Understanding Mainstream Media – Notes from Political Sociology
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).
Talking 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.
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.