Understanding Mainstream Media – Notes from Political Sociology

media-ed-milliband-the-sun-newspaperMedia myths: representation of reality

At a time when there is much talk about the need for reform within the media, what with the recent Laura Kuenssberg / Andrew Neil Labour front bench resignation curation, or the deep public disaffection with BBC Scotland, as was aired this week in the Scottish Parliament, it is perhaps pertinent to expose some of the hidden dimensions which, although they may be obvious to Bella readers, might not be so obvious to others, particularly those currently working in that media.

The media does not ‘reflect’ reality, rather it creates its own reality. Think refugee crisis. The photo of the dead baby on a Greek beach made big news, highlighting a crisis which existed long before the story broke, and will remain long after the story has become ‘passé’. The media has a de facto monopoly on what ‘events’ live in the collective consciousness.

Media myths: Curation or censorship

The selection of what to show and what not to show is a highly political exercise, but there is much more to it than that.

Firstly, the media decides who to invite and who not to invite onto programmes / interviews, and how these ‘guests’ are treated. Secondly, the media decides what questions to ask and what not to ask, as well as the manner in which these are asked. Thirdly, the media holds the power to name. Going back to refugee crisis, this is not the name it has been given, for these are migrants not refugees something that has great controversy but little change in naming practices by the media.

The most important aspect of censorship, and the one most hidden from those working in the media, is embodied by the fact media bosses decide who to employ, and who not to employ, or who to get rid of (and who to keep).

newssourceTalking about politics is inescapably political. The questions asked at job interviews for media positions might seem innocent to those asking them, but they are mired in unconscious prejudices, common-sense, and therefore political assumptions, as well as an entire series of unquestioned tropes which shape the categories of perception that those residing in the media field apply to all things of the world. The field of journalism, just like the field of academia or the fields of law, medicine, engineering, photography, building or plumbing has its own internal logic, its own rules, its own language and its own forms of censorship: what people within that field are authorised to say, within the confines of that particular environment. These are rarely if ever obvious even to those who occupy each particular field, because when the objective structures of the field – the rules and practices which govern the production of television news, for example – accord with the mental categories of perception, what is deemed by such producers to be interesting/boring, current/out-of-date, important/irrelevant – their perception of the world seems natural, self-evident, the way things should be and thus could not be otherwise. This explains why media news professionals are generally the last to see any political bias in what they produce for here exists an ‘orthodox’ media ‘perspective, which explains why almost all media sources run the same stories, with only the order in which they are presented being the only tangible difference.

The internal logic which currently drives the mainstream media is entirely ‘economistic’, in that it is obsessed with ‘market share’. Previously different frames of appreciation measurement existed, such as public interest, as measured through reviewers, educational or enlightenment values, or public service contribution, however that was officially defined or determined. The maintenance or augmentation of audience share, ratings, readership numbers, listener or viewer figures is the central driving force behind most mainstream media production, as it represents the current means to measure worth. Within TV news and current affairs, for example, there exists an entire economy of ‘renown’. TV media professionals have an acute sense of who is more well-known than who, who is in and who is out, who is the ‘most’ famous ‘celebrity’ or politician. There thus exists in the minds of media professionals a complete hierarchy of ‘personalities’. This helps determine who they ask onto particular programmes, with market share of the potential audience always a foremost consideration.

This ‘economistic’ logic also has a profound effect on what issues are covered and what are ignored. Think Referendum – the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on ‘economistic’ issues, the pound, currency, pensions, insurances, banks moving to England, oil revenues and supermarket prices, mostly ignoring the ‘moral’ arguments such as illegal wars, food banks, nuclear weapons, the environment, land ownership, culture, media and the arts. Minds which are attuned to an economistic logic, and who themselves profit from economistic forms of capital, given personal market returns, profit shares, or bonuses will always tend to favour the ‘economistic’ aspects of reality over ‘cultural’ or ‘moral’ dimensions, for reasons which are rooted in their own sociodicy, namely, the promotion of their own position within society.  This, of course, is always implicit and always exists beyond the realms of conscious awareness of those involved.

news2Unequal distribution of political competence and the myth of public opinion

As Pierre Bourdieu has shown, ‘public opinion does not exist’. Not everyone can and does have an opinion on something. Don’t you believe me? Ok what’s your opinion of the tierce de Picardie? Personally, I think its fine in certain contexts but all too often it’s a cop out. What do you think? Secondly, not all opinions are equal. The opinions of a small number of people are disproportionately influential in any political milieu, which helps explain why the Mansion Tax replaced the Bedroom Tax, and why benefit fraud was talked about far more in the media than tax avoidance during the recent Westminster elections. Thirdly, questions in opinion polls are never asked with prior agreement and are therefore susceptible to political manipulation. If I say yes to a question that I’m not 100% sure about, then the power over the interpretation of my answer is handed over to the pollsters and media pundits.

What the mainstream media unconsciously, yet relentlessly seek to obfuscate, is the fact that the ability produce a political opinion, political competence, is unequally distributed throughout society. In a society where a quarter of the population have literacy difficulties, the competence required to understand the legal complexities and technical details of some political issues is greatly impaired. How many of us for example understand mortgage backed securities, ratings, derivatives, hedging or selling short, core aspects that helped bring about the Financial Crisis?

When this is pointed out to media professionals the general response offered is to be offended: ‘are you saying the working classes are stupid?’ Opinion formers such as media journalists and their managers have a strong vested interest in the truth about the unequal distribution of political competence being completely hidden from public consciousness. The hidden truth is that media professionals, as with doctors, lawyers, scientists and the like are rarely if ever ‘consciously aware’ of their own vested interests, most of which tend to be deeply buried within the day-to-day, mundane logic of the specific professional practices of their own particular field.

‘Orthodox’, ‘mainstream’ and common-sense notions are thus always the outcome of struggles between groups for the monopoly over the legitimate right to define, name and show that reality. Common-sense is, therefore, a thoroughly political relation.  This explains why the response to these notes on the hidden dimensions of the mainstream media will be so divergent. To paraphrase Bourdieu, those who have a vested interest in the ‘orthodox’ view of the world will always be shocked by those who question this orthodoxy, seeing a political bias in the questioner’s refusal to grant the profoundly political submission implied in the unquestioning acceptance of the world as it presents itself which, as Machiavelli so eloquently points out, is almost always illusory. So when discussing ‘reform’ of Scotland’s media, we need first to become more familiar with what it is the media actually does.

If anyone has any questions or seeks further clarification on any of these points made above I will try to respond using the comments section below.

Comments (27)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Much of what is written is obvious but the point is that the facts of the matter are not at the top of any agenda.

    We mostly know that the BBC in Metrocentric with a slant that plays to Surry and Islington. “The National” is looked upon as an aberration reporting the “Outsider” view while almost all the rest play to the “Westminster Bubble” where the indistinguishable privileged few decide the priorities based upon a fixed rate of taxation and disparagement of those outside the bubble.

    We now have a sizeable minority from Scotland that is trying to move the debate but as you would expect much of their activity is not reported or displayed as lunatic fringe when somebody makes a mistake.

    Unfortunately there is no reasonable way to change the way these things are without a money tree in the garden to buy up all of the media.

  2. Rachel Yorke says:

    Paradigm shifts take a very long time in any field and you have to start somewhere. I think a good start has been made here in Scotland, leading to the BBC being hauled over the coals.

  3. Jon Buchanan says:

    A timely piece Joe, as you say, what may seem obvious to some may have needed deeper explication to others, particularly around the tropes of how consent is engineered; worth noting that an acquiescence to that illusory ‘public opinion’ is also kept ‘live’ by the nexus of psycho-analysis and propaganda/pr firmly established in the world where politics meets media by Edward Bernays and ruthlessly exploited ever since. It is also worth noting that new media is not immune to applying the same machinations, whether consciously or unconsciously, through trying to change/form opinion, and consumers of it should still remain vigilant!

  4. Jim McWilliam says:

    There is a way to change the status quo, since all of the MSM are companies with a profit motive the easy way to end their hegemony is to not feed their profit.

    If they are all portrayed as profit hungry, skewing the truth and lying in order to line their shareholders’ pockets, then people will stop feeding them. Then their advertising revenue will go down and soon they will no longer exist.

    1. Brian McGowan says:

      Jim McWilliam – I totally agree…”If they are all portrayed…”. But, who will do the “portraying”? Websites like this, and others who call out the lies of the MSM? It’s great that they do, but I would expect (I could be wrong) that they are preaching to the converted.
      I might be taking a simplistic view of the world, but explaining, as this article does, why the media act and behave in the way they do is all very well. I mean, I think I kind of knew that. The real question is: who will challenge the MSM? Who will champion the websites who do? Clearly not the SNP.

      1. Muscleguy says:

        Judging by the dropping distribution numbers of the print media the rate of which is higher here in Scotland than anywhere else, people are realising that the media are not worth paying attention to. The Scotsman must be close to becoming just a freesheet. A large proportion of the remaining readers of the Record admit to just buying it for the fitba. Without that it would also have been closed by the owners. The Press and journal in Aberdeen is a running joke and the Herald, unlike it’s ‘Nationalist’ stablemates is also losing paying readers and their website is coming in for much criticism and is in danger of becoming a unionist echo chamber like the Scotsman’s comment pages.

        With the polls telling us 75% of people expect Scotland to be Independent within 10 years that just leaves 25% willing to be lied to by the unionist biased media (those who think they are the mainstream). That is a pretty small market to try and carve up between all the players is it not?

        Look at the Labour Grandee complaint that folk are getting on social media and crowdsourcing responses to their stuff you have another influence. When trust is fragile and people question everything and this is happening amongst social groups which overlap it seems like the word of mouth is simply happening out of the limelight on people’s friends and family restricted facebooks, on encrypted WhatsApp conversations or just via text or email.

        So is it any wonder the media have not picked up on it and you haven’t noticed it?

        One thing that struck me chapping doors in the referendum was that Yes voting elderly almost without exception mentioned the influence of their younger relatives, without prompting often. No voters who entered into discussions almost never did. If you live alone and just consume habitual media where is your distrust to come from indeed?

        But those who are socially connected and/or online have ways of checking stuff.

  5. John B Dick says:

    I do have an opinion on the Tierce de Picardie.

    While it has its place when prescribed by a composer, when added routinely editorially, especially in a verse repeating context or in conflict with tablature, it is plainly wrong. This Christmas, possibly for the first time, I managed to avoid being disturbed by The Coventry carol.

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      Now… the Coventry carol, that’s the exception I’ll make. It’s fine there…

      1. Matt Seattle says:

        I know at least two tunes in the Scottish ‘traditional’ repertoire which employ the tierce de Picardie to fine effect: several versions of the anonymous When She Cam Ben She Bobbit (aka The Laird O Cockpen), and Miss Peggy Montgomerie’s Hornpipe by fiddler John Riddell (1718–95) of Ayr. I don’t have an opinion on the Coventry Carol, but I know someone who does.

        All of which reinforces your point about ‘public opinion’.

  6. baronessamedi says:

    This is an interesting piece and a good companion to G Ponsonby’s book. But, off topic, please can everyone stop using the word ‘curate’, ‘curator’ and (shudder) ‘curation’, when all they mean is to organise or manage something. I am actually a museum curator and we have to pass some very hard exams…

  7. Frank says:

    Good piece, especially enjoyed the references to Bourdieu. Whilst I accept that the media is biased, and that news is socially constructed, I sometimes wonder the extent to which this is a deliberate strategy, or is unconscious. Take Question Time last night for example. Four right wingers and one batting from the left – is that deliberate?

    The only point I would quibble with is the assertion that public opinion doesn’t exist. Whilst, true in a sense it is also false in another sense because there is enough evidence to suggest a commonality of opinions exist across a range of issues and that public opinions and attitudes change over time. For example, attitudes towards LGBT issues are more progressive than they were a decade ago? Longer term research suggests that people on average have become more liberal over the past 50 years – even right wingers are less right wing than they were in 1980 according to the source (I think it’ a study by Harvard University psychologists). So clearly public opinions exists. But what the media fails to do is report that public opinion is problematic and difficult to measure especially on day to day affairs.

    I’m not sure how you get round the issue of propaganda. Social media for example replicates its own propaganda. Furthermore, if the left ever came to power, or Scotland became independent, I’m sure we would be subjected to another form of propaganda. Perhaps the task is to make people literate in propaganda deconstruction?

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      Yes, this is what Bourdieu means when he says public opinion does not exist. He means that it doesn’t exist in the way that the media portray it. 49% of people think this…., no 49% responded in a certain way to your specific question, to which there was no prior agreement (the formulation of the question is the political part). Yet, this tends to be unquestioningly presented as a social fact, ‘49% of people think exactly this!’ It’s all these subtle dimensions together which makes the power of the media so insidious.

      On the qissue of propaganda, I ask my students to watch both the BBC and RT (formerly Russia Today) to get one two opposing sides (both of course constituting their own brand of state propaganda). If people are aware of the hidden forms of power which the media exercises, seeing propaganda and rhetoric for what it is becomes much easier, I think.

    2. Dennis Smith says:

      An interesting comment. It helps here to recognise the ambiguity of ‘public opinion’, and the general slipperiness of discourse about public versus private. It may be true as a matter of fact that 90% of members of the public agree individually with a given statement, so that statement genuinely reflects ‘public opinion’. But if that 90% have no way of making their individual views known to one another – of publishing them – so turning them into public discourse, then the opposing 10% have the opportunity to use the media to establish their own view as ‘public opinion’.

      ‘The public’ can be understood either as an aggregate of individuals or as a collective and endless confusion – some of it deliberate – arises from confusing the two.

  8. Kenny says:

    I think the ideas around public opinion are really interesting. For example, we’re always told that “the research” says that Scotland is no more left wing than England, and we all saw the glee of the unionist commentariat when Scotland elected a UKIP MEP in 2014. The subtext of that entire discussion was “see, you’re dirty and nasty just like us.” But for the most part, Scotland has elected politicians on the left of the spectrum for the last 50 years and even the right wingers that Scotland has have been less extreme than many of the right wingers down south. At the same time, the Blair project didn’t seem to take hold in Scotland in the same way as it did down south. Sure, we had Jim Murphy and Gregg McClymont, but we never got anyone quite like Tristram Hunt. I’ve yet to see someone really look into that difference in political culture and the different shapes and sizes of Scotland’s Overton windows.

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      From a political sociology perspective this is a fascinating question Kenny. Now I would say (as a qualitative researcher) that the problem lies in research methodology. I would say that quantitative methods (statistical and numerical analyses) is completely useless for this job and that qualitative methods (asking real people through interviews, focus groups, discourse analysis etc) is the only way to understand the difference. But the quant’s person would say to me, ‘yes, sure. you would say that’, and she be right. You ask the question, because, I assume, like me, you can feel the qualitative difference in the politics, but you cannot quite put a qualitative finger on what it is exactly. This is the problem academia has. Its difficult these days to get funding for research which you cannot already provide evidence of its future impact. This fascinating area falls into that category I’m afraid.

    2. Alf Baird says:

      “for the most part, Scotland has elected politicians on the left of the spectrum for the last 50 years ”

      It matters little which party is elected, at Westminster or Holyrood, an overpaid unionist-elite continues to run virtually all our public and semi-public institutions.

  9. Mike Fenwick says:

    Extract:

    ” … Think Referendum – the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on ‘economistic’ issues, the pound, currency, pensions, insurances, banks moving to England, oil revenues and supermarket prices, mostly ignoring the ‘moral’ arguments such as illegal wars, food banks, nuclear weapons, the environment, land ownership, culture, media and the arts.”

    Setting aside the bias and inaccuracies in what was conveyed by the MSM (which is a deeper malaise)- are you saying this heirarchy in the balance of what was covered was wrong? That these were not the predominant issues for most people?

    1. Joe Crawford says:

      Good question Mike. It’s not about whether they are right or wrong, its that the sociological research has shown that people who think economistically, accountants, economists, managers, (journalists as well, as they think about readership or audience figures) tend to favour the economic dimension of ‘the political’. They, according to research, are more likely to be located to the right of the political spectrum. People who have higher levels of cultural capital, artists, musicians, academics, writers, scientists, intellectuals, teachers, creatives etc. people who are more likely (statistically speaking) to favour moralistic arguments, which locates them mostly to the left of centre. If you look at the referendum in very general terms, this helps to explain why the Yes Campaign had an almost complete monopoly on the creative and artistic community and why the No campaign (irrespective of whether you agree with their views or not) had much more of an economic focus. The two sides tended to see the world very differently, because they had their own priorities, which shaped their views. This is a very crude and rather clumsy answer to a very good question.

      1. Mike Fenwick says:

        Paul Krugman, New York Times … ” … market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification.” an extract from a piece about inequality in the USA.

        For me, and it prompted my questions, the 45% were moving toward something, something intangible, as yet unknown, a vision if you like of what could be, the 55% were leaving something behind, a potential loss, and it bred fear, a fear that the MSM and the politicians well understood and capitalised (no pun) on.

        If that has any grain of truth within it, then the 45% of whatever make up, of whatever cultural or artistic bent, of whatever political persuasion (or none) need to use every bit of creativity they possess to demonstrate what it is they wish others to see and vote for, and I suggest it will mean addressing issues outwith their normal comfort zone.

        There is time to do so.

        1. Frank says:

          Given the earlier comments about public opinion, I would be very careful about drawing conclusions or representations such as ‘the 45%’. People faced a binary choice and voted accordingly. The danger is that we project our own views onto the 45%. That’s propaganda.

    2. Kenny says:

      Well…did anyone ever ASK? It’s not like issues around our democratic deficit weren’t discussed in the alternative media (often at great length.) We all discussed the media crisis that saw a predominantly right-wing, London-based media apparatus lead the debate, to be followed by the BBC. But were those issues ever put on a back burner so we could hear about the ongoing diminution of Scottish culture or attacks on our languages or the horrorshow of the House of Lords or how Scotland might approach international conflict differently? There are a lot of overlapping issues here. The media failed us not only by telling us lies about the issues THEY cared about, but by not even considering the issues that a lot of US cared about.

      As a side note, it’s worth considering that what “most people” are concerned about is what they media tells them is important. For example, if you’d never heard of avian flu, would it ever have crossed your mind that it might be a problem? But when the media seized on it and told us all it could wipe out half the population, it became something we all fretted about, even though the risk to humans was vanishingly small.

  10. Blair paterson says:

    Talking of question time why is it always the same lovies who,are on the panel,? Never a working class person I phoned up and offered to take part they said they would phone,back I am still waiting

  11. Gordon McShean says:

    As a Scot whose “reality” (including almost life-long exile) seemed to have been caused by unlucky media exposure made worse by the public indifference (yes, until recent years most Scots didn’t give a damn about Independence!) – I’d concluded until recently that conspiratorial theories could be blamed for my predicament. I’d started out in early 1950 as a boy street-corner orator in Glasgow, with SNP representatives supporting me. But later – having enjoyed secret involvement of the SNP through their National Secretary’s personal encouragement – I was on the run after taking part in the 1953 Johnstone gun heist. The enterprise was supposed to remove and destroy armaments that might have been used against peaceful nationalist demonstrators, but police began to catch up with us. I – and the SNP National Secretary, Robert Curran – escaped abroad. A few years later Robert apparently received assurances of amnesty and returned to Scotland (taking up a lesser position with the SNP); I received no such assurances (despite unsuccessfully approaching SNP administration in the 1970s); I still live in exile more than 60 years later. I’ve written about this in my recent memoir, RETIRED TERRORIST, but this got almost no acknowledgement anywhere, either in the press or in SNP communications. I can understand why the SNP might want to keep me quiet. But I now harbour a suspicion that their actions in hiding my SNP background may be more responsible for my continued exile than any conspiracies involving the media or public indifference. In this situation, your theories concerning “reality” seem just a little simplistic to me!

    1. C Rober says:

      Should have been in a South African jail mate , then someone would have done a song aboot ye.

      One mans terrorist…

  12. Graham A Fordyce says:

    I am a complete novice about the media. Articles like this are very helpful, so my thanks to the author who took the time and trouble to write it. More important than that however was his decision to share his ideas and opinions, upon which the reader can consider, form his or her own opinions; and in turn share them. This process marks the origin of Change, but Change only comes about when one has the power to effect Change. Since time immemorial, power has rested with those who control Change; in other words those who control Communication.
    In short, the more we communicate with each other, the more we expose each other to new ways of thinking, the more we develop a sense of society and sharing, the more we fashion a world which puts fairness at its heart, the more we overcome the huge imbalance in equality which exists.
    Vive la communication!

  13. Graham A Fordyce says:

    I am a complete novice about the media. Articles like this are very helpful, so my thanks to the author who took the time and trouble to write it. More important than that however was his decision to share his ideas and opinions, upon which the reader can consider, form his or her own opinions; and in turn share them. This process marks the origin of Change, but Change only comes about when one has the power to effect Change. Since time immemorial, power has rested with those who control Change; in other words those who control Communication.
    In short, the more we communicate with each other, the more we expose each other to new ways of thinking, the more we develop a sense of society and sharing, the more we fashion a world which puts fairness at its heart, the more we overcome the huge imbalance in equality which exists.
    Vive la communication!

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