According to the media we live in a world in which if milk, eggs, red wine and fat don’t kill us a crazed terrorist will. But we’re better off dead anyway because we are going to lose our house and our job because the bankers and our dirty, cheating, thieving, politicians have stolen all our money. Mind you we won’t care much about that because a dirty, paedophile, priest, living in a secret hostel on our street is going to kidnap, fuck and murder our children. But that’s their own fault anyway because they shouldn’t have been outside because the birds in the garden will infect them with a transmuting killer virus and they will die drowning in their own snot. Even if we did survive this lot all we have to look forward to in old age is incontinence, Alzheimer’s and poverty as our pensions are worthless and we won’t be able to afford any nursing care. Is it any wonder we’re all depressed and suicidal! But then “bad news is good news; as they say!
So what is going on here? Is life really this poor, nasty brutal and short, to coin a phrase, or is there some sort of issue around the way the media portrays the world to us? Well, I would argue that the press, or more accurately the media, in Western capitalist societies has become entirely integrated into the entertainment industry and as a result the press and the media are failing as a source of reliable information for electors and thus not fulfilling the democratic functions traditionally ascribed to a free press. As if that wasn’t bad enough they play a significant part in creating the existential anxiety that so distressingly undermines our culture.
Most would agree that a free press is a minimum condition for a free & democratic society in which educated citizens play a significant part in determining the personnel and policies of their government.
Most would also agree that the press can only be regarded as free if it is able to investigate and interrogate public figures and records without undue restraint and is able to publish verifiable facts and diverse opinion, including criticism of the ruling elite, without censorship by the state.
But Reliability is also a crucial factor in a democratic free press. It is conceivable that you could have a press that was unrestrained by the government but habitually lied to it’s readers (The Daily Mail comes to mind). Such a press would clearly not be useful to democratic citizens because they would unknowingly be making electoral decisions based on false witness.
Diversity is also crucial because for a democratic citizen to be genuinely informed they have to be aware of all the competing visions of government that are theoretically available not just those being proposed by the political parties currently dominating the public discourse. For democratic choices to be meaningful the full array of choices has to be available to be examined by all citizens. This requires that the broadest range of opinion that can reasonably be sustained is realistically accessible to all voters.
All of this assumes that a free press recognises and embraces an underlying serious intent; that the owners and creators of the media understand the importance of what they do to the health of democracy and that they have a primary responsibility to the electorate ahead of their shareholders.
So to be instrumentally valuable to citizens a democratic free press not only has to be free from restraint by the state it also has to be reliable, diverse and responsible.
But in the 21st Century the free press is no longer primarily concerned with it’s political role; the press today, free or otherwise, is part of the market driven entertainment industry, part of showbiz, and this shift in focus, and self perception, has created a number of disturbing contradictions that are undermining the legitimacy of the press’s demands to remain unregulated by the state.
That the press and media is indeed part of the entertainment industry is demonstrated by the integrated ownership of music, media, news and entertainment businesses by international entertainment conglomerates such as Viacom, Time-Warner, Disney, Virgin and Rupert Murdoch’s News International, which in the UK owns BSkyB, 18% of ITV, The Sun, The News Of The World, The Times and the Sunday Times.
Quite rationally these companies cross promote products across their divisions, for example publishing music from TV programmes their production companies make, promoting TV programmes they make on the radio stations they own, publicising TV programmes they make by providing celebrity content for magazines they own and so on and so on. This makes perfect business sense
From time immemorial the driving forces of showbiz are spectacle, scandal, sentiment, celebrity and, above all, sex. If the press is part of the entertainment industry it is inevitably driven by the same melodramatic values.
When the BBC was established in the 1930’s there was an attempt to develop a ‘public service’ ethos in the BBC news service that emphasised journalistic values entirely at odds with the entertainment industry. This Reithian approach took the news seriously as a service provided to democratic citizens and thus emphasised values such as objectivity, fairness, truth, dignity and tempered presentation. This approach proved extremely popular as the world went through the depression and WWII and remained the dominant model for all serious journalism in the post-war years.
In the 50’s and 60’s the “news as entertainment” agenda was only really pursued by the tabloid newspapers, most especially the News Of the World, whose nickname as the News Of The Screws just about summed up it’s content.
But as the Seventies turned into the Eighties, the Thatcherite free-marketeers starting characterising the serious intent of public service broadcasters, such as the BBC & ITN and the broadsheet newspapers, as being pompous, patronising and patriarchal. The free market will “give the people what they want”, they cried, and if “the people” want spectacle, scandal, sentiment, celebrity and sex, then by jove they should have it……. And so began the not-so-gradual degradation of the British press from defenders of truth and liberty to pedlars of gossip and pornography.
The free-marketeers suggest that political engagement is a choice like any other consumer choice; that those who wish to seriously engage politically will seek out the niche publications that the market will undoubtedly provide, while the rest of the population can get on with being entertained. The problem here is that for a democracy to have any legitimacy political engagement needs to be widespread. The Reithian values of public broadcasting and the serious intent of the broadsheet newspapers acknowledged this, recognising that part of their job was to take the democratic political rights and obligations of their audience seriously and to provide reliable and accessible political information in the mainstream – rather than in niche magazines, satellite channels or websites.
On British Television this tabloidization is ubiquitous; In the last 20 years we have seen a complete transformation in the agenda of television documentaries from a focus on serious social and political subjects to a fascination with so-called reality TV which is actually a mechanism for transforming otherwise ordinary people into instant, and instantly disposable, celebrities which can then be exploited across the media. Panorama is now the only serious documentary strand in prime-time on BBC1 and its been reduced to 30 minutes. Ironically the sort of challenging documentaries the BBC used to produce are now being produced independently for cinema release but now whereas there would have been several a week on the BBC we get maybe 2 a year on DVD
On the news itself items are clearly chosen as much for their “entertainment” value as their economic, social and political importance. Back in the day News At Ten used to end with a light hearted “And finally” item; today the entire TV news broadcast is full of such items, along with the latest exploits of the X Factor judges!
The proliferation of broadsheet newspaper supplements is an indication of the nature of this process, as the actual newspaper becomes just a tiny part of an ever-growing package of entertainment content. Even when politics is covered it is almost always in terms of the politician as celebrity. Thus appearance and delivery are far more important than content
Tabloidisation inevitably trivialises because it treats news stories as entertainment first. It’s as if the media would like a 9/11 everyday – great pictures, tragedy and courage in equal measure – a real-life melodrama!
News has to be spectacular to get on the news but like pornography the thrill is soon gone and the extremity has to be increased to feed the addiction. This leads to a form of escalating hystericism whereby a health scare can’t just be about health, it has to endanger the species, if not life on earth; a Muslim preacher has to be an extremist; anybody dealing with children has to be a paedophile;
This effect is exacerbated by the fact that advertising funds all UK press and media, apart from the BBC. In the context of this discussion this is important because advertising’s job is to make us unhappy. The psychological logic of advertising is to make us want something we currently don’t have. This necessarily entails making us unhappy with what we have now. This feeds the general underlying anxiety felt by many in the West but there are those who argue that the fear and anxiety generated by the media’s portrayal of the “news” also serves the advertisers purpose by encouraging us to make “comfort” purchases, to use shopping as a form of anxiety relieving therapy.
Would an aspiring dictator need to fear our celebrity-obsessed commercial press and media? In China it is not Rupert Murdoch’s Asian Star network that is banned it is the BBC. Similarly in Zimbabwe and Iran. These dictatorial regimes know they have nothing to fear from free-market“ news as entertainment” but everything to fear from a on-commercial broadcaster still hanging on, by the skin of it’s teeth, to the Reithian values of objectivity, fairness, truth, dignity and tempered presentation.
The power of the BBC is that it is structurally able to resist undue influence from both commercial and political forces. It is this independence that makes it such a reliable source of information
If the dictators of the world can recognise the threat to their regimes posed by such a serious media organisation, independent of capital and politicians, speaking truth to power, then how can we in a supposedly democratic country not recognise it’s value?
The attack on “public service” values in our media has undermined the vital and serious democratic function of journalism in our society and is yet another example of how the marketisation of our post-war welfare state reduces our status as informed democratic citizens to that of manipulated consumers.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society