Having endured another few days of bleating about 300 y of the ‘free’ press, I’m impelled to ask ‘free’ from what/whom? ‘Free’ from their super-wealthy owners? ‘Free’ from their corporate links? ‘Free’ from the diktats of their advertisers? ‘Free’ from partisan political reporting?
And for whom, are they ‘free’?
We are told that our democracy depends on access to the ‘free’ press … but with notable exceptions, the mainstream media (MSM) just reflects the obvious existing power structures.
Of the 21 national daily and Sunday titles – 62% support the Conservatives; 19%, the Liberal Democrats or centre-left; 14% are social-democratic and only The Morning Star could be said to report a left-wing agenda. Whilst the Mirror group consistently supports the Labour party, the Guardian has always been a Liberal paper with a fair sprinkling of Labour-supporting articles. This spread is hardly a reflection of the opinion polls and there is virtually no representation to the left of what is perceived to be the ‘centre’ ground.
In addition, it seems obvious that rather than inform:
The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don’t bother us (us being the people who run the show)…. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. (1)
And who are the journalists feeding their copy into the ‘free’ press? Over 50% were privately educated unlike 93% of the general public … and how many attended the incestuous, hot-house of Oxbridge, being educated and socialising with the very politicians, judges, public ‘intellectuals’ and the super-rich who constitute the ‘power elite’, that they, as journalists, are supposed to hold to account?
Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience; if you don’t do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society….
[Journalists] say, quite correctly, “nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure.” Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. … The same is mostly true of university faculty in the more ideological disciplines. They have been through the socialization system. (1)
Moreover, all of the above, presupposes that there is an adequate level of competence, knowledge base and honest intent from journalists and their editors … the questioning of which led to the Leveson judicial review. Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling highlights this, when he refutes the Daily Mail’s claim, … that benefit spending accounts for 24.2% of “Britain’s total income” is as truthful as we’d expect from the Mail – which is to say ‘utter bollocks.’ (2)
Executive editor and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business, Jo Confino asks the question ‘Why are journalists failing to hold firms to account over sustainability?’ He answers himself: ‘Ownership structures and old-fashioned thinking means social and environmental performance is not challenged by the media.’ (3)
However, with a valiant attempt at optimism, he also writes:
One of the reasons I work at the Guardian is because I believe we are different…. The simple truth is that the media sector can be either part of the solution or part of the problem. At the moment, it is largely the latter, overwhelming us with tittle tattle and further embedding a culture of consumption.
What comes to mind is the image of the orchestra playing ragtime and waltzes as the Titanic started to sink.
Those with disability and long-term illness can certainly identify with the description of the Titanic sinking, particularly when faced with the further £10bn of Welfare cuts which is likely to be included in George Osborne’s Autumn Review.
The current negative and scurrilous reporting about benefits and benefit claimants is nothing short of scandalous. Apart from Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, there has been virtually no comprehensive or rigorous analysis of the likely impacts of the Welfare Reform bill and the Universal Benefits programme in the ‘free’ press.
Turn2us commissioned a major academic research study assessing the impact of stigma and other social influences on those applying for benefits. The study’s analysis of media coverage of benefits, in national newspapers (1995 to 2011), found that while newspapers contained both positive and negative representations of claimants, the content of press stories was indeed skewed towards negative representations. Furthermore, they found that both the language and content of ‘negative’ coverage had changed substantially over time.
While fraud remains very important in negative coverage, articles are much more likely now to refer to lack of reciprocity and effort on the part of claimants than they were previously. (4)
In other words, the contents of recent negative press stories were skewed towards the Tory/LD’s agenda which is essentially the Victorian cliché of ‘deserving, hardworking families’ and an ‘undeserving, feckless poor’. It is the ‘fault’ of the unemployed for not having a job. It is suggested that they are lazy, scrounging and taking society for a ‘ride’ whilst those on Disability benefits are portrayed as probably ‘swinging the lead’.
However, it is a simple matter for journalists to determine the reality of these charges. Government’s own figures estimate benefit fraud at less than 0.5%; the numbers seeking work are five times the number of vacancies; most benefit claimants have been employed and paid into the system; and that overwhelmingly people in receipt of housing benefit are in work, albeit low-waged.
Michael Meacher writes that the proper role and rationale of a free press is to maintain a properly functioning democracy:
…its real objectives should be twofold: to keep the electorate fully informed about the key issues that affect Britain and thus to provide a genuine national agenda, and secondly to speak truth to power and thus to lay the foundations for systematically holding the government of the day to account. With some honourable exceptions Britain’s media have fallen far short of these democratic responsibilities. (5)
Clearly, with respect to Benefits and Welfare reform, our so-called ‘free’ press has in large part failed on both counts. Similarly, Jo Confino finds the press failing to hold firms to account over sustainability, and this is seems likely to be representative of criticism across the whole spectrum of political reporting.
Michael Meacher warns:
Prepare for weeks of vilification of Leveson and the lampooning of his position as the voice of censorship. We are already seeing that when it comes to the struggle for power and the capacity for dominance over the State and its ideology, the methods are ruthless, the lies are vicious, the cries of the victims and the mistreated count for very little. (6)
Two things are clear. Firstly, that Cameron believes that it is imperative to back the press barons if he is to stand any chance of winning in 2015. Secondly, that there are very good reason why corporations like News International and super-wealthy individuals like the Barclay brothers, want to own papers in spite of their lack of profitability. The reason has nothing to do with the romance of ‘loving newspapers’ or ‘newspapers being in their blood’. It has everything to do with holding the power to intimidate (and control) politicians, and with their capacity to set the news agenda:
“Even if the [media] does not mold our every opinion, it does mold our opinion visibility; it can frame the perceptual limits around which our opinions take shape. Here may lie the most important effect of the news media: they set the agenda for the rest of us, choosing what to emphasize and what to ignore or suppress, in effect, organizing much of our political world for us. The media may not always be able to tell us what to think, but they are strikingly successful in telling us what to think about … the media teach us tunnel vision conditioning us to perceive the problems of society as isolated particulars, thereby stunting our critical vision. Larger casualties are reduced to immediately distinct events, while the linkages of wealth, power and policy go unreported or are buried under a congestion of surface impressions and personalities.
In sum, the media set the limits on public discourse. They may not always mold opinion, but they do not always have to. It is enough that they create opinion visibility, giving legitimacy to certain views and illegitimacy to others … This power to determine the issue agenda, the information flow, and the parameters of political debate so that it extends from ultra-right to no further than moderate center is, if not total, still totally awesome.”
Inventing Reality Michael Parenti
I have no doubt that Leveson is sincere in wanting a free press in the public interest, and that he was at all times considering the public interest. However, my doubt is that a truly ‘free’ press can be constituted when the crucial issues of ownership and concentration of ownership are ignored (7) – regardless of whether it has statutory underpinning or not. Furthermore, the proposal is that it will be regulated by another committee, which will doubtless comprise ‘the great and the good’, albeit from the non-media power elite… so expect more of the same homogeneity of attitudes and assumptions.
If governments really took the democratic role of the local and national press seriously, it would not rely on a ‘market’ solution as the means of ‘keeping the electorate fully informed about the key issues that affect Britain, providing a genuine national agenda, and to speak truth to power’. It is the ‘market’ which is putting both the MSM and local media under enormous staffing and financial pressures. As Nick Davies writes in his book ‘Flat Earth news’… ‘the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985’.
Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have generally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda. (8)
There is, therefore, a good democratic case for some sort of arms-length government funding, particularly of local newspapers… the obvious comparison is with the BBC but given its current inadequacies (9) (10), I would prefer comparison with the World Service which at least offers some background information and a critique of current economic dogma. I would also argue for the political perspective of individual journalists and the newspaper to be indicated at the beginning of every article. This could easily be achieved by using the political compass (11) and would place their writing within its subjective context.
How would we know if the press was moving in the right direction? That’s easy. When we read that there are alternatives to Mrs Thatcher’s neoclassical economics. That climate warming is not some sort of optional faith-based belief system but a reality which needs to be urgently addressed. And that it was a banking crisis, not government spending which increased the national debt and furthermore, we do not need to borrow from private banks to create full employment.
In the meantime, let’s just agree to stop confusing the issue by calling the current state of the press ‘free’.
(2) BENEFIT SPENDING: A QUICK HISTORY
Excellent piece. As they say, “there’s nothing free in the free market” and the Press, most certainly is not free. Ok, it can be fairly argued that unbiased truth is unobtainable – but this is not a philosophical debate we’re talking about here. A little fairness would be welcome on the coverage of everything from debt and the deficit to dependancy and tax-dodging. But what are we presented with? Shami Chakrabarti, the self-appointed moral voice of the nation and arbiter of what is and is not ‘freedom’? The separation between the wider media and events in what the rest of us call ‘Planet Earth’ can scarcely have ever been wider.
What ‘freedoms’ are ‘they’ so worried about? Freedom to libel? Freedom to misrepresent? Freedom to lie & deceive? Freedom to undermine the Welfare State? Freedom from paying taxes? Freedom from being held accountable for bribing public officials? How about giving us some freedom from all of that for a change?
Great response Jim. Exactly!
Indeed. And on the note of unbiased truth – perhaps it is not obtainable, but what is obtainable is a wide range of biased truths with clear indication of what their biases are.
This is an important piece; thanks for posting it.
Brilliant post, Sue.
Another superb piece Sue xx
Let’s step back a moment to put the issue in this broader context: Despite the gravity of the problem you so ably address, we should recall that press freedom fares even more poorly in some places on earth than it does currently in the UK or US. Dissenting publishers are shut down and imprisoned in places like Venezuela and Iran, and journalists are hunted like foxes in places like Russia, Colombia, and Pakistan. The margin between that kind of oppression and the more insidious sort of media manipulation we find in developed Western democracies is arguably maintained thanks, in part, to our traditional civil liberties and laws protecting speech.
If we accept that way of putting things, and accept further that the problem you’ve brought before us is both genuine and grave, then it seems we’ve set the stage to argue that real press freedom requires something more positive than the mere absence of blatant policies of oppression. And we’ve provided another example of the way in which oligarchy and oligopoly militate against democracy — even in nations with elected governments and effective legal protection for speech.
It costs money to collect news, it costs money to sort and select what is collected, and it costs money to present that which is selected to the public. In the US, media consolidation — of the sort promoted by Colin Powell’s son Michael when he was chair of the FCC — puts control in the hands of an ever smaller set of owners of ever larger news media organizations. The mechanisms of the market favor big media’s economies of scale, and it seems the only thing that can restrain that sort of leviathan is a strong dose of antitrust legislation. Precisely the stuff that center-right politicians like Powell have worked so hard to push back under a tide of deregulation. The problem is arguably more complicated in the context of global free trade. Unless we impose mercantilist restrictions on cross-border mergers of media companies, what’s to prevent, say, a giant Russian, Chinese, or Australian media company from swallowing 70% or 90% of the US media market? That kind of scenario actually militates in favor of domestic consolidation, if bigger domestic organizations are globally more competitive and harder to buy.
Arms-length government subsidies for alternative news organizations might be part of a solution, as you suggest. But the potential for manipulation by government will remain a gnawing issue. That said, here in New York, I spend far more time watching BBC World News than I do watching CNN, MSNBC, or PBS.
Good commentary. We are constantly told that democracy depends on access to information, and that, that information is available in the MSM. Palpably, the information in the MSM is skewed, therefore the democratic process is skewed. All I was saying was that if governments really want democracy, they would not rely on the corporate-driven press. Democracy is basically incompatible with the ‘wisdom of market’.
Exactly right. Near as I can reckon.
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