Media matter: a green view

The reputation of the media has seldom been lower thanks to revelations about press intrusion, phone hacking, phone-in rip-offs, trivialisation, systemic bias and so forth, even turning a blind eye to sex crimes within their own industry. Such things reveal an industry that is deeply sick. Yet a healthy media are central to the health of democracy.

Certainly developments such as adverse climate change are more serious and more urgent than the wrong-doing of Murdoch and his minions such as Rebekah Brooks. Even in terms of that scandal itself, the track record of the Metropolitan police is far more worrying than that of gutter journalists and editors. [It might be noted here that, though the police now claim that they were too preoccupied by the threat from al-Qaeda to address the issue of phone hacking, they still found the political will and resources to hound ‘climate’ activists and the like]

Yet the News Corporation affair does matter: healthy media are critical to the flow of information and serious debate necessary if the various threats to our collective future are to be properly addressed. A comparison of, say, the Sunday Times in the days when it led the crusade over thalidomide and the paper it became under Murdoch’s subsequent ownership demonstrates the malign effect his ilk have had on the media.

Defend the BBC!

Worse, the war waged by Murdoch and especially his son, the now widely discredited James, against the BBC has threatened a further dumbing down. For all its failings, public service TV and radio in Britain since the founding of the BBC back in the 1920s have set remarkably high standards, widely recognised across the globe. This was certainly true during World War 2 and remains largely the case today.

The advent of commercial TV in the UK, then radio, did initiate a race downwards, with more and more American imports and imitations such as loudmouth ‘shock jocks’. So-called ‘reality TV’ plumbed new depths but, generally, the BBC services maintained an unrivalled blend of choice, quality and reliability (spend a night in an American motel zapping channels and you will visit a multi-channel hell, HBO’s better offerings decidedly the exception to the vulgar and stupefying rule).

So the BBC has to be defended against threats posed by News Corporation and other such conglomerates. Indeed there is an overwhelming case for breaking up such empires. The furore over Murdoch’s hacks and their misdeeds should not take attention away from the poisonous outpourings of groups like the Daily Mail and General Trust or Northern and Shell (Daily Express, OK!, Television X and other trash). The expansion of such organisation in the event of further crises within the Murdoch empire would scarcely improve the breadth, depth and integrity of the media in Britain.

Miscommunication

There has been widespread condemnation of the phone hackers in particular and, more generally, of over-mighty media barons like Murdoch. Very, very belatedly, the Labour leadership has begun to make noises about the matter. Radical media critics like Noam Chomsky have long been indicting the bias of Fox TV and similar appendages of media conglomerates such as News Corporation. This begs the question of what stance the Greens might take in the broader debate about the media in society.

For a start, Greens would join with ‘libertarians’ in the defence of free debate, which, in part, depends on a diversity of opinion. It is very alarming that whilst the Murdoch affair was hogging the headlines, a dangerous development took place. It was the proposal from Professor Steve Jones that the BBC should exclude certain ‘unscientific’ points of view.

Jones included climate change ‘denialists’. They might indeed be talking nonsense. Both common sense and the scientific consensus suggest that adverse changes are underway and that they are largely human-driven. Yet, in such tremendously complex processes, there is always the possibility that some sceptics might just have a point. Certainly the notion that a ‘low carbon economy’ is the solution is very misleading since it would not stop and indeed, if pursued in isolation, might even aggravate other ecological threats. In any case it is better to deal with their objections openly rather than drive them underground, something that might actually boost their appeal in some quarters.

Jones also included opposition to genetic engineering especially with regards to genetically modified crops, held out by some as the solution for food shortages. In fact there are substantial objections to this technology. Moreover the ‘scientific consensus’ has been wrong at many moments in history (see, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 150 Years of Expert Medical Advice to Women)

Scientists are not always free from tunnel vision and there is no guarantee that they are taking into proper account possible connections and interactions beyond that fragment of reality they may be studying. Only on-going debate can limit the dangers of reductionist thinking. It might be remembered that many ‘intelligent’ people thought that individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin had lost their senses. So it is vital to keep the debate open, even if dissidents from the dominant view seem utterly mistaken.

Unearthly Consensus

There is, however, deeper ideological agreement right across print and broadcast media. Take, for example, discussion in the news about the UK economy and specifically its growth rate. There is almost unanimous reportage across the media that growth is far too low and what is needed was a stimulus to ‘get the economy going’. Yet such growth would accelerate the descent into climate chaos and aggravate every other ecological ill, with the inevitable result that human economy would collapse.

This has been shown in numerous studies (e.g. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth and Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth; see also: http://steadystate.org/). Indeed John Stuart Mill outlined the need for a ‘steady-state economy’ back in 1848. Yet reporters and commentators (Will Hutton, Robert Peston etc) steadfastly stick to manifestly bankrupt thinking about the economy and its ecological underpinnings.

Media disconnection from Earthly reality is even more pronounced when it comes to overpopulation. There is a deathly silence about the matter. Indeed there is often a marked pro-natalism. Thus British tabloid newspapers greeted the birth of the 20th child in early 1999 to a Mrs Pridham, Britain’s current record holder as a matter of great joy. The Guardian gave a story about the Turner family of Oxfordshire (13 children) the headline of “the more the merrier”.

Obituaries of celebrity population boomers normally talk in terms of “lust for life” (the quote is taken from a piece on late actor Anthony Quinn, who fathered his 11th child at the age of 78). Conversely lack of children is bemoaned. So when the Euro crisis moved to Italy in July 2011, the country’s economic woes were widely blamed on a “birth dearth”.

To some extent, such ecological blinkers stem from the fact that the media share a failure across society to think ecologically. However there are also intrinsic biases in the very nature of mass communication technologies that also cause such distorted coverage in both factual and entertainment media. It is something that only a handful of really radical thinkers like Jerry Mander and Neil Postman have explored (to be fair it is worth studying the fake populism in contemporary media, to which Tory MP George Walden’s The New Elites is a surprisingly stimulating guide).

There is an inherent tendency, especially in daily media such as newspapers, radio and TV news, to focus on discrete events, rather than underlying processes. Spectacular accidents like oil spills match media production routines and news flows much more than the slow drip of environmental degradation (most oil pollution actually being from routine drips and dumping). One result is that the ecological crisis is widely perceived in a narrow and one-sided way, as a problem of pollution, ignoring the many other ways in which the Earth’s life-support systems are being eroded.

Furthermore, to fill airtime and column inches, the media not only build up issues in exaggerated ways but then, to get a second bite of ‘the apple’, knock them back down again, perhaps by spotlighting some dissenting voice, again out of all proportion to the merits of the case.

Many ecological issues, especially at the level of values and intrinsic importance, translate badly, especially to media dominated by images and simple sound bites. Pictures of, say, an undisturbed seashore make for less than gripping TV and film compared to dramatic shots of beach buggies and surf boarders. A huge dam tends to look better on screen than a quiet river scene, its costs not that immediately obvious.

Impacts

The effects of the media on their readers, viewers and listeners, however, need more careful consideration than is common. Certainly they should not be ignored. The media not only influence what issues count as society’s ‘agenda’ but also frame the way items on it are discussed. They play a part in defining what is ‘normal’ (e.g. consumerism) and what is ‘deviant’ (e.g. ‘Luddite’ opponents of some new technology). They can shape fashion, diet and the very language we speak (“oh my god” being but one such media ‘gift’ to everyday English thanks to you-know-what, not to forget the polluted ‘language’ of Gangsta Rap).

Media effects should not, however, be exaggerated. On balance, the media tend to reflect rather than shape public opinion. Common sense also suggests that press barons, film producers, TV managers and the like will deliver what appeals to potential audiences simply to boost sales and rating figures. Sadly, large sections of the public prefer to read salacious gossip about celebrities or watch Top Gear. They don’t want reports about ecology, economics or serious social and cultural matters. Indeed the media routinely receive lots of complaints about too much ‘bad’ news, instead of more cheerful matter.

This begs the question why businesses spend so much on advertising if the media have only limited impacts. Part of the reason is defensive, with adverts commissioned because rivals are splashing out. Normally, it is more a matter of persuading consumers to change brands than a manufacturing of new ‘needs’ out of thin air. Plenty of advertising campaigns, not least the marketing of new movies, flop or are even counter-productive (most famously the ‘Strand’ cigarette marketing).

Audiences tend to pay attention to what they want and interpret what they receive in terms of the own mindset. So, apparently, a majority of readers of that infamous Sun front page attacking Labour leader Neil Kinnock (above) actually went and, contrary to the paper’s ‘instructions’, voted… Labour. During the Falklands War, some 25-33% of the public continued to oppose the campaign despite near unanimity across the media in its favour. In totalitarian regimes like the USSR and Nazi Germany, large numbers persisted in disbelieving what intense and pervasive government propaganda was telling them.

The media, not least advertising, tend to be most influential when they are connecting to existing hopes, fears and general attitudes within their audiences. So they tend to reinforce rather than create beliefs and specific opinions.

The news can certainly be very selective. Yet there are many factors, other than bias and malice, at work: time constraints, a perceived need for balance between different kinds of news stories, availability of suitable photos/film footage, competition from other stories, suitable fit with the news production cycle of a station/newspaper… Certainly Greens should not rubbish the average reporter and other media personnel: it is often unfair and indeed rather counter-productive

It is a fact of life that conflict is more interesting than absence of strife. So days lost to strikes will be over-reported at the expense of days of normal working. Similarly, easily explained one-off stories about things that affect a lot of people will drive out ones lacking such qualities. So a rail strike will be reported rather than years of mismanagement of the railways. There is not necessarily an anti-union conspiracy here.

In any case, for all the (justified) accusations of ownership over-concentration, partiality and indeed downright censorship, there is still a surprising degree of diversity in the media. After all, it is easy to buy books by media critics such as Noam Chomsky or see ‘oppositional’ films by the likes of Michael Moore. Tony Benn has regularly appeared on TV and radio. The Mirror gave much space to both Paul Foot and John Pilger. Yes there are plenty of counter-examples but crude black-and-white stereotypes discredit our overall arguments.

Too much, too fast

There are a much deeper and more serious problems inherent in contemporary media technology, ones independent of actual ownership, to which Marshall McLuhan famously referred when he said that the “medium is the message” (i.e. not its content). These flaws will still be there even if conglomerates like News Corporation were to be broken up (certainly causes nonetheless worth fighting!).

For a start, the sheer quantity of airtime to be filled in round the clock broadcasting leads to a loss of quality, with endless repeats, cheap quiz and chat shows as well as yet more imports from the USA. Even a well-funded public broadcasting system would find it hard to fill such lengthy schedules with high quality programming.

A more serious concern is a decrease in average attention spans, a problem which can be laid at the door of both TV and computers, with their relentless barrage of fast-changing screen shots, shifting camera angles and special effects. [See the work of Baroness Greenfield]. It creates real problems for anyone with complex and lengthy ‘messages’ like the Greens.

At the same time, development like ‘rolling news’ TV, emails and blogging encourage knee-jerk reactions, at the expense of proper investigation and reflection. The anonymity of much ‘new media’ also seems to be inciting often vicious rudeness. Across the so-called ‘blogosphere’ and postings on the Facebook ‘wall’, the utterly inane competes with the innately stupid. Social networking is perhaps more a case of social nitwitting. There is indeed much unjustified hype about the progressive potential about such ‘new media’.[i]

The media regulator Ofcom suggests that the average person in the UK spends 7 hours a day watching TV, surfing the net and using their mobile phones. Actually the total usage is more since often they are ‘multi-tasking’, which, in effect, means they are not really paying that much attention to particular things. How often does one see people in company fiddling with their mobile phones when they are supposedly ’socialising’?

True, the media may spotlight issues such as famine and stimulate flurries of concern. Yet even the best coverage seems to produce few long-lasting changes amongst its audiences. Couch potatoes are perhaps not the stuff of real social change. As McLuhan realised, if people are glued to a TV box or computer console, they are effectively immobilised, more a recipe for inaction than active involvement in real struggle in the outside world. Perhaps it is symptomatic of such problems that the outrage of the British public over scandals like bankers’ bonuses and the like has seemed so short-lived.

Finally, outrage at Murdoch and co should never be allowed to disguise the fact that millions actually like what News Corporation and its ilk offer. No-one is forced to consume their products. Too often radical movements blame their lack of progress on the media, not honestly facing the fact that many people – at present – simply don’t want what Greens and other radical critics of society offer. It is a harsh reality that cannot be ducked.

So when the dust has died down on ‘Hackergate’, Greens need to pose a lot more questions about the role of the mass communication in society and look to a really radical reform of not just ownership of the media. We ought to be asking whether, there is a media surfeit – frequency, speed and volume – and whether ‘less’ might really be more.

[i] for a corrective view, see: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=722 as well as Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Illusion and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur

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