The press is free to do just as it is told

September 7, 2001

Market forces and obedience to authority are shaking the once mighty champions of democracy, argues David Cromwell

What is being reported blandly on the front pages," wrote American linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, "would elicit ridicule and horror in a society with a genuinely free and democratic intellectual culture." An ironic statement considering the fact that press freedom is viewed as one of the defining features of libertarian western democracy.

Historian David Chaney argues: "The British press is generally agreed to have attained its freedom around the middle of the 19th century." And presumably it has never lost it since. Many observers would probably agree with Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, that journalism is a "crusading craft", full of "disputatious, stroppy, difficult people" keen to get to the heart of matters, even to the extent of bringing down a president, as in the Watergate affair.

But this benign view of the media as guarantor of democracy is not shared by all. US press analyst Danny Schechter observes: "I became a journalist to help spotlight the problems of the world. It is now clear that global media is one of them."

The media is big business, tied into stock markets and the globalised economy. Media owners are wealthy people with fingers in many business pies and are dependent on the support of advertisers. How likely is it that anyone challenging the status quo will be granted a level playing field by corporate news organisations? How much more likely is it that the corporate media will reflect establishment priorities?

A standard reaction on first meeting this argument is a mixture of incredulity and scorn. Author Tom Wolfe once scoffed: "This is the old cabal theory that somewhere there's a room with a baize-covered desk and there are a bunch of capitalists sitting around and they're pulling stringsI I think this is the most absolute rubbish I've ever heard."

Chomsky and Edward Herman, who introduced the propaganda model of the media in their book Manufacturing Consent , rejected the notion that big business controls news outlets through conspiratorial means. "We do not use any kind of 'conspiracy' hypothesis to explain mass media performance. Our treatment is much closer to a 'free market' analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces," they wrote.

Two of these market forces derive from the media's concentrated ownership and the imperative to attract business advertising to survive in a fiercely competitive market. There are other powerful constraints too. Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says: "Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the prime minister's official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are legitimateI If you talk to prisoners, strikers, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you've become an advocate and are no longer a 'neutral' professional journalist."

Such reliance on official sources gives the news an innate conservative cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or is not "news".

In-depth media analysis of the environment or human rights is hard to find, especially in the broadcast media. Journalist Andrew Rowell, formerly of The Guardian , says: "All too often, environmental issues are ignored as editors fight for a popular headline."

Under increasing pressure to boost ratings and readerships, editors, producers and station managers argue that "the public gets what the public wants". But this view was refuted as patronising and arrogant as long ago as 1962 by the Pilkington report on British broadcasting: "To give the public what it wants is a misleading phraseI It claims to know what the public is, but defines it as no more than the mass audience, and it claims to know what it wants, but limits its choice to the average of experience."

I canvassed the opinion of a number of prominent journalists about the state of the British media and received some surprising responses. Was the mainstream media complicit in abuses of western power, I asked, citing Nato bombing in the Balkans and British-American support for Iraqi sanctions? The Guardian 's Polly Toynbee was unequivocal. "The media is responsible for a huge amount of evil and Britain has the worst in the western world."

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent says: "So much of what you say (about media complicity in human rights abuses) is depressingly true, and, believe me, there are days when I want to have two baths to wash away my sense of disgust that I am part of the media industry."

Elsewhere I found a commitment to changing the nature of reporting. In response to the question: "To what extent can we learn the truth about the world from the mainstream media?" The Observer 's Greg Palast responded:

"You can't, which is why I'm on the board of www.MediaChannel.org, which is attempting to bust open the media monopolies."

MediaChannel is one of many internet resources - IndyMedia, ZNet and SchNEWS all provide "alternative" perspectives on world affairs. People are increasingly turning to such sources, not just for honest accounts of anti-globalisation protests in Genoa and elsewhere, but for coherent and rational analysis of the underlying issues: third-world debt, business obstructionism on climate change and the unaccountable tyranny of state-corporate power.

Wouldn't a truly "free" media examine itself rigorously? Instead, there is virtual silence. Market forces coupled with obedience to authority is a powerful mix. As George Orwell once remarked: "The sinister fact about literary censorship is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban."

The result? Media debate is restricted within narrow parameters that serve capital, but not democracy.

David Cromwell is an associate director of MediaLens.org and the author of Private Planet , published by Jon Carpenter, £12.99.

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