Holding politics to account

Social empathy, media ethics and an informed multi-dimensional debate can challenge inequalities, populist politics and alternative facts



We are living in politically turbulent times. The liberal international order as we have known it for the past 70 years is wavering. The US is headed by a president who seems to be flouting convention on almost every level. The changes in Washington, both in substance and style, are already having strong repercussions on traditional alliances around the world.

The EU, for its part, is soon to start divorce proceedings with a major Member State, while democracy in several of its other members is under pressure. Populists across Europe believe their time has come. As to the media, it is being scrutinised as never before. Fundamental questions have been raised about its role in a world of social media and the concern that facts do not matter anymore.

These questions arose after the British vote to exit the EU and particularly after the election of Donald Trump which resulted in a tsunami of analysis including the media’s own analysis of its role and whether it had failed to do its job properly. The rise and eventual voting into office of Donald Trump provides a useful political context for reassessing our assumptions about media fallibility, media ethics and media culpability.

A failure of empathy

If Donald Trump’s success was largely unpredicted, that failure was due to a failure of imagination and empathy. The belief that the articulation of apparent racist, xenophobic or misogynistic beliefs would cue the immediate end of a high level national political campaign was quite literally trumped by a pitch-perfect appeal to the core of many voters’ professed real concerns – decent jobs, wages, and the possibility of scaling another economic rung or two in their lifetimes.

Many Trump voters were able to overcome revulsion towards the man because of his astute identification of their economic pain and the production of a graphic list of scapegoats to blame for it, the latter tapping into expressed and latent racist and xenophobic views of less sensitive supporters. It is important nonetheless to separate out the personalities leading the populist campaigns from the bedrock economic realities that allowed their voices to be heard. Otherwise, the crisis of populist distrust and economic anxiety will continue to spread. Inequality makes people susceptible to the siren and cynical call of populists but also allows misogyny and racism to flourish.

It is also important to emphasise that nothing was hidden. This was not a reporting failure. Social media allowed people simultaneously to witness what Trump was saying but also make them increasingly impervious to it. The benefits of social media were ironically trumped by its suffocating reach and relentlessness

But critically the media also failed to see how many Trump supporters, those repelled by his views on women, non-whites and immigrants, were able to overcome that revulsion because their daily lives mattered more than the abstract human rights ideals that many journalists continued to believe conquered all. Or as the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh put it recently: “Most white women heard Mr Trump speak awfully of their sex – and voted for him anyway. The trouble with identity politics is you cannot control which identities people really cherish. Everyone, by contrast, wants to be prosperous and safe.” This campaign, like Brexit, was described as existing in a post-fact world. Facts no longer matter, everyone lives in their own little fact bubble, fed by social media accounts ingeniously played through devious algorithms devised by the geniuses of Silicon Valley.

“We don’t see the relevant facts, the facts that actually constitute the reality of those who turned our liberal democratic assumptions completely on their heads.”

All of that is true and the role of algorithms in distorting news feeds and the hosting of fake news sites must be examined, but we must also remember that none of us understands the world solely through media. We may understand the world outside of our own lived experience through media, however tailored it is to suit our beliefs and prejudices, but most people interpret how the world is simply by getting up in the morning and living through the next 24 hours.

And many people care little if their actions have a ripple effect globally that may ultimately damage the self-interest they believed they were voting to protect. They do not connect those dots despite living in an age where every conceivable fact necessary to that understanding is theoretically available to them at the click of a smartphone. Again, this is not a reporting failure.

And the lived facts of the Trump supporters mattered more than media facts. And it was Trump’s brilliance at exploiting those facts. So it’s not that we are in a post-fact society but rather that we don’t see the relevant facts, the facts that actually constitute the world view and lived reality of those who turned our liberal democratic assumptions completely on their heads and left many people scared and bewildered. And this is where the failure of empathy comes in.

Exploiting the facts

So let’s consider some of the facts that Trump so brilliantly exploited, remembering that most of us saw only his more controversial speeches and rallies, and did not hear what he said to small communities, to the people in the hollowed out towns and rural wastelands of middle America, how he so deftly identified precisely their economic pain and offered his dreamlike and probably impossible solutions.

In a recent edition of the London Review of Books, political scientist Robert Wood Johnson said that a lack of social mobility and wage stagnation is at the heart of the problem. Between 1948 and 1973, productivity in the US rose by 96.7 per cent and real wages by 91.3 per cent, almost exactly in step. Those were the days of plentiful jobs when workers could afford to send their children to college and into the middle class. But from 1973 to 2015 – the era of globalisation, when many of those jobs vanished abroad – productivity rose 73.4 per cent while wages rose by only 11.1 per cent. It is doubtful if many of those who voted for Trump were aware of those precise figures. They didn’t need to be. They are themselves those figures. They felt them.

This is the real lesson of the Trump victory and one that should be foremost when we consider the EU’s equivalents of the “Rust Belt” including youth unemployment rates in some parts of Europe of 40 per cent or higher.

Where do we go from here?

 Politicians are expected, as it is often said, to campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Populist politicians take this a step further by campaigning shrilly and hollowly and offering simplistic, but enticing, solutions to complex problems. It is the media’s role to the keep track of the promises made by Trump and whether they are being fulfilled. It is the media’s role to call out those in the Trump administration who have a highly ideological agenda, very little of which appears directed towards helping those who are looking for a better lot in life.

“This is an opportunity for the media to do what it can excel at: nitty-gritty public interest reporting.”

It will not be easy. The debate about the size of the crowd for the presidential inauguration; the subsequent hostile comments about the media; the use of “alternative facts” reveal the depth of the challenges facing the mainstream press. Yet serious reporting is just what is needed now. It is a good time to remind ourselves of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s words on the importance of the freedom of press:

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

The media comes into its own when detailing the messy complexities of day-to-day governing. When it reports on the fallout from decisions taken, or not, promises fulfilled or not. Those who rightly continue to value and support liberal democracy need now to examine the forces within the EU that have been empowered by Brexit and now by Trump’s election. Public servants, politicians in office to support the public interest need to build public trust not just by facing the challenges of inequality, but also by demonstrating that they serve the public and not their own self-interest. Citizens are increasingly aware of the importance of tight rules on conflicts of interests and of preventing the revolving door between politics and industry. And there is diminishing public tolerance for breaches in this area.

As European Ombudsman I intervened when former Commission President Barroso took a position at Goldman Sachs bank, urging the Commission to be mindful of the widespread public concern at what many see as further proof of an overly close relationship between politics and big business. It was clear that this would provide great ammunition for the populists and this indeed was the case. Looking to the immediate future, the negotiations between the EU and the UK are of huge interest to the public, there must be space for transparency toward citizens. Again there is an opportunity for the media to do what it can excel at: nitty-gritty public-interest reporting.

To sum up: to be successful the media needs to hold institutions constantly to account and for those institutions to become their own best selves, and to be led by people whose sole and overriding interest is that of the public that they serve.

Emily O'Reilly

Emily O'Reilly was elected as the European Ombudsman in July 2013 and took office on 1 October 2013. She was re-elected in December 2014 for a five-year mandate. She is an author and former journalist and broadcaster who became Ireland's first female Ombudsman and Information Commissioner in 2003. in 2007 she was also appointed Commissioner for Environmental Information. As a former political editor, broadcaster and author, her career attracted significant domestic and international recognition including a Harvard University Fellowship in 1988 and multiple national awards. She has written three critically acclaimed books on Irish politics and media and is a current member of the International Advisory Board of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.