In Defence Of The Empty Commons Meme

I write books, which are long, cumbersome things, so I don’t respond to the internet as promptly as other writers do. Still, someone has to defend this meme, which went around Facebook a few days ago.

COR image

Well, you get the point right? Ah! Careful now. Do you really get the point? Because Isabel Hardman of The Spectator tells us what this this meme is a pernicious, menacing and deliberate deceit. It’s the danger of the internet, you see, which is damaging our trust in politicians. Look again at the image. Is your trust in politicians damaged? Well, apparently it’s the internet doing that. Because those are “totally inaccurate graphics”. Hardman argues that the mainstream media constitute a reliable, knowledgeable and experienced source of information, and that this meme exemplifies a dangerous, nihilistic, treachery.

Well, let me point something out. The “totally inaccurate graphics” are reflected only in the last two images. The others are accurate. The two images Hardman refers to, depicting a crowded Commons – the one captioned as a debate on MP’s expenses and the other as a debate on MP’s salary – were actually debates on the second reading of the Higher Education Bill and MPs gathering after the 2010 General Election. They do not show what they purport to. So, Hardman, a fair point. But they were first misattributed in exactly the same way, and to a much wider audience, by the following professional news organisations:

The Guardian

ITV

The BBC

The Mirror

and also The Telegraph, which employs Hardman to write a column.

So her Spectator blog has nothing to do with the internet at all. Or memes. This is a right-wing establishment journalist defending an establishment press from the democratizing powers of the internet. Suffice to say she never bothered pointing out the same mistake when it was made by all of the above.It’s okay to share stuff without checking when you’re a professional like Hardman, you see. When we do it we’re deliberately spreading a dangerous and pernicious lie.

On first impressions this  looked like the self-willed obsolosence of the mainstream press. Then I read the comments on her article. The woman responsible for the image, who is called Katie Simpson, signed up to explain she had made an honest mistake and that her fundamental point still stood. Anyonymous Spectator commenters have rounded on her for being incompetent, a liar, and jealous of all the money that MPs make. This astounded me until I realised two things: the English have long made a virtue out of deference to authority, and opinion has always been more important than truth to the political classes.

The real truth is that our lack of trust in politicians is reflected by this meme, not created by it. Politicians have achieved that distrust all on their own, without any outside help. Their auxiliaries won’t win that trust back by bemoaning the internet, or besmirching everyday people like Katie Simpson, however hard they try to shift the blame.