Friday, September 19, 2014

The Real Crimes of the Mass Media (2011)

Editorial from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Very many disgusting crimes have been exposed in the phone-hacking scandal that eventually brought down the News of the World newspaper. But what really turns socialist stomachs is not so much the illegal excesses, vile as they are, but the bog-standard journalism that has as a result been defended and praised with such sanctimony in the other papers. It is well known, to anyone paying attention, that the press passes over the vastly more serious crimes of state power with silence. And the silence is a lie.

To be a truly effective liar, it is essential that you come to believe your own bullshit. So we have had the spectacle of NotW journalists defending themselves on the basis that it is necessary to peddle propaganda, lies and gossip to fund the truly great investigative journalism that also goes on. David Aaronovitch, writing for the Times (7 July), also swallows this argument in the name of accepting ‘reality’, as all grown-ups must of course do. In other words, truth-telling heroes, and Aaronovitch modestly includes himself among their number, must save their souls by supporting efforts to rein in the excesses, whilst apologetically defending the general principle of business as usual.

The truth is that the main job of tabloid newspapers is not to report the facts to a concerned, democratic citizenry, but to make profits. The working class generally has little interest in state policy decisions because they feel that they have no real say over it anyway. And they feel that not because they’re stupid but because it’s true. To make profits, therefore, the tabloids have to appeal to something the working class in general is interested in: sex, say, or football. 

The same general principle applies to the liberal, so-called ‘serious’ newspapers, except they have to deal with a different audience: ‘middle-class’ types who believe that their careers and what they think is of some consequence. Of course, in a democracy, it is of some consequence: they have to be educated to accept capitalism and profit-making and ruling class power as an inevitable part of ‘reality’. That’s where Aaronovitch and his ilk do such an impressive job.

If you want something approaching the truth, turn instead to the newspapers addressed to the ruling class. These are better sources because the ruling class needs reliable information about the world so it can make suitable investment decisions. So, Martin Wolf for example, writing on the Financial Times website (14 July), blandly takes to be a matter of fact and plain common sense what the Aaronovitches and tabloid hacks of this world are obliged to dismiss as paranoid conspiracy theory. And this is that the media are businesses whose job is not just to make profits, but to mould public opinion. But it is intolerable for business in general if any one dictator should come to wield decisive influence. Wolf gives the example of Murdoch’s Fox network in America, which has “distorted” public opinion so much as to give credence to “rightwing populism” – which threatens to put state power in the hands of ideology rather than true business interests. 

Of course, from our point of view, it was equally intolerable that Murdoch should so influence public opinion as to build support for wars, from the Falklands to Afghanistan, and opposition to the class struggle, from the 1980s miners’ strike to the most recent teachers’ strike. But on these issues, the loud clamour over hacked phones in the mass media returns once again to a respectful silence.