New Media Futures
The Radical Independence Conference (Glasgow 1st October) featured a fascinating session on the relationships between Money-Power, politics and the media. Entitled ‘The Axis of Corruption: Westminster, The City and the Media Establishment’, Adam Ramsey (Open Democracy) Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper), Mike Small (Bella Caledonia) and Angela Haggerty (Common Space), along with interesting contributions from the floor, explored the nature of the current interactions between these elements of a corrupt and corrupting nexus.
The Pre-eminence of the City
Key to understanding the British State, explained Adam Ramsay, is to appreciate that in its present hollowed-out form, its only residual role is to host the ‘City’ as the world epicentre of finance capital, including the most extensive money laundering, and tax avoiding rackets in the world, most of it operated off-shore, with the City of London as the centre of its neural network. This has been crucial to maintain British imperialism by non-territorial means.
The Monarchy, Westminster and Labour
The discussion then explored, led by Hilary Wainwright, how this financial racket utilises the arrested pseudo-democratic, early modern re-casting of the archaic medieval English Parliament (as Walter Bagehot revealingly describes the UK Parliament in his book The English (sic) Constitution), via the constitutional devices of the ‘Crown in Parliament’ and ‘Royal Prerogative’, which reverse the Scottish doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, to impose Executive power, pass laws and implement policies that privilege Money Power, and hence undermine truly democratic structures and principles. These latter have never existed in the British state.
This discussion touched upon areas more than adequately covered by Tom Nairn in his classic works on the British state – and crucially Scotland’s place in it: The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy (1989) and After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland (2000).
As Nairn has argued in the Enchanted Glass, this ‘Ukanian’ constitution, represents an arrested development whereby the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian settlement maintained and perpetuated early modern oligarchical forms and elements of monarchical Absolutism bound up with religious millenarism to ensure than an:
“Elite-citizen hegemony would endure for over three centuries… Hence no other ruling class with this early modern equipment entered upon a similar longue durée of development. It is the distinctive political coordinates of the early modern that provides a definable historical location explaining both half-modern and the unmistakably archaic aspects of 20th (and now 21st) century Britain. (My words in parenthesis).
In describing what he calls Her Majesty’s Labour Party’s persistent enchantment with this regressive creed, Nairn continues:
“That location helps explain at once the indelible Whig-Labour faith in the system’s capacity for progress and the pathetic failures now so inescapable to all outside observers and critics…..What it (the Anglo-British national identity) really connects with is one circumscribed era in early modern development reaching from 1688 up to the middle of the 18th century : the founding period in which England’s patrician Revolution was consolidated and rendered ‘British’ by the assimilation of the Scottish state in 1707.”
Nairn’s perspicacity and genius never disappoint and reward re-reading even almost thirty years after the first publication of The Enchanted Glass (a 2011 edition is still in print).
The Present Role and Future of the Media
The role of the mainstream media in maintaining this situation was explored, and in discussions led by Mike Small and Angela Haggerty, the challenges facing alterative media were outlined and discussed. A truly democratic media was needed, both leading to the successful breakup of the imperial UK, and in ensuring the success of a post-neoliberal Scotland. In order to chart a way forward, it is necessary to understand how the present construct uses the media to maintain neoliberalism and undermine democracy.
The Nature of Neoliberalism
In its current phase the hegemonic power of global ruling elites, including the British franchise, is expressed in a discourse broadly identified as ‘neoliberalism’. This is rendered as political-economic practices that broadly identify private property rights, individual liberty (only for the rich), unencumbered markets, and free trade (so called), along with maximum, unfettered entrepreneurial sovereignty, as the best, or indeed only, means of advancing human well-being (See: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey, 2005). It is a political discourse that limits the role of the state to maintaining its own integrity (defence, police and security forces), legal and judicial functions, particularly those civil and criminal processes that support and protect businesses, securing private property, maintaining the quality and integrity of money and the support of (so-called) free markets. Where markets do not exist, for example, in what used to be known as public and social services, including health, social security and education, the state must establish these markets – and then retreat, leaving them to work their ‘magic’. Beyond these matters, the state has no role.
There is nothing fundamentally new about neoliberalism, ruling class exploitation is as old as settled society – what varies is its form, and the specific means, methods and justifications of its actors. In particular, every ruling class throughout history has required a justifying discourse or narrative –whether invoking the gods, or God, or divine right – reasons and reason are brought forth to defend the ‘rights’ and privileges of rulers over the ruled. The ascendency of the dominant discourse demands the promulgation, normalisation and acceptance of its articles of faith, such that these become so deeply embedded in the general common assumptions of society that they are put beyond question. This requires a propaganda system. It is no coincidence that the word itself is derived from, Propaganda Fidi the Congregation for propagating the Catholic faith, because unquestioning, unthinking faith is the best means of maintaining any power structure.
The Supportive Role of the Media: The Media as Propaganda
In our present culture, the mass media, along with the public relations racket, fulfill the role of communicating the messages and symbols that support the ruling discourse to the general population. This is done by amusing, entertaining and informing the public in a manner that inculcates values, beliefs and norms that accord with the views and class interests of concentrated wealth (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p2). It is hardly a coincidence therefore, that the owners of these media, whether Murdoch, Berlusconi, or Rothermere, are members of the ruling class, that their media form part of their corporate interests, and that the content of their organs simultaneously betray and support their corporate and class interests. As Edward Herman has pointed out:
“The crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or their companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit seeking entities, who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on the government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media and other corporate businesses.” – Edward Herman, The Propaganda Model Revisited, Monthly Review, July 1996
Nor is it any surprise, therefore, that where the media are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, state interference on behalf of its dominant interests dictate content, and what is censored. Censorship is fairly obvious and at its most crude in dictatorships; in the so-called liberal democracies it is less crass, but more subtly successful since it relies on its most effective form – self-censorship, whilst simultaneously braying platitudes about the media being, free, fair open and even-handed. The people in media organisations know the boundaries of what it is permitted to say, and take an editorial line that will not displease the owners – or governments that overwhelmingly represent ruling class interests. This is fairly well-understood in the corporate media. See what former Murdoch editor Andrew Neil wrote of his ex-boss:
‘Rupert (Murdoch) expects his papers to stand broadly for whatever he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain. (Quoted, Alan Rusbridger, ‘Sour Times – The Only Good Editor is and Oberdient Editor if you are Rupert Murdoch, Guardian, October 24, 1996). In: Edwards, D and Cromwell, D, 2006, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, Pluto Press London, p. 6.
Moreover, even the newspaper owners themselves have occasionally made public their true intentions. Kathryn Graham, who once achieved a substantial reputation as ‘courageous publisher’, as the owner of the Washington Post in its ‘finest hour’ of investigative reporting, when it uncovered Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers, publicly traced the limits of such endeavours, as noted by Alexander Cockburn:
“ ‘We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist…Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths’. In other words, the party’s over boys and girls! It’s not our business to rock the boat. Did Mrs. Graham privately strong-arm her staff to follow her line? But editors and reporters are not slow to pick up clues as to the disposition of the persons who pay the wages, and Mrs. Graham sent out plenty of those.”
Alexander Cockburn , A Colossal Wreck 2013, Verso, pp199-200: including an original article in The Nation, July 27, 2001
None of this should be surprising given the ownership and business models governing the commercial media. Whether in newspapers or broadcasting, most of their income comes from advertising, therefore they tend not to print or broadcast anything that might upset their business paymasters. Contrary to common perception, the readership and audiences are not the customers of commercial news media; the customers are the advertisers – the readership or audiences are the product served up to the advertisers as potential purchasers of their goods. Content is designed to please enough of the target audience to make the advertising costs worthwhile to those who pay for it. Audiences, mainly because of the propaganda effect, largely lack the critical capacity to challenge this content.
Owners share the class and political interests of the advertisers. Otherwise, newspapers and other media are the playthings or propaganda vehicles of their owners, who need to be rich either to own them in first place, or to maintain them if advertising and readership revenues do not pay for publication, or if audience numbers and customer subscriptions fail to match advertising targets and output costs. Such a model is not designed to present the unbiased, unalloyed truth. Moreover, concentrations of publishing and broadcasting in the hands of large conglomerates pose obvious questions of media power that western ‘democracies’ seem unwilling or unable to address. But at least we have public broadcasting to provide the counterbalance to the commercial media that act in interests of their super-rich owners – that at least is the theory.
In recent times, it has become ever more clear that the role of media, public and private is identical – in for example, the BBC, a state broadcaster which had nevertheless always tried to portray itself as ‘above these things’, particularly in its continuing post-Gilligan capitulation to government pressure.
In May 2003, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan made a broadcast in which he claimed that the British Government had “sexed up” a report in order to exaggerate the WMD capabilities of Sadam Husein. Gilligan resigned from the BBC in 2004 following the Hutton Enquiry after Lord Hutton questioned the reliability of Gilligan’s evidence. The BBC have subsequently become increasingly overtly ‘non-controversial’, particularly on foreign affairs, especially where it involves the middle-east and Israel, USA, all security matters, and in politics and economics where their editorial line is essentially indistinguishable from government spokesmen.
Gilligan resulted in the taking of major BBC scalps, from which the corporation has never recovered. As David Edwards and David Cornwell reported:
In the summer of 2003 the British government launched an awesome flak campaign against the BBC. A year later, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke had all resigned or were sacked. The BBCs director of news, Richard Sambrook was moved sideways to a different post. All of this happened despite the fact that those opposing the war have been overwhelmingly vindicated by events in Iraq.
Edwards, D and Cromwell, D, 2006, ibid. p 8.
Clearly, the BBC has learned its lesson. Again David Cromwell:
“We (have previously) pointed to an edition of BBC Newsnight that was devoted to UK ‘defence’ spending and policy. The BBC’s Gavin Esler introduced and presented the programme from the perspective of government; namely, that: ‘National security is the first duty of government. We will remain a first-rate military power.’ Reflecting, and indeed boosting, state priorities is the default mode of BBC News. The flagship News at Ten on BBC1 demonstrated this perfectly when celebrity news presenter Fiona Bruce, began with the ominous words: ‘A warning from MI5: Britain’s security is threatened on more fronts, in more ways than ever before’. Bruce continued: ‘recent leaks about the extent of Britain’s global surveillance is damaging efforts to stop attacks on the UK. Despite MI5’s warnings, some critics say the public has a right to know if it’s being spied on.’ Bruce then introduced BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera who was standing besuited outside MI5 headquarters, ready to repeat the secret service’s key messages in a simulacrum of journalistic authority. He began on the approved note: ‘Yes, the job of people here at MI5 is to keep the country safe from national security threats, particularly terrorist attacks.’ As ever, the professed upholding of BBC ‘impartiality’ translates in practice to providing the propaganda version of reality.” – David Cromwell: Where Journalism Collides With State ‘Security’: BBC News, MI5 and The Mantra Of ‘Keeping People Safe’
This approach to the uncritical echoing of the words of Power, without question or dissent has been summed up admirably by Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor (2005 -2016), having previously served in a similar post for ITV News (2002-5), in which capacity he wrote about the Iraq war in Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper:
“In the run-up to the conflict, I and many of my colleagues were bombarded with complaints that we were acting as mouthpieces for Mr. Blair. Why, the complainants demanded to know, did we report without question his warning that Saddam was a threat? Hadn’t we read what Scott Ritter had said or Hans Blix? I always replied the same way. It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking…That is all someone in my sort of job can do. (Remember the Last Time You Shouted Like That? I Asked the Spin Doctor, Times, July 16, 2004).” -Cited by Edwards, D and Cromwell, D, 2006, ibid. p 11.
Such articles and attitudes will have burnished the professional reputation that saw his appointment to the BBC a year later. He maintained his professional standards throughout his period as political editor, as those of us in the YES movement have cause to recall in his now infamous mis-reporting of Alex Salmond during the referendum campaign
The Mainstream Media and Public Relations in Support of the Neoliberal Finance State
Related to the mass media is the public relations ‘industry’, invented by corporations in order to impose business interests on public policy, and simultaneously to limit the responsiveness of the political system to the preferences and opinions of ordinary people (See: Miller and Dinan, A Century of Spin, 2008 ). The overall role of public relations and the media is to construct a conceptual apparatus that appeals, seemingly naturally, but contributing subliminally, to apparent intuitions, instincts, values and desires, as well as to the potentialities that seem to accord with what is ‘normal’ in our present social habitat.
For neoliberalism, this social mythology is constructed around the supposed ideals of individual liberty and freedom which are portrayed as the central values of civilization. But these are very limited concepts of freedom in an increasingly savage ‘civilisation’. Our social values, as neoliberal proponents constantly inform us, are threatened by all forms of dictatorship, fascism, and communism – and now Islamism, but also – so goes the discourse – by the state itself, and particularly by any form of state intervention, especially in the economic sphere – now widened to include social services, health and education. This is very clever, completely dishonest – and entirely premeditated and planned.
Scotland Independent: The Media and the Post-Neoliberal Future
The discussion concluded with the panellists inviting the audience to think about the future shape and funding mechanisms of alternative media – not in thrall and at the service of regressive forces and monied interests. The panel pointed up the limitations in areas such as news gathering, investigative reporting, and fact-checking that are highly labour intensive, expensive, and yet a crucial part of the professional journalistic skills that are difficult to replicate in the non-commercial arena. It is clear that if we want to see a successful and thriving alternative to the captive media described above, we will need to find a way to pay for journalist livelihoods that are not dependent on advertisers, the state, or the whims and fancies of rich individuals. The future of an independent Scotland that serves all of her people as equal citizens will depend on it.