Saturday, 16 July 2011

Sleaze without Sleaze.

Once again it turns out we want the thing itself without the harsh element of it, just as so many of us want coffee without caffeine and Hitler without the Holocaust apparently; in this instance we want the sleaze without sleaze from Murdoch's red-tops. There is a dire need to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the mass-media and the provision of news through corporate structures to the public. The dominant narrative is highly optimistic in that we have managed to ground a beast that was out of control and we can now get back to proper journalism, which will run without corruption and the hacking of phones. It's the classic feel good story. We can still have the tabloids on celebrity sleaze, but without what it takes to deliver the tales to the readers. We have to hold to a radical critique of the mainstream media otherwise we will fall into ideological pitfalls. The problem here is that what has happened at The News of the World was not an aberration, it is an excessive form of what goes on in the mass-media and an outgrowth of the practices prevalent in the press.

As in the case of WikiLeaks there is a potential for the liberal reduction of it to a radical case of investigative journalism, a return to the halcyon days when journalists spoke truth to power and will now restore legitimacy in the media before The News of the World lost it's way. This is often put forth to combat the charge of "terrorism" leveled by the fruit-cakes of the Republican Party. Žižek would point out that the claim that Julian Assange is a "terrorist" in the same sense that Gandhi was a "terrorist" because he tried to stop the normal functioning of the British empire. Assange is trying to stop the normal functioning of information circulation and the way it is monopolised by the corporate media. The characterisation of Assange as the radical journalist is one small step away from the liberal niceties of Hollywood where we find in films such as All the President's Men that the little guy can discover a scandal and force the President to step down. So corruption can reach the very top but because of the democratic features of our society we can find it, root it out and eliminate it.

Whenever we read The Sun we are reading a paper churned out from the presses of News Corporation, a multinational media conglomerate, it is part of a chain of newspapers and media outlets which feature a strong leaning to the Right. We should take into account that the majority of media outlets in the world are large corporations or part of conglomerates. This has the effect of a skewed presentation of facts with respect to particular interests. Especially as the media conglomerates often have exclusive financial interests which may be endangered when certain information is widely publicised. So news items which endanger the financial interests of the media will be subject to greater flak, opposition and even distortion.

The advertising revenue is greater than the sales revenue of newspapers, it is a way of holding down the price of a paper at a level which maintains a high rate of sales and therefore a greater readership than without any advertising. The dependence on advertising revenue differs from the role of sales revenue in that the average reader of The Sun has no way of influencing the content of the newspaper. Even if there is an attempt to build an organised boycott of the newspaper over a particular issue, at best it would lead to a retraction of previous statements and possibly an apology. The advertisers can boycott a particular writer or reporter in a much more effective way, the loss in revenue is much bigger and the message is even clearer than a mass demonstration. This is the reason it took the advertisers to abandon Glenn Beck, the Groucho Marx of the Right, before his show was taken off Fox News. It is important to keep in mind that the advertisements are from businesses in most cases and marketing in general is tied up in its' own industry which caters to business.

In this way the interests and pressures internal to business converge and the reader has no investment in News International and therefore has no real influence on the content of The Sun. The interests that coalesce in media are stacked against the interests of an ordinary person reading a newspaper each morning. This is especially the case if the price of the paper is driven down or even eliminated on the back of advertising revenue and cross-subsidised from other outlets in the same conglomerate. As the pressures of business and the interests mount against the interests of readers, then reporting can be compromised and skewed to a particular set of interests over another. There is a sense then that the end product is composed for the affluent readers who buy the newspaper, while the audience includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. News is just the 'filler' to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which are the actual 'content' of the paper. This is true of newspaper that cost money and even more so of free newspapers distributed for people to read on their way home.

As the mass-media is essentially business-run or dominated by the forces of the market there is a constant internal need for a continuous flow of information. A newspaper needs to fill its' pages to maintain a steady flow of advertising revenue and in turn keep sales up. The consumers demand information on numerous worldwide events, some of which unfold simultaneously, which supposedly creates the necessity for major businesses and government sectors to come in where they can provide the material resources needed. The relationship between the media and the government is a contorted one, where we find Andy Coulson jumps from News International to the side of David Cameron and we have also seen John Birt make the leap from the BBC to an advisory position to Tony Blair. According to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman this includes the Pentagon in the US, with the media commentary on foreign policy being heavily influenced by the military intelligence complex.

These are the reasons that Chomsky once said "Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the US media." The government provides the means by which the journalists are able to gain advance copies of speeches and forthcoming government reports, which means that there is a degree of dependence involved in the relationship. The government can schedule its' press conferences at hours which are conducive to the deadlines set in media organisations, press releases can be made in usable language and photo opportunities can be arranged with ease. So naturally the commentariat responds in a favourable manner. At the same time, a reluctance to run certain articles that will harm the interests which are invested in providing them with the resources needed to compete with rivals and function at a high standard of news provider. You'll find this is the case with the BBC, as 24 hour news is a giant echo-chamber and the fall of Basra was reported 17 times before it did.

We now know that after the General Election David Cameron first met with Rupert Murdoch and then Paul Dacre, the editor of The Daily Mail, later that month he met with Lord Burns of Channel 4 and Deborah Turness of ITV News at his country retreat. After that month David Cameron met with News International officials such as Rebekah Brooks, as well as Dominic Mohan of The Sun for a "general discussion" and Cameron later attended the News International summer party where he gave an interview to James Harding of The Times. Take note of the preference for these newspapers in particular. David Cameron later met with the editor of The Evening Standard for another "general discussion" and attended The Times CEO summit where he gave a speech. The Prime Minister attended the summer parties of The Financial Times and The Spectator. In the first 2 months of his premiership Cameron met with 12 media contacts and half of them were officials of News International. Later that year, David Cameron had Christmas dinner with Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch.

In 2010 David Cameron met with numerous members of the commentariat, but only a few were invited to his country retreats namely: Lord Burns of Channel 4, Deborah Turness of ITV News, Lord Rothermere of The Daily Mail, Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch of News International. There is another aspect to this, the way in which the relations between the state and the media is sustained for economic reasons and out of a convergence of interests. As the state can be captured by the economic interests of the ultra-rich then so can the media which falls under the control of private ownership. We found this was the case when Barack Obama apologised to Wall Street for his comments regarding "greedy bankers" and he had to demonstrate his dedication to a free-market in order to keep the business press happy with the Obama administration.

Then there is the flak which could be understood as the simple negative responses to a media statement, an individual or even a specific programme. Though it can take the form of a concerted effort to discredit an organisation or an individual, e.g. when The Sun fabricated psychiatric reports in order to justifiably label Tony Benn as "mentally unstable". A charge that the Murdoch press has reused against leftists continually over the years. It can also be applied to entire media organisations. We can see this whenever The Daily Mail attacks the BBC as left-wing in the same way that was the case when Norman Tebbit labelled the BBC the "Stateless Person's Broadcasting Corporation" because of its' supposedly unpatriotic opposition to the Falklands war. Flak is often an intentional effort to manage public information. The Sun recently dealt some flak against Gordon Brown for statements he made in an interview on phone-hacking. This is a blatant move to influence the discourse over the entire phone-hacking scandal at News International.

As for the independence of public broadcasting it depends on the degree of independence and freedom within the society as a whole. It used to be in Britain and Israel there was only state-television. The BBC remains the agenda-setter of the British media and it functions to limit the scope of the public debate, usually carving out a place for the public as a passive observer in a meaningless discussion over what we should cut and never whether or not we should cut. The coverage of events is usually confined to the centre-right, but it occasionally fluctuates left-wards at which point the reactionary press goes ballistic. The demographics of journalists and reporters at the BBC is predominantly white and middle-class, typically these are Oxbridge liberals. The Board of Governors has always been full of lords, businessmen, former politicians and the archetypal toffs. The principle means of funding for the BBC is the television license, which the Right has railed against because it would prefer the BBC to be ripped apart by private companies.

There was a time when the BBC was a lot more independent than it is today. In the 1980s there were significant attempts by the Thatcherites to undermine the independence of the BBC. The Corporation was labelled the "Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation" by Peter Bruinvels. The Conservative Party derided the BBC as "uncompetitive" and "over-manned" because of the perceived bias against Margaret Thatcher. In 1980 the Thatcherites appointed the aristocrat George Howard, a pal of Willie Whitelaw, because the idea of Mark Bonham-Carter taking the position was intolerable for the government of the day. After Howard followed Stuart Young in 1983, he was the brother of Thatcher's cabinet ally David Young. In 1986 Marmaduke Hussey, the brother-in-law of yet another cabinet member, emerged from a position working for Rupert Murdoch to the chair of the Board of Governors. Hussey soon made sure that Alasdair Milne was out, under Michael Checkland and John Birt the Corporation was restructured in greater accordance with the market.

When Greg Dyke told the truth about the Iraq dossier he was forced out of the BBC and replaced with Mark Thompson as Director General. Thompson is a man who believes so strongly in free choice (though not in the quality of those choices) that he is for the founding of a Fox News style channel in Britain. You should also keep in mind that Mark Thompson was the first Director General of the BBC to meet Ariel Sharon in 2005. This is the same Director General who refused to broadcast the Palestinian charity appeal in the aftermath of the Gaza massacre in which more than 1,417 Palestinian civilians, one-third of them children, were killed by Israeli bombs and bullets. The Israeli body count stood at 13, with over 500 injured. As of July 2011 124 Israeli children killed by Palestinians and 1,463 Palestinian children killed by Israelis since September 29, 2000, a fact that would make Mark Thompson sweat if it was ever muttered on the BBC. If it ever were said there would no doubt be an outpouring of rage from The Daily Mail and other toilet papers.

The state and the interests invested in the state often exploit widespread fears in order to pursue an agenda, which is where the media come in handy. In the 20th Century it was Communism that posed the primary threat to the West and it was portrayed in the media as endangering freedom and rights etc. This portrayal is often used as a means to shoot down those who are too critical of elite interests and it meshes well with those interests in particular. Most recently it has been resurrected to attack the President of the United States, along with a lot of other kinds of attacks on him. For a long time the grand narrative on which the politics of fear thrives was the Cold War and once the Berlin Wall fell there was a dire need for a new narrative to bring meaning to the world for journalists and politicians everywhere. It has been the narrative of the "War on Terror" for the last 10 years and we may be at a point when the narrative closes only to give way for another.

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