Internal messaging contradictions start to weigh on the legacy media

Picked up a copy of The Times on Saturday to see what’s up at the flagship of the ‘Turkey Farmers Write For Turkeys’ national print media.

The answer was surprisingly little. In contrast to the Guardian’s sickening lurch into being the house mag of the international War Party, The Times is still pretty much same paper it was eight or 10 years ago when I still read it regularly.

Not that that is a good thing. Like any weekend paper, its pagination is one-third journalism and two-thirds undeclared advertorial for lenders, property companies, travel businesses, publishers, restaurants and food retailers. The advertorial includes the business and money pages, where virtually every article plays on greed and FOMO on whatever shares, property sector or savings account deal is flavour of the day.

Perhaps I detected a welcome resistance to calling people ‘consumers’ in the news pages, but it didn’t extend to the business section where humans only exist as vectors of insatiable demand. The supplement sections are of course entirely filled with soft-sell articles entirely predicated on the assumption that readers fervently want to to be told what else they must acquire with borrowed money.

Which rather sums up the dilemma faced by The Times and its ilk. The pool of people whose Affluenza The Times existed to assuage with endlessly repackaged lifestyle articles is disappearing, dying, retiring or joining the swelling ranks of the publicly genteelly-impoverished and privately inescapably-indebted.

Millennials and Gen Z couldn’t afford it if they were interested, which they aren’t. They know that it was the legacy media’s relentless pushing of consumer, property and debt porn on to their parents that let their generation get sucked into lifetime of student debt and renting, leaving them locked out of the lifestyle (“50 best places to holiday in France”, “How to invest in space travel”) enjoyed by their freely-educated and affordably-mortgaged folks.

Neither The Times’s editorial model nor the economy it relies on are sustainable. The paper knows this. It contradicts its own stories. On one page there will be the usual robo-written puff pieces about how property, autos or stocks are either surging or poised to bounce back. On the next, the paper’s own expert on business or finance has to spell out how grim the fundamentals really are.

The news is getting too bad for even The Times to put a cheery spin on every story.

Between a quarter and a third of degree courses were and are a waste of student debt. We didn’t read about that in all those stories about the great value of tertiary education did we? The university boom was far too lucrative to the friends of The Times who loaned money to colleges and to property developers putting up swanky campus buildings and student accommodation blocks to allow the obvious facts to get in the way of a good illusion.

Rail privatisation was a shocking scam that even Margaret Thatcher didn’t want. Favoured players pocketed £3.5 billion of public value leaving taxpayers to fund essential infrastructure while profits of train operators pay for pensions in France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Brilliant!

But just a couple of pages after reporting the latest on these infamous abuses of public trust, a Times editorial raves about the magic of The Market as if nothing had happened.

“As the market is a remarkably efficient way of meeting demand, there remains a bright future for businesses that can satisfy what consumers want”

Tell that to anyone paying thousands for a season ticket for a standing room-only service running on a network that costs more in taxpayer subsidies today than the publicly-owned railway used to.

“Capitalism may have its detractors but when it gets it right, it literally delivers the goods.”

Oh please, fuck off will you.

The Money section gets all jiggy over “bargain hunting” buyers taking advantage of falling high-end property prices in London. One owner lost £3.7 million on a place they bought not so long ago for £11 million. Is that supposed to be a good thing or not? Either way, several agents get free plugs for the number of overseas buyers they represent.

Below this prominent article, a smaller story tells skint Millennials and Gen Z-ers to put their non-existent spare income into an ISA towards the deposit on a shabby house stuck out at the far end of an unaffordable rail commute. The estate agents urge them not to delay – even this sad option will be more expensive in a year’s time because it’s only overseas billionaires who get to play Bargain Hunt in the capital.

What lessons are we supposed to draw about the market here? How about:

”If you want to know where house prices are heading, don’t listen to what estate agents are saying…”?

That’s The Times’ own business writer a few pages earlier, having to point out that estate agents’ share prices indicate that their investors don’t believe in estate agents any more. That matters. Investors know that the ‘market magic’ that keeps property prices levitating upwards is essentially just a three-way operation run by agents, lenders and newspapers at the expense of us suckers who need a place to live.

Much the same goes for personal finance, travel and motoring. The legacy media’s shtick for decades has been to rehash the same formulae over and over again to drive their desired beliefs and behaviours – i.e. ones that keep people buying and borrowing, so that asset prices keep rising mainly for the benefit of the 1%, aka the metropolitan elite. Meanwhile the readers themselves are gradually impoverished by this behaviour to the point where, increasingly, they only get to vicariously experience the kind of lifestyle The Times expertly retails, by reading the travel and property pages of … The Times. Double bubble!

But processes that cannot go on forever don’t. The middle class steadily shrinks. Poverty proliferates under unequal distribution. Declining net global energy is a bitch.

The legacy media will have to repaint the world in a different and more representative pattern of spots. That will be a wonder to behold, considering that the effort they have put into pretending that there’s only one pattern, as sketched by Adam Smith and forever held in place by the sainted invisible hand of neoliberalism.

I look forward to coming back to the Saturday Times in five years time to see how it has changed.

Assuming it is still around.

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