The Soft Totalitarianism of Liberalism?

The demise of Nepszabadsag, a Hungarian independent centre-left print daily, took the Budapest intellectual community by surprise last week.

The immediate reaction was anger and conspiracy theory. The intellectual class assumed that this was a political act by owners nervous of the growing pressure on the media from the Right. If only things were so simple. The owners put out their own statement. This made it clear that the closure was down to economics - circulation down 74% and HUF 5billion in losses since 2007. If anything, Mediaworks has been inordinately patient.

We have our own experience of this sort of problem. After five years of editorially successful operation, the funder of ExaroNews, the investigative journalism website, suddenly withdrew support for reasons that remain a little obscure but were definitely commercial and had nothing to do with 'politics'. The site was losing money hand over fist. Mediaworks' reference to a search for a 'new business model' would be familiar to Exaro's Directors. The trouble is that there probably isn't a model now that can maintain a viable media asset that challenges the prevailing system.

Informational power has shifted away from centre-left print and investigative journalism to three types of media: media which is populist in tone (and by its nature tending to the right); media that is subsidised by the public purse as a political act (ranging from the BBC to Russia Today through Al Jazeera); and media that can sell very high advertising value to the top end of ABC1s. The centre-left media cannot call on the resources necessary to maintain its presence in the market. This alone helps to explain the consistent move to the right of centre-left politicians like Clinton II.

What is actually happening to dissident opinion is that it is moving on to blogs and online journals with less interest in traditional journalism (Huffington Post to the centre-left and Zero Hedge and Breitbart to the populist right spring to mind) and into highly critical sharing of mainstream media material which sharers then tear to shreds as self-interested, unreliable or pre-manipulated by PROs and psy ops. The sharers are not entirely paranoid in this - they often have the facts on their side. Their alternative narratives can often emerge as coherent and demonstrably true.

The current US election is a battleground about media credibility as much as anything else. Although the big East Coast newspapers have had a good war for Clinton, this hides the widespread disquiet that if Trump is defeated, it will not be on rational argument about economic and foreign policy but because of a propagandistic surge of tabloid-type material about his sexual persona that has overwhelmed the counter-narrative of Clinton's alleged dodgy practices. The highly suspicious closing down of Assange's internet access simply feeds the belief that things are being rigged.

Obama's response is perhaps rather sinister and populist:"The answer is obviously not censorship, but it's creating places where people can say 'this is reliable' and I'm still able to argue safely about facts and what we should do about it." That sounds good in principle but what it really means is the State intervening not to censor but to decide what is true and what is not. Accusations of liberal totalitarianism in response to the collapse of the media may be exaggerated but they may not be far wrong if liberals existentially come to feel threatened by political populism.