Whose News?

imagesIt is a remarkable characteristic of major shibboleths in our society that matters that would quickly be seen as being logically contradictory, factually unsustainable, rationally incoherent or merely ridiculous can survive unscathed as conventional, unchallengeable wisdom for endless decades simply because they are long established in society as sources of unexamined authority, and the incoherence is never allowed to be exposed to critical, independent examination outside the narrow context of the established, even revered convention, or beyond the control or reach of the arbiters who manage it; the priesthood of the conventional wisdom. This statement is too abstract, so I shall attempt to provide it with context: I am writing here about newspapers and journalism and the absurdity of the authority or credibility they too easily claim and are allowed to indulge as a frankly risible claim to represent a free press and ‘liberty’: would that they did.

Neither the Syria debate in the Westminster Parliament nor the Forth Bridge crossing furore has added greatly to public enlightenment of the relevant issues, but both controversies have nevertheless served to illuminate public knowledge, obliquely but effectively, about important contemporary political matters, but in unintended ways. In particular these events have usefully cemented in public understanding the degree to which the print media is a complicit participant in the wider Westminster Cartel (the system through which political parties, newspapers, broadcasters and major institutions exclusively ‘fix’ the national political agenda, its content and the limits of debate), and has revealed to the public the extent to which the broadcast media is prepared to dance to the print media tune, and the print media to serve a uniform ideology.

This new and transformative public awareness of the press as a scarcely disguised organ of public relations dissemination acting on behalf of what is little more than the wider, deeper culture of the State, is an outcome the press did not intend, but appears quite remarkably incapable of assimilating; presumably because the press only possesses one public message dissemination technique; or should that read ‘propaganda method’? Which it duly repeats each time the Westminster Cartel calls it into cohesive action to sell a controversial policy (Iraq, Syria, Austerity, Bank ‘Regulation’ or whatever serves the Cartel); and which the press executes with ever greater exaggeration and whipped-up hysteria, in the hope that if it fails to convince intelligent opinion, it will at least always succeed in moving the centre ground ever further right and silence quiet, reasonable, balanced moderates with the fear or implicit intimidation that moderates who protest will thereafter be vilified as ‘extreme’ (left) from a centre-ground of public discussion in which the freehold is owned exclusively by the print-media (in loose association with broadcasters) and which has been permanently moved, unnoticed in the clamour, far to the right.

What is striking about the way that the print media is prepared, more or less brazenly, to become simply an orchestral player, providing the ‘basso continuo’ behind the Westminster neo-conservative (soap) opera libretto; is the obtuse disregard of the press (journalists, editors or owners) for the quite obvious fact that the public, especially in Scotland, have noticed the lack of press independence, and the (often crude) priority newspapers give to directing public opinion towards broad official (Westminster Cartel) objectives, over holding either the Government or even Westminster itself to account: still less to meeting any of the real aspirations of the public.

In short, the public have at last ‘found-out’ the nature of the ‘press’. In part at least this explains the collapsing circulations of the press that both owners and journalists so eagerly wish to ascribe solely to technological change and the rise of social media as a merely technical innovation. The transformation of the public mood is political. The rise of social media as a political power, and of public opinion/citizen journalism websites is, almost as much as the technology, a product of the failure of the print press to serve the public’s priorities, interests or liberties.

The fact is that technology has begun a revolution that in its execution has revealed the extent to which the traditional print press is not the defender of the public interest, but rather the promoter of its (owners) vested interests that happen to coalesce nationally, and internationally, with the power and influence of the Westminster Cartel. The print-press as an independent source of news, or as a defender of the public interest is now, effectively redundant; ruined by the incorrigible hubris of the print press.

The absurdity of the press position as a promoter of press ‘freedom’ or even ‘free markets’ is easily illustrated; although it requires a recalibration of what both terms mean for the public, and a capacity to look afresh at what currently is conventional wisdom in the relationship between the print press and broadcast media, and to appreciate the underlying absurdity of the print press relationship with both broadcasters and the public.

The major print-press newspapers are broadly ‘free market’ enterprises run by businessmen or entrepreneurs, and run for profit and to provide returns to shareholders. Their first concern is not anyone’s freedom (save their own), but circulation. They are there to sell; nothing more nor less. Their business is to publish ‘news’; a process which requires newspapers also to decide (along with broadcasters) what is the “news” (what counts as newsworthy) they publish. This is unusual or possibly unique in business; people in the ‘shoe’ business do not typically decide what is a ‘shoe’; a watermelon is never classed as a shoe. Newspapers are quite different; they decide what is “news”.

Newspapers or broadcasters have a significant capacity not only to select what is “news” but in doing so, to shape the ‘news’; and in that complex process both to invent the “news” and to reinvent it, time after time after time. This strange marketing facility, to decide what is ‘news’ gives the newspapers (and broadcasters) extraordinary, and often unnoticed, power. They sell a product the authenticity of which the public must accept at face value; or they did until the rise of social media and the internet. Now, the public is no longer sure. What is “news” can now be seen by the public often to be the outcome of either deft or bad management, but at the very least, of deliberate shaping or manipulation.

For reasons that remain something of a mystery to me, the BBC (which not only does not accept advertising revenues but bars advertising by commercial businesses on its broadcast outlets) makes an exception for its treatment of newspapers from all other commercial, profit-driven enterprises, and quite freely, even lavishly, advertises not only the business of newspapers, presumably because they print ‘news’, but the products, the individual business and brands. They turn the business of ‘news’ itself into a kind of ‘infomercial’.

Over the years there have been many programmes or parts of programmes on both television and radio devoted to newspapers and journalism; providing free advertising for commercial newspaper enterprises and promoting their value, and the purported authority and knowledge of the journalists (first and most famously perhaps on ITV with ‘What the Papers Say’; effectively it was free advertising for newspapers). The BBC News Channel has a nightly 15 minute programme that simply reviews the newspapers, and typically invites two newspaper journalists to discourse on the daily content. BBC Radio 4 has a weekly programme that reviews the current state of the media. BBC Radio Scotland follows the principle on selected news programmes at week ends. News programmes may reference newspapers and the opinions they express as a matter of course, as if the newspapers (specific, identified newspapers) provide an essential insight into all affairs that matter. Journalists become “celebrities”. The newspapers are not only provided by the BBC with the ‘oxygen of publicity’ but a cultural framework that only enhances newspapers and their journalists with implied authority as sources of news. Why? Why is this newspaper sales-pitch acceptable on our largest and most established public service broadcaster? Why is it taken for granted?

At the same time it is almost impossible not to notice that there is a revolving door operating between Fleet Street and Westminster, and even in 10, Downing Street. It has become difficult to distinguish between the politicians and the journalists.

We should note that even more inexplicably, while the press media is reviewed, discussed and ‘pitched’ to us on public service broadcasters, the same indulgence is not extended to other broadcasters. Having established the principle (the special privilege provided to businesses in the business of journalism by broadcasters), why is a review of ITV News, or C4 News, or Sky News excluded from the BBC? And vice versa? It isn’t “done”. The illogicality is almost comical, although essentially there is nothing funny about this; apart from the social solecism, such a critique would tend to reveal the narcissistic, inward looking, self-congratulatory nature of the process, and it would invite an independent, critical judgment of the charmed, closed circle of newspapers, broadcasters and politicians (the public face of the Westminster Cartel) who set the political agenda that, of course is designed to exclude the public. Of course the new ‘social media’ news websites are excluded from review by national broadcasters, but that is no surprise, for the independent social media outlets fail to sing harmoniously from the same officially ‘newsworthy’ Cartel Hymn Sheet.

The public are treated as consumers, nothing more; they select their opinions from a table d’hôte menu provided by the Westminster Cartel. Politicians love to call this process “choice”; what people want is choice, we are told. What they “choose” in terms of “news”, however is not to be left to chance.

Comments (15)

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  1. Calum McKay says:

    bbc in Scotland have to pretend they are impartial. The press do not, they can print what ever they want regardless of the facts. Both press and bbc are tools of the british establishment through ownership, patronage and an old boys network.

    bbc in Scotland can get round the inconvenience of not being able to directly attack Scotland’s Government by repeating what the press have said and posting the paper’s front pages on the bbc Scotland news section. They can also regurgitate the press stories and lead with them or keep them going.

    The importance of this should not be lost as it results in a unionist imbalance of control and stories being fed to the public. I for one do not believe Scots are some kind of special breed whose beliefs can not be manipulated by the state broadcaster and press, the majority of people read the headline and then move on.

    TV, broadcasting and press control are the last thing that westminster would devolve, for fairly obvious reasons!

    1. James Cormack says:

      Give us some real news BBC. Today we had much of the bulletins reporting that Platter and Platini were crooks and got banned from football for 8 years. Big deal..I suspect most of us already knew that (those that were interested that is).
      Then we had the usual OTT stuff about the Brit in space..For God’s sake, Yuri Gagarin was doing that kind of thing over 50 years ago, it’s no big deal!
      The killing of a senior Hezbollah terrorist in an air strike in Lebanon, something which could precipitate another war with Israel, received scant attention.
      Like more and more people I tend to get my news from the virtual media these days. THe BBC and its obsession with trivial title tattle I find extremely irritating.

  2. bringiton says:

    I think the Daily Record “vow” was the final nail in the London establishment news cartel coffin in Scotland.
    After that very few were prepared to believe much that HM press published,hence the almost zero impact they had on the outcome of the Westminster elections in Scotland.
    This must have come as a great shock to the Uncle Tom Scottish affairs commentators who do the bidding of their London masters.
    Very few outside the London bubble are now listening to what they say and this will be reinforced when their anti SNP rhetoric running up to the May elections has zero impact as well.
    We do need a free Scottish press to keep our government honest but that will not be served by English based media organisations who clearly have their own agenda which is not acting in our interests.

  3. Paul says:

    Our media has changed since 911. Gilligan and Doctor Kelly, WMD’s and the now widely discredited assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq which should have been a wake up call. However, marvel at the power of mass propaganda and wonder at where we are today.

  4. thomaspotter2014 says:

    Absolutely spot on article of where we are and how much controlling power these charlatans command.

    It’s time for change and that’s whats coming.

    Let’s do this.

  5. Alan says:

    Excellent. I also highly recommend George Orwell’s original Introduction to Animal Farm (1945).

    If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.
    ….The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Thank goodness for Orwell; he would be in his element now.

      I seem to remember, during the Cold War a television journalist (BBC? I cannot remember the channel – there were only two) interviewed a Hungarian journalist, who had escaped to the West, about the operation of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. He explained that it was not as the West thought; there were few censors labouring through the fine detail of scripts or articles. They were not needed. The journalists and editors understood the unwritten rules only too well; censorship operated through orderly self-censorship. Generally, it was polite, quiet and orderly; there was nothing to observe.

      This has long stuck in my mind, because it struck me fleetingly then that such a process could be operating in Britain, and nobody would notice; I was young and naive, or at least that is my excuse. It may be that the Hungarian mischeviously suggested that this may be so during the interview, but I cannot quite remember.

      1. Alan says:

        Yes, Big Brother doesn’t need to watch you. The most effective oppression is the one that is internalised.

        1. F says:

          As you were quoting Orwell, here’s an extract from Arthur Machen’s The Secret Glory. By no means his finest work (at least in the realm of fantastic literature), but it excels in its social commentary and scathing criticism of the English Public School system:

          Of course, a good deal of rubbish has been talked about the wonderful success of our English plan of leaving the boys to themselves without the everlasting supervision which is practised in French schools. As a matter of fact, the English schoolboy is under constant supervision; where in a French school one wretched usher has to look after a whole horde of boys, in an English school each boy is perpetually under the observation of hundreds of his fellows. In reality, each boy is an unpaid pion, a watchdog whose vigilance never relaxes. He is not aware of this; one need scarcely say that such a notion is far from his wildest thoughts. He thinks, and very rightly, doubtless, that he is engaged in maintaining the honour of the school, in keeping up the observance of the school tradition, in dealing sharply with slackers and loafers who would bring discredit on the place he loves so well. He is, no doubt, absolutely right in all this; none the less, he is doing the master’s work unwittingly and admirably.

          (The narrator then clearly doesn’t reflect the views of the central character, or the author!)

  6. Jon Buchanan says:

    Surely, if your comment on an article refers to its punctuation and grammatical construction as a negative point of feedback, your own grammar/punctuation should be meticulously crafted? John Warren’s article, which I enjoyed for both its content and construction (though I hadn’t fully considered the latter until I read your comment), at a quick glance over, uses around eight semi colons, each used appropriately, two or more ideas in a sentence are given equal position or rank and/or where independent clauses are connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases a semi colon is deployed. Your short reply however is lacking appropriate commas and a question mark and, by beginning the second sentence with ‘This…’, appears to reference itself and as such I would wholly concur with its sentiment, either receiving a bumper box of semi colons from Santa would be awful or the grammar in your reply is; the grammar and punctuation in the article is spot on!

  7. manandboy says:

    Politics has taken over. The public is not the primary concern of the media, except in so far as they constitute the electorate. Nor are the electorate considered consumers but rather a potential threat to the ongoing success of the neo-Liberals, at least those capable of changing their vote are. Those voters who can be fooled all the time meanwhile, simply have to be entertained.

    The thirty year old neo-liberal project to transfer the
    wealth of the masses to the elite has forged new rules while pretending that the old rules still stood. Hence the reason why the majority of the population continue to believe that the UK is a democracy, and that the Westminster government’s purpose is to govern in the best interests of the people.

    The Establishment are fully aware that things are changing but are betting that before the thinking voters stage the inevitable revolution, most of the money will be in the Swiss bank accounts of the 1% and the victory will be an empty shell.

  8. John Harper says:

    John Buchanan

    Fair enough, you got me. I will withdraw.

    1. Jon Buchanan says:

      With your original comment now MIA John, and my reply free floating, as it were, I appear (even more) like an over zealous grammar policeman! My apologies for replying to the original comment in the wee sma hours, unable to sleep with a stinker of a headache, and loosing both barrels!

  9. John S Warren says:

    In the spirit of the New Media and of the new intellectual age now dawning; that has at last embraced the virtue of inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation (or here the cross-reference to Derek Bateman), and in the knowledge that my opinion may carry little weight: nevertheless I would like to endorse Mr Bateman’s piece “Press Prima Donnas”, although I have to confess my interest in reading Mr Torrance (an article of his is referenced) flagged some time ago; I have not read the Torrance article discussed, and given the weight we give to “evidence” and “sources” this gap in my knowledge should be expressly acknowledged.

    I should add that I regularly read most of the other sources to which Mr Bateman refers. My endorsement is therefore of Mr Bateman’s general critique of the Scottish media, which seems to me to be broadly ‘on the money’.

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