Writing in the Independent, Ben Chu has it that "Our civil society is being undermined by influential media organisations that either do not understand the rules of the democratic game or which are content to ignore them to achieve their political end."
The Mail and the Express seem to have decided they simply do not recognise the legitimacy of people who have a different political position. These newspapers preen themselves as champions of free speech and traditional British liberties. Yet they are seeking to delegitimise contrary political views, to silence them through intimidation and the implied threat of violence.It is interesting that Ben Chu would say that the media does not understand "the rules of the democratic game". I think they understand all too well. The rules are thus:
Our civil society works on the basis that the government complies with majoritarian decision making. We only have a civil society because of that social contract. It is only because decision making is legitimate that the government has any moral authority. Remove that legitimacy and government authority no longer applies. The government can no longer legitimately apply force.
The second basic rule is that the state has a monopoly on violence - which we accept and respect. Underpinning every law is the implied threat of violence. Even something as basic as a council tax comes with a threat of imprisonment. Police will use force to that end.
But that social contract works both ways. If government no longer acts with according to the social contract then it loses legitimacy and forfeits the right to govern. Thus if the continued threat of violence applies then the threat is returned in kind. Civil society lives or dies on government legitimacy. Government by consent.
Presently our MPs are agitating for a block on government policy which is to uphold the referendum result. These would be MPs who have far less of a mandate in their own constituencies than the Brexit vote. They are attempting to stand in the way of a direct public consultation. They are attempting to frustrate democracy.
Ben Chu has it that "this is about much more than membership of the single market, or immigration policy or even Brexit. This is about the health of our democracy and our physical safety. “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” These are the words the man accused of murdering the Labour MP Jo Cox in the week before the EU referendum said in court when asked to give his name. Where did he get those ideas from? Where else do we hear that kind of language? We need to wake up".
It is Mr Chu who needs to wake up. Knowing full well that such robust language very much does have an influence the media is flexing its own powers - as indeed a free press should. The press is sending out a warning shot which reminds us all that violence is a consequence if parliamentarians attempt to subvert democracy. That is how it works. Cause and effect.
And here's another rule of civil society. Civil society is only defended by a free press. That tacit threat to MPs is a reminder that they serve us. If there are no checks and balances then MPs would do as they please and sooner or later we would have a dictatorship.
This goes far deeper that a simple vote on the membership of the EU. The issue itself is a critical one, what with it being a fundamental constitutional question of who governs us. We have resolved that question by way of a referendum. The question now being tested is whether our politicians will respect that. Do we still have a democracy?
Despite their platitudes, their willingness to nod through the Treaty of Lisbon without scrutiny shows that their commitment to "parliamentary scrutiny" is only skin deep - and only when it suits them. The only way for trust in politics to be restored is if the government upholds the social contract. If politicians second guess us and attempt to interfere then it is they who threaten civil society - not the media.
The bottom line is that civil society is always an equilibrium with a mutual threat of violence between the state and its peoples. Now is as good a time as any for our politicians to be reminded of that. These are forces best not provoked and a periodic reminder from our press is a rare instance of the press serving its one true function.