In a few weeks' time, newspapers will be telling you how to vote.
You may think, so what? No-one really trusts newspapers. Everyone knows they're full of rubbish. We're all pretty media savvy nowadays and we take it all with a pinch of salt. No-one is really going to cast a vote based on what they've read in the papers or seen on TV.
But I don't know if we can be so sure about that. It depends on what things we believe and how much we trust the press. How about the Sun's article on BBC bias the other day, which claimed (wrongly) that there was a plot to discredit David Cameron using an old episode of Basil Brush, or that the evil controllers had plotted to make David Cameron look like a laughing stock by repeating footage that had already aired on the Sun's beloved news network Sky News? Or what about their previous story in which they repeated Robert Popper's spoof claim about Gordon Brown throwing a tangerine, in which the silly-sounding 'citric idiot' quote was amended to the more plausible sounding 'idiot'? What about the Mail's fear-soaked article about Facebook, which wasn't about Facebook at all, which ran to three pages including the front page, with the resulting apology tucked away as a short on page 4?
It's all very well for us to imagine that everyone saw through those stories straight away, or managed to catch up with the corrections or amendments, but did they? What happens when you see the same kind of story day after day - as you do, if you read the tabloids and occasionally the 'quality' papers - and it's giving you the same message, day after day? What if you see the same headlines everywhere - about the deadly evils of meow meow for example? Has everyone really seen through that, or not? Do you know people who think it's really a killer for everyone, a nailed-on deadly drug which has definitely led to several deaths in this country? Because if they do think that, they're wrong. As Charlie Brooker puts it in today's Guardian, the most toxic drug out there isn't meow meow but news itself.
It matters because people do trust newspapers. They really do. You and I might think we don't, but then I'd probably say I'd trust a news story I read on the BBC or the Guardian. Am I right to do that? In the next few weeks, all newspapers will be telling us how to vote. They want us to think something. Is it naive to think they want us to think it only at election time, or that they've got anything other than their own self-interest at heart?
The Biased BBC thing may well be pushed throughout the election. Auntie will bend over backwards to be scrupulously fair, I'm pretty sure of it; likewise Channel 4 news and ITN, and Sky. They have to be. Yet there's already that perception that the BBC is somehow left-leaning. It may be true, I don't know. You could even say the BBC has a liberal bias because so do human beings, though I imagine some people might get very angry if I said that. And you could also say it'd be pretty daft for the BBC to favour the Tories if they thought that party might lever them out of jobs after the election. Even so, they're pretty solidly fair, I think, and they bend over backwards so much they have horrific people like Andrew Neil and Iain Dale and Kelvin MacKenzie on at every seeming opportunity - and then there's ex-Tory Nick Robinson of course, leading all the coverage from the front. Yet still, the message will be: Biased BBC, they love Labour.
Does it matter? Does it matter that a newspaper with a clear agenda for one outcome can criticise another institution, wrongly, for having an agenda it doesn't have? Again, I think there's this idea that we're all such smartypants that it doesn't. But I don't know. Look at this, for example:
I don't think I'm alone in chuckling to myself whenever I see an Express front page like that - some 'miracle cure' or other, or some cancer-causing nastiness or other; yet when you delve into the story itself, it's never quite as simple as that. It's only small stuff, sure, but in a few weeks' time that front page won't be talking about seaweed; it'll be talking about immigration, or the election, and saying which way to vote.
The small stuff matters because it builds up into a pattern of whether you can trust what a publication is saying. The Express comes out with all kinds of nonsense on science, and weather, and climate change denial, and immigration, and so on, and quite often it's demonstrably wrong - so wrong that a simple check would have revealed it, a check that either wasn't made or was made and then ignored. When the Sun says Basil Brush is biased against the BBC, you can say it's laughable, and it is: but they'll be telling people how to vote soon. They'll be telling people how to vote because they think they are trusted - and they might be right. And that's not funny.