as far as the current deafening silence of the government over its failure to fully implement the cross-party agreed Royal Charter for press regulation reform; or the way that questions of how to regulate media ownership and plurality have been systematically maligned from the media policy agenda. From a radical perspective, this is the epitome of hegemonic power; the mechanism by which some alternatives are omitted from the consensus framework and as such, excluded from the realm of what is possible, realistic, or common sense.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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