A referendum should be the ultimate expression of democracy. It should be a real choice being made by people who are kept well informed on the facts, who have an understanding of the values, arguments and processes underlying the facts and who are considering their own interests in the context of what is good for everyone. That’s what it should be. A referendum should be beautiful.
This referendum isn’t.
It goes beyond the distortions, half truths and straight ahead lies that have been and are being promoted through the campaign. The anti-EU, anti-immigration message has been widely promoted for years.
Our system ensures that the people who are best at winning elections get into power, whether or not they have the nation’s best interests at heart. At the same time we have a media which prioritises profit over truth.
This means that there is a strong incentive for both the media and politicians to promote messages that people already agree with regardless of their effects. If they believe that people are worried about the EU, or immigration, then, even if these concerns are baseless, they will publicly agree. Thus reinforcing and spreading those concerns even further.
Openly confronting your audience’s beliefs is a sure way to alienate them. However, this is absolutely necessary for a society where the citizens have a good understanding of the political issues they are being asked to participate in. Without this confrontation democracy just doesn’t work.
One of the worst offenders, The Daily Mail, has for years claimed that the EU is forcing us to follow ridiculous rules (that in reality tend not to be so ridiculous if they exist at all) and that immigration means that you are going to lose your job etc. This is all because their target audience already believes these things.
These distortions from the media reinforce the distorted perception of reality in the audience. Under these circumstances, even the most conscientious citizen will have difficulty performing any sort of meaningful political analysis. What may be worse is that many of these distortions carry and promote particular value judgements which undermine the spirit of mutual respect, cooperative deliberation, and the desire to find the best solution for everyone that underpins good democratic decision making.
I sincerely hope that the UK votes to remain in the EU on Thursday, despite these problems. I also sincerely hope that we can move forward one day from the harmful influence of some elements of the media. It may just be a fantasy but we can at least try. We need to remember that the media is not simply another business but an essential and central part of our political life.
We must do better.