From the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why are high house prices and high profits considered good news?
We are all used to hearing from the TV or radio that what we are about to experience is the ‘news’. Preceded by a little tune supposed to promote gravitas and/or imply the very latest fast technological process of news gathering we are presented with a sober middle-class gent or couple sporting sensible hair, grey suits and dazzling white smiles. A stranger to our culture may be very surprised that whichever channel is chosen the content of the news is almost identical. Indeed the choice of headlines is nearly always the same; a little odd considering that in this country we have over 100 digital channels! What can be the reason for such a strange phenomena? Could it be that there is total unanimity concerning what is important in human behaviour (this would be the only example of such total agreement within our species) or is there some agenda shared by those who own and operate our media?
It would be fair to say that the mainstream media in this country (TV, radio and newspapers) are owned by a tiny minority. Socialists have always maintained that the media’s obsessions reflect those of the ruling class who own them. The fact that high house prices and high profits are considered good news when it is the majority who are exploited even more as a result gives you an idea of the values shared by the owners of the media. The main disagreements (at least within the newspapers) concern the different commercial interests within the owning class – the dreary and unending European Union debate being an obvious example.
Another element that is thought to contribute to the ‘news’ is topicality – the story should reflect a perspective on a contemporary value or popular obsession. For our general readers it is obviously important that our analysis should begin with a reflection on contemporary events. However part of that analysis for us is a proof of the illusion of novelty/topicality of events within the anachronistic culture of capitalism.
A friend of mine has recently given up his subscription to a newspaper on the grounds that it merely repeats the same old propaganda values whatever the story. This is the essence of ‘the news’ in today’s media. It seeks only to find different stories to ‘prove’ its own value system. The ‘credit crunch’ is either the result of greedy bankers or lack of government supervision of the financial services. It could never be a proof of the instability and irrational nature of capitalism itself.
There arises an inevitable contradiction within journalism between the observation of change and its reporting when restricted by the use of reactionary values and language. It is the nature of language to struggle to find new concepts and metaphors to describe the changing world we live in. When change is accelerated during a revolutionary period this tension can create linguistic confusion and creativity (Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down illustrates this wonderfully using examples from the English Revolution).
It is important to emphasise that propaganda is not always consciously produced by a conspiracy of journalists and press barons. I remember Michael Parkinson saying that he never experienced owner/editorial interference during his journalistic career. This, of course, merely emphasises the care taken to employ only political ‘fellow travellers’ rather than proof of the non-propagandist nature of the media. Within the commercial media the usual worker and owner tension can destroy real journalism under the profit and propaganda imperatives of our authoritarian culture.
What is really corrosive to good journalism is to be completely unaware of the political bias that is inherent in any interpretation of events (the news). Of course this is to give the benefit of the doubt to journalists and not to accuse them of downright lies. My father once found himself, in his role as a union shop steward, in the centre of a local news story. After an interview he gave to a journalist he was outraged by what was subsequently printed. This was, in part, testament to his political naivety but it also emphasises that what is printed must fit within the propaganda value of ‘the story’ even if this necessitates downright lies.
What would qualify as news for a future socialist media? Of course when we are in a position to produce stories for the mass media the world will begin to be a very different place. Reporting will surely emphasise the relationship between the rising political awareness of the population and the activities this provokes. Presumably what remains of the present media will portray the changing political landscape as a disaster for the world and everyone in it. A socialist media will initially have to counter this increasingly hysterical propaganda. Then the production of a forum for debate will become ever more important as the need for information to make democratic decisions becomes vital.
As the need to counter reactionary propaganda recedes then the media will transform itself into a vehicle of information and entertainment. Because the need for ‘escapist’ entertainment will also recede I suspect a different, possibly more ‘mature’ kind of fiction will replace it. I hope to live to see a world where fictional characters deal with important political dilemmas rather than personal and romantic ones. And what of sports? I hear the reader say fearfully. Perhaps, at last, competition between those who wish to compete will be confined to the sports arena where they belong. By this time your writer will be enjoying a cricket game in Jamaica in his role as your Caribbean sports reporter (editors permitting).