While Brexit has presented socio-economic and political science scholars with fresh research material to add to the available literature on democracy and other disciplines, it is befitting to re-state the age-old held belief that wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority or the media share in it.
A certain Henrik Ibsen once said, “I don’t imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over.” To this, Bertrand Russell, the author of Marriage and Morals adds: “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.”
Many societies in the world today function under the decisions of the majority, placing the importance and the right to make decisions on the people and their choices. That is democracy. Even in small groups, the majority’s ways of thinking form the reflection of the group and how it acts. Can the majority always be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways that are considered right, moral and justified? This blanket belief is questionable and debatable as it most often presents a false assumption, particularly in view of the fact that the majority is not always static but changes over time, as will their belief. Today’s majority could be tomorrow’s minority.
A few examples may suffice to illustrate the argument being made. One of the poorest and most dangerous decisions ever made by the majority is found in racism and other discriminatory thoughts, beliefs and practices that have been and are still exhibited worldwide. The violent and widespread racism found in history, such as American history, was an instance where the majority, in this case the American-Caucasian majority, decided that they were the superior race and deserved to have all the privileges at the expense of Amerindians, African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and others. That decision was a majority decision, and it was wrong.
The “majority” mantra becomes more complex when the media joins the “popular, majority” opinion and/or deliberately crusades an agenda to hoodwink public opinion. The manner in which the media has been reporting on matters regarding the European Union integration has been an issue for many years. Media complicity was blamed when the Danes voted “nej” to the Treaty on European Union in 1992. The media extensively highlighted what they perceived as public criticism of the incomprehensible nature, not only of the Treaty text, but also of the structure, processes and policies of the Union.
Following Denmark’s rejection of the Treaty, Former French President Francois Mitterrand said “we forgot to talk to the people”. His assertion was based on the fact that government relied on the media to responsibly inform and educate the public on the benefits to be derived from the Union. His statement galvanised the EU to come up with a harmonised information and communication policy that provided the impetus for a new EU information and communication policy, based on transparency and openness within the Union. The policy is, however, not popular in the UK.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about the Scottish independence referendum is that there was no newspaper – local, regional or national, English or Scottish – that supported independence except the Sunday Herald. The views of the Scots who voted ‘yes’ to independence had no place in the UK media. It is common cause that most of the pathologies of the corporate media, particularly generalisations, always come into play during referenda and elections in the UK. This is not helpful to enable the general public to make informed decisions. Media coverage of the Scottish referendum makes a sad reading.
As the debate about Britain’s place in Europe intensified ahead of last week’s referendum on EU membership, the role of the press came under close scrutiny. Alastair Campbell, who was director of communications to the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, recently attacked the majority of the UK press for having “totally given up on properly informing the public”.
While it is easy to exaggerate the short-term impact of media coverage, it is true that a large proportion of British voters felt ill-equipped when asked to decide about continued membership of the EU. Research conducted in 2013 by the independent UK Electoral Commission to test different referendum questions found “low-levels of contextual understanding of the EU, with some participants having no knowledge of the European Union, or the status of UK membership of the EU, at all”. More importantly, this research showed that participants themselves felt under-informed and some told the survey staff they had changed their voting intentions as they “became more aware of their lack of knowledge, or thought more in depth about what being a member of the European Union means”.
The referendum has exposed the futility of popular opinion and media complicity. Luckily for the UK, big brother USA is on hand to ensure that the UK will somehow remain in the EU, one way or the other.
• Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.