Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media Justice and Accountability, by Justin Schlosberg

Ivor Gaber on how broadcasters report stories in which the status quo is under threat

September 26, 2013

This is an interesting, and in some senses an ambitious, study. While many books on the media focus either on content or theory, Schlosberg’s study manages to combine the two rather elegantly.

He sets himself the task of using three case studies to determine the extent to which the contention advanced by what he calls the “radical” school of media studies, that ownership and ideology are the most important determinates of media content, is demonstrably the case. In focusing on three scandals – the British Aerospace bribery case known as the Al-Yamamah scandal, the Hutton inquiry following the row between the government and the BBC, and the release of the WikiLeaks cables – he throws light on each by employing theories of framing and indexing to explain not just the “what” but also the “how”.

The single biggest weakness of the study is that Schlosberg has limited himself to examining only how these three stories were covered by news and current affairs television programmes on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 (the absence of Channel 5 and Sky News is unexplained, although time and resources doubtless played a part). The press, radio and online media are mentioned but not analysed in depth. This limitation makes it problematic for Schlosberg to project his analysis from terrestrial television to the media as a whole. First, because the “radical” argument about ownership influencing content does not apply to two out of three media he considers (with the BBC and Channel 4 being publicly owned, and ITV operating under public service broadcasting guidelines), he is reliant on notions of ideological hegemony to sustain the radical argument. Second, on occasion Schlosberg appears to elide broadcasters with the press. He talks, for example, about how the media created “pressure on the authorities” through editorials. But television news and current affairs programmes obviously have no editorials and even if they did, their public service remit would prevent them from campaigning in the way that Schlosberg suggests.

Despite this caveat, the author makes a convincing case as to how mainstream broadcasters (but not journalism in general) dealt with revelatory stories that appeared to threaten the status quo. He shows how in the Al-Yamamah story television focused on the past with the assumption that BAe was now “a different company”; its focus on reporting the Hutton inquiry was on the alleged “whitewash” that the report appeared to give to government rather than probing in any depth the death of nuclear scientist David Kelly; and in reporting the WikiLeaks cables, it sought to play down the substance of the material, describing it as “embarrassing, but not dangerous”.

His conclusion is nuanced, as any study that seeks to “explain” media content should be. He recognises the importance of the overarching ideology and culture within which journalism practice takes place and how that leads journalists to shy away from stories that, in his words, “threaten to unsettle the discourses that legitimise state-corporate power”; this is particularly the case when what he describes as “elite” forces attempt to shut down a story. However, he acknowledges that there are also countervailing forces at work, in particular journalists and editors determined to pursue scandals no matter where they lead, with The Guardian’s Nick Davies being the archetype.

Power Beyond Scrutiny sharpens our understanding of the agenda-setting process and provides evidential backing for those who suggest that investigative journalism should be about more than just looking for the rotten apple in the barrel, but should also consider whether the barrel itself is sound.

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