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What it doesn’t say in the papers

An English friend, a writer and historian, told me 2016 was his worst year ever. There were a number of reasons, but especially Brexit and President Trump. 

2016 wasn’t easy for me either, but I don’t feel the same way. I would have been an unenthusiastic Hillary voter and a grumpy ‘Remainer’, but I found the shock waves funny. So many people asking, ‘how could this happen?’

Why didn’t they see it coming? What interests me is the media’s part in it.

When I got involved in medical politics, I was astonished to discover that a press release, with words from me in quotation marks, is regarded by journalists as a direct quote. I thought you’d have to speak to a journalist to have that effect.

Then a young Serbian friend told me about Otpor, the youth movement that helped topple Milosevic through non-violent protest. “You must read your enemies’ books and newspapers”, he said.

I took his advice to heart.

At the time, the enemy was privatisation. I read the business sections of papers very carefully, and started buying Phoenix magazine. I watched with concern as US commercial corporations lined-up to take out chunks of our health service. Meanwhile, ‘real’ health news was based on fluffy press releases and my own views were often not represented in the media.

But my MBA year taught me there’s no ‘One True Way’ to look at the world. Other views are valid, even — or especially — those you don’t like. There’s no point in censoring-out the disagreeable voices.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t so surprised to find a lot of people had a very different take on the current big issues.

Last June, during the Brexit referendum, my family were all in Scotland. The day before, we placed bets on the outcome: One euro each. Our Scottish host, a long-time EU employee in different countries, confidently predicted Remain would get 58 per cent. His wife (my sister) was much more pessimistic and shockingly accurate: she guessed 52 per cent ‘Leave’.

Such different beliefs in one household epitomises the problem. How did she know and he didn’t? My sister says when they moved back to Scotland a few years ago, she realised the EU was not popular.

Then there’s the Trump victory.

After my eye op last October, as well as kitten videos, I watched a lot of US politics on my phone. Each day I put in ‘Trump versus Clinton’. After a while, I noticed something odd. It was all pro-Hillary and anti-Trump.

It’s probably because I was watching Saturday Night Live.

To try and fool the algorithms, I resorted to ‘I love Trump’ or ‘Trump is cool’. That helped a little. I wanted to understand more about the Trump campaign and the people who follow him.

Mostly, I got lots of media experts who treated Trump supporters as a joke. They didn’t see the biggest punchline ever until it landed on 8 November. They didn’t notice Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania coming down the tracks.

Back in August, I had a fascinating conversation with an American friend from my college days. He’s a long-time supporter of the Republican Party, but refused to contribute to the Trump campaign.

He regards the Clintons as an abomination and couldn’t believe Republicans had picked the only candidate who couldn’t win. Despite all that, he and his wife were going to hold their noses (they showed me) and vote for Trump.

His reasons were crystal clear: Because America was attacked 15 years ago and to protect Supreme Court nominations, otherwise America would become unrecognisable.

No-one on my phone suggested that people I know and like were voting for Trump. They told us what we expected to hear and laughed at the rest. They let us down.

I still look for US news, but now I go directly to the White House website to watch Sean Spicer being questioned by journalists. I’ve searched for people that my phone tries to protect me from: Judge Jeanine, Alex Jones, Fox commentators.

Closer to home, I don’t know what to read. The Irish Times is (sorry!) dull. I still read Phoenix. For a weekly catch-up, the Sunday Business Post is useful, but it’s gone a bit tabloid. The Daily Mail is fun for health ‘scandals’ and for its puzzle page. My newest refuge is the Weekend Financial Times. Their bias is helpfully clear — follow the money.

I doubt if any of them will prepare me for the next major surprise.

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