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Reality Management: Hack-gate, Hari, Milibot and the Cyber War

The closure of the Murdoch-owned British tabloid News of the World amidst an escalating phone hacking scandal is just one aspect of a bigger crisis that is undermining the reality management system upon which the media, politicians and the financial sector rely

It is clear that what is going on now is not just about phone hacking and Britain's biggest-selling Sunday paper, News of the World. A whole ruling class, a whole mode of governance, stands accused. Often small incidents are as revealing of this as the larger confrontation. Readers outside the UK may not have heard about how the Independent columnist Johann Hari cut passages from the books of those he profiled, allowing his readers to conclude they were said directly to him. Practically every defence of Hari served to further underscore what a complacent self-serving Oxbridge club so much of the UK broadsheet commentariat is. 

For the Hari and the News of the World situations are part of a single crisis that also includes the Ed Miliband "these strikes are wrong" video and ongoing cyberwar (Wikileaks, Lulzsec, 4Chan). Perhaps the reason that the Frontline Club dialogue between Julian Assange and Slavoj Zizek last Saturday was so disappointing is that Zizek's basic point about the crisis of symbolic efficiency is now so clear that it doesn't require much elaboration. It is one thing our knowing about the corrupt practices that the power elite routinely engage in; it is another for that knowledge to be officially validated. The space that power needs to manage reality is disappearing.

With the 'Milibot' video, the offscreen manipulations of PR came off less like a dark art and more like surrealist comedy - Miliband for all the world resembling an ROM entity from Existenz, only capable of giving one pre-prepared response no matter what the question. The exposure of Hari's manipulations is significant, meanwhile, because (as Petra Davis argued on her Twitter feed) it showed how his construction of "commonsense reality" depended on techniques proper to fiction. Reading Hari's pieces back, it's quite astonishing how crass these techniques were - a "she drew on the omnipresent cigarette" here, and "he asked for more wine" there, inserted between screeds of pirated text. It's like Hari's "interviewing" career is one long postmodern prank, and, really, this episode ought to be liberal empiricism's equivalent of the Sokal scandal.

It was fitting that the DSG exposure of Hari started with Hari's hatchet job on Negri, a masterclass in liberal propaganda and kneejerk loathing of theory - Hari reassuring his readers that he couldn't understand Empire, therefore they shouldn't worry about reading it. The old we don't read it, so you don't have to.... routine. The Negri 'interview' crudely alternates between personal attacks on Negri and appeals to self-evidence (of course communism is evil, why won't this bad tempered old man admit it?) Yet Hari's conclusion - "this is where revolutionary Marxism comes to die. It has been reduced to an obscure parlour game for ageing bourgeois nostalgics" - now itself reads like a relic of a bygone world. The "certainties" and self-evidences of the near-past are unravelling quicker than we can keep up.

As for the News of the World story, all the signs are that neoliberalism's standard tactics of containment - offering an individual as scapegoat-trophy in order to deflect from a structural tendency - are now starting to fail. News International are trying to re-sacrifice a scapegoat they've already served up (Coulson) but the process is out of their control and now has its own momentum (which is sure to drag other newspapers into its wake before very long). What was made to look like a series of disconnected incidents now appears as what it always was: a worldwide web of corruption whose murkiness resembles something out of The Wire or a David Peace novel. A dark network comprising private investigators, the criminal underworld, tabloid newspapers, multinational media conglomerates, the police, politicians, the banks, and the bodies supposed to regulate them (who are at best impotent, at worst part of the problem) cannot now be kept hidden from public scrutiny. This is less a conspiracy than a network of complicities: fear on all sides, nobody trusting anybody else, the whole thing depending on who's got the goods on whom ... Cops watching hacks watching cops; threatened politicans looking for favours ...

What characterises capitalist realism is fatalism at the level of politics (where nothing much can ever change, except to move further in the direction of neoliberalisation) and magical voluntarism at the level of the individual: you can achieve anything, if you only you do more training courses, listen to Mary Portas or Kirsty Alsop, try harder. Magical voluntarism, naturally, also drives the tabloid culture of individual blame (resign, resign!) in which the tabloids themselves are now caught up, although, as Zone Styx noted, News International clearly expects far more from public service managers like Sharon Shoemith than it does from its own executives.) Individualise, individualise, insists capitalist ideology. Note the way in which the media sought to reduce the Lulsec story to Ryan Cleary, or the way in which the clueless Peter Preston finds the idea of a collective entity such as DSG unfathomable.

A manageable level of cynicism about the media actually serves the capitalist realist media system well. Since the media stands in for the public sphere, if journalists and politicians are perceived to be "all liars", as they widely are, then there is no hope to be had in public life at all. Hack expulpations appeal to a market Hobbesianism: they are giving people what they want but what they won't admit to liking. When, pickled in the jouissance of self-loathing and their other stimulants of choice, the hacks style themselves as "princes of darkness", they see themselves as reflecting the public's own disavowed cynicism back to it. Nobody likes working in the sewers, but don't you all love the pretty little globules of sensation that we dredge up for you?.

Similarly, Glenn Mulcaire whines that the NOTW put him under pressure for results, this isn't only an excuse - what we're seeing here is in part the consequence of the intense competitive pressures at work in print media as its market share declines. Negative solidarity again: a race to depths so infernally pressurised that only alcohol-breathing subhuman crustaceans can survive there. (You only have to look at ex-NOTW hack Paul McMullan to see that.) As one by one those who played their part are dragged into the light, the old bullying sneers become familiar plaints: that's reality, we couldn't help it, that's how things are now ... But we must hear their excuses as indictments of a system: behold what a wretched state overwork and pitiless competition can reduce human beings to.

All of which means that a few sackings here and there will clearly not suffice. What is needed, as Dan Hind argues, is total media reform:

The current structure of power and decision-making in the media cannot now be allowed to remain unchanged. The employees of large media organizations have monopoly control of decisions about what is investigated and what prominence is given to the results of investigations. They have been unable or unwilling to use this monopoly power in the public interest. Accordingly it is time to assert our democratic right to communicate freely amongst ourselves. Each of us must take some some fraction of the commissioning power, the power to initiate and publish inquiries. If we do not our public life will remain a mess of officially sanctioned fairy tales, crocodilian excuses, and grotesque abuses of the innocent, in which market forces and elite prerogatives set the limits of our understanding and hence of our capacity for self-government.

In the House of Commons emergency debate on the New of the World on Wednesday, many MPs had the relieved and faintly bemused air of the henchmen and victims of a bully who can't quite believe that the tyranny might be nearing its end. As Assange said on Saturday- and as Dan Hind also argues in The Return of the Public - the function of corporate media has been to isolate people, to make them distrust their discontent with a world controlled by business interests. What has combated this is the production of new collectivities of dissent, both online and in the streets. What we're seeing in this extraordinary moment of transition is a reality management system imploding from within at the same time as it is being undermined from outside. And, this is only the beginning - you haven't seen anything yet. 

This is a slightly edited version of a piece originally posted on K-punk.


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