Syria, Snowden and how public opinion really moves

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the news media shape, frame and alter public opinion. Only up to a point: the exceptions to this rule help to explain public reactions to both the use of nerve toxins in Syria and to the surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden.

This morning, pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are scrambling to assess the British parliamentary vote against military action against the Syrian government. The way in which public opinion is moving on Syria, surveillance and relations between Britain and America can be partly explained by two striking qualifications to the simple idea that news media tell people what to think.

Sometimes, public opinion moves independently of discussion in the media and does not reproduce the prevailing consensus inside mainstream newsrooms. In the 1990s, British (and Danish) public opinion began to turn doubtful on the European Union before sceptical opinions started turning up in newspapers. Media opinions in Britain were not unanimous about joining the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but there was majority in favour; public opinion was against. Most editorials in London this week tilted in favour of action in Syria; public opinion is solidly opposed.

Secondly, when the tone and conclusions reached in the public sphere differ from what opinion polls tell us people think, the difference is usually the result of long, slow deep changes in mood and thinking. Journalists like to present change as something sudden which has just happened. Big changes in consensus don’t occur as right-angled turns. They are gradual, tentative, empirical and often only half-observed.

Over the past 20 years, British public opinion about America has changed profoundly. The generation which felt grateful to, and respected, American power during and after the Second World War is retired or dead. Younger generations are culturally closer to the US than their elders. A large proportion of Britons spend their evenings in California or New York courtesy of television drama.

But we now look at American power in the world differently. This is often pictured as differences of opinion on a particular policy: for or against the Vietnam War, for or against the Iraq war. That isn’t the real shift. We no longer trust American competence as we did. The Iraq war revealed that our ally, the world’s strongest nation, could commit an unforced policy mistake on an epic scale. However much America might get right, it wasn’t infallible.

And we feel the gently increasing indifference of Washington. It is perhaps particularly felt in Britain, but it is sensed elsewhere in Europe. The indifference is composed of many small particles of change: the steadily growing importance of Asia, relative European economic decline, America’s increasingly nationalistic mood after 9/11 and the increasingly frequent election of Presidents who have no prior experience of Britain.

Commentators outside Britain, and especially in Germany, have been surprised at the muted reaction in Britain to the revelations from the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about just how much communications traffic is monitored in the US. Whatever the cause (respect for spooks is the explanation offered here (£)), I think the reaction is slow rather than muffled. Britons are reluctant to think ill of the US, but that does not mean that scepticism about America doesn’t happen. It just grows quietly and slowly.

And I think that disgust and annoyance about surveillance played a part in MPs stopping the government’s plan for strikes on Syrai in its tracks last night.



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