You’re not imagining it. The UK media lost its sh*t today.
An NHS in crisis, the slowest economic recovery on record, a million people on zero hours contracts – and throughout, the UK’s traditional media outlets have remained fairly calm. But today, they had an absolute sh*t fit.
Why? Because the charity Oxfam had the audacity to suggest that inequality is actually a bad thing, and that billionaires had some responsibility in the matter.
Eight billionaires walk into a bar…
Eight billionaires now own between them the same wealth as half the world. This was the central result of the Oxfam report that has so incensed the UK commentariat.
In a saner, kinder world, the media would have been kicking off about this gross inequality and the devastating impacts it has on so many. But in this Alice in Wonderland nightmare we’re living through at the moment, it was treated as a form of hate speech against vulnerable, fluffy billionaires like Bill Gates.
Of course, Oxfam at no point slagged off Bill Gates. It made evidence-based arguments about the level of current wealth inequality and the impacts of that inequality – much like Bill Gates did himself here.
But the UK media, itself owned mostly by a handful of billionaires (six to be exact) was unwilling to allow the debate to be framed this way. So it reframed it completely, as some two-bit scrap: The Evil Charity Sector versus The Best and the Brightest of the Supra-national Billionaire Class.
Tantrums and tiaras of the UK media
By mid-morning, a sizeable number of our Fleet Street hacks assembled on Twitter, pitchforks in hand, rallying to the urgent defence of our economic system and its chief beneficiaries.
The Mail on Sunday‘s Blairite trollumnist Dan Hodges came out swinging at Oxfam:
Oxfam are slagging off Bill Gates. Bill Gates has given over $28 billion to charity, including $8 billion to improve global health.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) January 16, 2017
Never mind investigating Bill Gates, we need a serious investigation of the charity sector. They're all losing the plot.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) January 16, 2017
From The Spectator to the BBC, traditional media types threw their weight behind their radical re-interpretation of the report.
— Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) January 16, 2017
— naomi grimley (@naomigrimley) January 16, 2017
And before you know it, a good chunk of the population had stopped talking about wealth inequality and its impacts. Instead, they began parroting the traditional media’s radical re-interpretation as truth – like this chap:
Oxfam calling out Bill Gates for his wealth is unfair. He is one of the world's most prominent charitable doners. Wealth doesn't equal evil.
— Joseph Evans (@joeevanswrites) January 16, 2017
This is exactly how propaganda works. As Malcolm X put it so perfectly:
If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
Meanwhile, in the new media
But not everyone is so susceptible to ‘fake news’, or as we have called it historically: propaganda. The report was given a fairer hearing in new media. This fresh intake of independent journalists took time and care to review, assess and communicate the findings. Some also took a moment to point to the absurdity of the traditional media response.
Funny how many employees of billionaires are claiming that the Oxfam report is an attack on Bill Gates
This is from the report itself pic.twitter.com/HZYPy1VDeu
— John Shafthauer (@johnshafthauer) January 16, 2017
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also made a response based on the report’s findings.
We have to change this rigged system. Enough is enough.
We'll hand back wealth & control to people & communities https://t.co/L7gnsxxXBv
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) January 16, 2017
Why does inequality matter?
So what? So what if Bill Gates and seven other guys own as much as 3.6 billion other people? The answer was captured well in an excellent Comment is Free column by Aditya Chakrabortty recently:
There’s a lady I’ve been thinking about for the past few days, even though we’ve never met. She’s the central character in a true story told by the Europe expert Anand Menon. He was in Newcastle just before the referendum to debate the impact of Britain leaving the EU. Invoking the gods of economics, the King’s College London professor invited the audience to imagine the likely plunge in the UK’s GDP. Back yelled the woman: ‘That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.’
Chakrabortty goes on to show how there is no single economy in Britain anymore, because overall GDP growth and economic performance no longer mean life is getting better for the majority of people in the country. For all the talk of economic recovery, only two regions in the UK are better off today than they were in 2007. Unsurprisingly, they are London and the South East. No one else is experiencing an economic recovery. And some are experiencing a depression.
Margaret Thatcher is famous for claiming that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Cameron’s legacy will be that there is no such thing as an economy – but a series of regional economies with vastly different prospects. A state-subsidised boom for inner London; a neglected pauperism for the Humber.
In short, governments are diverting public money from wealth-generating and health-generating projects that would create benefits across society. They are reallocating these funds into other projects which primarily benefit that supra-national billionaire class we spoke of earlier. Quite literally: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
The bottom line
The bottom line? Fewer and fewer people move upwards in life. And ever greater numbers join the ranks of the impoverished and destitute.
In The Spirit Level, professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett prove that more equal societies are also healthier, happier societies. Whether it’s life expectancy, mortality rates, educational attainment, likelihood of conviction and incarceration for crimes, or an array of other indicators, the authors (and a replication of his findings by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) demonstrate a correlation between inequality of income and inequality of outcomes.
Another such study (Lynch et al, 1998) found that, during 1990, income inequality was a bigger killer in the US than lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle accidents, HIV-related causes, suicide and homicide combined.
Economic inequality is also hereditary; a social inheritance passed from parent to child. Research by Gregory Clark of the University of California found data to suggest that, in the same time period that neoliberal economic policies expanded, the economic inequality gap – the rate of social mobility (increased incomes and outcomes by successive generations) – declined for the first time in 1,000 years.
Enough is enough
For citizens across the world, outside the economic elite, rising economic inequality means rising inequality of health and wellbeing; and their inherited disadvantage is proving a barrier to improving not only their circumstances, but those of generations to come.
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