“The most fundamentally dangerous thing about the press in the ‘liberal-Western world’ is the assumption of neutrality.”
This article originally appeared at Off Guardian
When we digest the news in the UK, whether it be on the TV, radio or in the newspapers, the authenticity of what we’re being told is rarely questioned. The underlying assumption within western society is that we live in a free world, and we therefore have unlimited access to knowledge. We have a ‘free press’, or at least this is what we are led to believe.
The notion of a free press is something that under pins western society. The #JeSuisCharlie campaign reinforced the way in which freedom of speech is supposedly a crucial facet of western civilization. This was not without glaring hypocrisies as some of the world’s worst oppressors of freedom of speech were trotted out for a cheap photo opportunity in Paris. The idea of freedom of speech and a free press is certainly something that deserves far more scrutiny in the western world.
Too often “our” media outlets are deemed to be fair, free and acting in our best interests. This is in stark contrast to the way in which non-western media, or the media of those who are not allied to Western European states or America, are portrayed. For example, RT is often discredited as being a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. But if we watch the BBC, the state broadcaster here in Britain, we assume that we’re being told the whole story. In reality RT and the BBC are essentially cut from the same cloth though.
The BBC and other British news outlets (the same is true of their American counter-parts) help to create a ‘we are the good guys’ narrative. This narrative plays an important role in shaping the public opinion about British foreign policy initiatives, rather than creating a fair and open debate. Rarely does the mainstream media (outside of niche blogs, or in the far corners of comment sections of the Guardian) critique British foreign policy, or highlight the gross human rights abuses. The BBC is so supportive of the status quo that people took to the streets to protest their coverage of the Scottish referendum (an issue that all major parties also happened to agree upon).
Whilst there is differing opinion within the blog sections of the websites such as Comment is Free or Independent Voices, the mainstream message tends to be very similar. The mass support for the Iraq war in 2003 from all of the UK papers is a clear example of this collusion with the state. Such collusion has been highlighted time and time again by organisations like Media Lens. Media Lens founders David Edwards and David Cromwell demonstrated this back in 2004 in an op-ed for The Guardian. The ‘free press’ was hardly hot on the heels of the myths trotted out by the George Bush and Tony Blair governments. Cromwell and Edwards concluded ”We would argue that the media’s failure on Iraq was not really a failure at all, but rather a classic product of “balanced” professional journalism.” It’s difficult to disagree.
The media were equally uncritical of the government’s line on the potential interventions in Syria and Libya. Again, like with Iraq, despite some papers being allegedly liberal and others more conservative, there was a general consensus on the issues, which supported the government agenda. It seemed like a convenient consensus. The Guardian, allegedly left leaning, can be described as being pro-war.
The propaganda role of the Western ‘free press’ was analysed by Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman in the ground breaking ‘Manufacturing Consent.’ Their book states that US media outlets “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”. The media’s consensus over key issues and closeness to the accepted government line is a clear example of such system-supportive propaganda.
Also crucial to manufacturing consent is the consolidation of media outlets in the hands of a few. In the UK this is clearly a major problem, which again brings into question how free the press is. The influence of Rupert Murdoch is probably the clearest example of how ‘not free’ the press is in the UK. The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The Sun on Sunday newspapers are all owned by Murdoch affiliated News Corp. News Corp also part owns the Press Association and 21st Century Fox, another Murdoch affiliated organisation, owns Sky TV.
Another criteria set out by Chomsky and Herman relates to the control advertisers have over the press. The bulk of the papers in the UK receive financing through advertising. With new forms of digital media taking over, this has become even more prevalent with things such as native advertising. The media needs financing to exist, which means many media outlets are reliant and often controlled by corporations. This is one reason why Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph. Oborne noted: ‘It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.” Specifically he commented on how he was unable to report on issues- such as those relating to HSBC- that were seen to conflict with the interests of their advertisers.
Even outside of advertising, most news outlets will collude on the key issues, clouding the public debate. The mis-information on immigration is a good example of this, as is the issue of Scottish independence (in fact one could go on forever listing examples of media collusion, even with regards to the so called liberal papers such as The Guardian).
The crux of it is that there is no such thing as impartial news. That’s a fact of life. Everyone is pushing their own agenda and in the case of the British press that happens to be a pro-corporate, pro-war agenda. It’s important for people to take a step back and stop assuming that what they are being told is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is not. The most fundamentally dangerous thing about the press in the UK and the ‘liberal-Western world’ as a whole is the assumption of neutrality, objectiveness and freedom that goes with it. This is part of the propaganda model that contributes to the idea that we are the good guys.