It is by moving beyond notions of ‘deliberate’ and ‘explicit’ media manipulation that it becomes possible to understand the much more pernicious forms of unconscious bias which pervade all mainstream news production. This ‘stucturalist’ argument is intended as a reply to recent commentaries such as those of Richard Walker and Darren McGarvey.
One of the biggest mistakes, most commonly made by people trying to understand the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, is that the two sides, Yes and Better Together can be conceptualised as a sharp division between privileged groups who wanted to keep things as they are, and working class groups who wanted change. The reality is much more complicated than this. It centres around the binary opposition between people who privilege economic matters on one hand, and those who privilege moral matters on the other. The truth of this insight rests on the fact that the middle classes or privileged groups in society are not (and have never been) a homogenous group.
Although the Yes campaign was driven by large numbers of grass-roots activists, the discourses which animated the independence case in the referendum, came almost exclusively from middle class or privileged voices from Scotland’s cultural elite. Equally, a trip to Ibrox would have provided a great deal of evidence that there were large numbers of working class unionists, but there was even less of an affinity between them and the likes of Alasdair Darling or Gordon Brown.
As I have previously pointed out in Bella the independence campaigns were played-out through these two opposing binaries. On one hand we had the Better Together campaign which campaigned almost exclusively on the primacy of economic matters such as the currency issue, pensions, insurances, banks and businesses moving to England, oil revenues falling, supermarket prices rising, uncertainty in import and export tariffs and, ironically a raft of other financial ill effects which would result from being excluded from the EU’s single market.
The Yes side, which had an almost complete monopoly on Scotland’s cultural community, built their campaign around moral issues such as the ending of illegal wars, ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons, eradicating food banks and benefit sanctions, reducing poverty and narrowing the gap of runaway inequality through redistributive policies. To some extent, economic issues were important, but they were framed as matters of social policy, rather than purely economic policy.
In another article for Bella I explored the role of the media, showing the extent to which ‘unconscious’ forms of bias remain hidden to most people, particularly those working in the media itself. Further to that discussion, the most important form of unconscious ‘bias’ practiced daily by the mainstream media during the referendum, arose from the fact that the coverage of the issues almost exclusively privileged economic matters, with moral arguments being relegated to the periphery of the debate if not largely ignored.
In order to understand this pernicious yet invisible form of bias, it is necessary to understand the extent to which all mainstream journalism and news media is driven by its obsession with the market share of an ever decreasing audience. The single most important issue in mainstream news media revolves around readership numbers, viewer and listener figures and audience ratings. This is the central concern for every single newspaper, radio station and television network in the UK, no matter how big and prestigious, or how small and provincial. This obsession with market share has many serious, but mostly hidden, consequences.
Firstly, the fierce competition, which exists both within news organisations (between members of the same news team competing for roles, scoops, top stories, promotions etc.) and between news organisations (such as the ratings wars between the BBC Scotland and STV), results in the almost total homogenisation of news. The idea that competition creates diversity is, of course, a complete myth. A cursory glance at the front pages of the main newspapers and a flick between channels shows that in most cases, the opposite is true. This explains why, more often than not, the only difference between the stories in newspapers and on TV networks is their running order.
Secondly, the ratings wars which arise from this obsession with market share, means there is little time to explore issues in any great depth. Relentless competition creates an environment of extreme pressure and stress for journalists and media managers who are acutely sensitive to the need to augment or at least maintain audience share. Another difficulty arises from having to deal with all the insecurities which arise from failure to maintain their share of the market. This pressure to conform to market forces produces a ‘distortion effect’ which almost always goes completely unnoticed.
The solution to the pressures that this ruthless and relentless competition brings is ‘fast thinking’, which means thinking in clichés, thinking in ‘received ideas’, serving up ‘cultural fast food’, in small bite-size portions, for mass popular consumption. Having to maintain or even augment market share creates an obsession with not being boring or irrelevant, a trait which leads news producers to constantly search for the sensational and the dramatic aspect of the same stories. This process almost always leads to a significant distortion of the everyday events it covers.
Thirdly, the obsession with market share places media bosses and the journalists they manage, at the heart of a community which they cohabit with managers and executives from other industries; business people, accountants and economists, and any other enterprise which promotes an economistic view of the world. The practices as well as the views and opinions of the mainstream news media are thus broadly homologous with those of a much wider group of organisations, agencies and institutions that think in measurables, have targets and bottom lines, and who actively compete for a share of their respective markets.
Those who populate this group will be statistically more likely to see the world in economistic terms, one reason why they are also statistically more likely to occupy positions which lean to the political right. Membership of this economistic cohort tends to result in the unconscious belief in the sanctity of ‘market forces’, which inevitably results in the privileging of economic issues over moral ones. This is why mainstream news is not only dominated by economic issues but why there is a disproportionate number of business people on news and current affairs programmes.
This is where the real problem of hidden bias lurks. It also explains why the independence debate, mediated and managed by the mainstream media, was so comprehensively dominated by ‘economic issues’ as was the referendum on EU membership.
The independence movement does have to change the way it approaches a potential second referendum. But rather than simply saying ‘stop berating journalists, they’re only doing their job’ (Walker), or stop blaming the BBC, the Yes movement must take a much proactive role in controlling the debate. The priorities should be to remind journalists, and indeed their audiences, that ‘the economic argument’ of any issue is always a highly political perspective, and one favoured by a group who are much less likely to be advocates of change. It should be stressed, by everyone involved in the independence movement, that moral arguments are just as important as economic arguments (for some of us more so). Indeed the evidence exists insofar as moral arguments were important to a very large section of society (clearly the 45% who voted Yes in 2014), and that moral arguments should have equal weight in any future debate on independence. There is no doubt that mainstream media journalists will almost certainly see a left-wing bias in this assertion, that’s fine, as it can only bring into consciousness that which is always hidden: namely, the unconscious economistic (and thus mostly right-leaning and conservative) bias of the vast majority of mainstream journalists.