We live in an almost entirely mediated world. Increasingly we experience life not as it is lived by us but as it is presented to us in the media; in the corporate media and its bastard child, social media.
The concept of the Press as a Fourth Estate that held the ruling elite to account on behalf of ‘the people’, made sense when it developed across the 17th and 18th Centuries. Then newspapers were not so much ‘businesses’, as autonomous citizen projects to hold government to account – democracy in action. Printing was a business but printing was simply a cost to the newspaper. At the start of the 19th Century there were hundreds of political pamphlets, monographs and newspapers printed every week. There was genuine diversity. By the end of that Century ‘the media’, had become focused into a handful of National professional newspapers, which were expensive to produce and distribute and were owned by wealthy members of the ruling elite. Even by the start of the 20th Century the democratic role of the Fourth Estate was already over.
Yet even today ‘the media’ (professional newspapers, TV, radio) conceptualise themselves as disengaged, objective, observers, merely reporting on a political process being undertaken by others. But even a casual observer of politics today can see that this is not so; the media are not observers or commentators on the political process, they are active participants. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that today politics IS the media representation of it.
Continuously the TV and Radio report political events by referring to how ‘the media’ will react – as if TV and radio are not part of ‘the media’. Thus almost all political stories in the mainstream media are now framed by the question of how the mainstream media will react to the story. This circular, self-serving, narcissistic logic is at the heart of the failures in our democracy.
On Labour Party Facebook forums the issue of how Corbyn’s policies will be represented, or misrepresented, by the media is discussed at least as much the actual policies themselves, and I would argue much more often. Some anti-Corbyneers even admit they support a particular policy ‘in principle’, but that the policy could never be communicated effectively to the electorate because of the right-wing bias in ‘the media’, and thus would ‘lose us votes’, and thus should not be adopted. So for these people it is ‘the media’ that is setting and limiting the political agenda rather than politicians, party members or even the electorate. The question is no longer what policies are acceptable to the party members or the British people, but rather what policies are acceptable to the British media.
Clearly for such people ‘the media’ is not a disinterested observer or reporter, it is an active, not to say determining, agent in the political process. And due to the realities of media ownership, it is also clear that ‘the media’ have for over a century, been the voice of the ruling class, rather than the voice of ‘the people’ holding the ruling class to account.
Indeed, you could argue that the ‘pragmatic’ acceptance of this reality and it’s corollary that ‘the media’ would only accept a Labour Party that did NOT challenge the interests of the ruling class, was the only significant contribution of ‘Blairism’ to political thought in the Labour Party. Blair understood the ‘reality’ that ‘the media’ were active, determining, players in politics and devised a political programme that was acceptable to ‘the media’ and, thus, by extension, acceptable to the ruling class. Hence the rage so many feel at Blair’s ‘betrayal’ of ‘true’ Labour Party values. Blair, may or may not have been guilty of carrying on Thatcher’s neoliberal transformation of Britain, but he consciously and purposefully put forward policies that were not a threat to the ruling class, in order to make the party acceptable to ‘the media’.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, is putting forward a political vision that is absolutely NOT acceptable to the ruling class and, thus, by extension, it is not acceptable to ‘the media’. Thus ‘the media’ have responded with a sneering, ferocity that has surprised even long-term observers and exposed the realities of ‘the media’s’ self-designated role in our democracy as protectors of the status quo and the interests of the rich and powerful.
A related issue is the BBC. The BBC is theoretically independent of the government and commercial advertisers and thus need not represent the interests of the ruling class. In theory at least the BBC is an independent and reliable source of news that helps us as democratic citizens, to make informed political choices.
In reality the Corbyn phenomenon has exposed just how wrapped up in the interests of the ruling class the BBC has become. The reaction of the BBC to the Corbyn phenomenon has not been substantially different from the Daily Mail or The Sun. The BBC has colluded with anti-Corbyneers to undermine Corbyn and in every report on Corbyn the use of descriptive language indicates at best a sneering dismissal of Corbyn and the ideas he represents and at worst a kind of ferocious resentment that Corbyn has so upset the political apple-cart. The BBC as National broadcaster could, and I would argue should, be reporting on Corbyn in a much more even-handed way. It’s not rocket science to avoid using words like ‘extremist’ when describing Corbyn. They seem to have managed pretty well with UKIP? So why aren’t the BBC giving a more ‘objective’ coverage of Corbyn?
(i) Well, most obviously because the senior management at the BBC come from, or have been assimilated into the ruling class. For example the current Director General, Tony Hall, was the son of a bank manager, was educated at two direct grant schools (now independent): King Edward’s School Birmingham and Birkenhead School, before going up to Keble College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He was knighted in 2010 and is now, Baron Hall of Birkenhead. You can’t get much more establishment than that! ‘Nuff said.
(ii) Since the days of Thatcher’s bully-boy Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, UK governments have consistently sought to influence the BBC and to make clear who is in charge and to whom BBC management owe their allegiance to – and it ain’t the public. Blair sucked up to the commercial media because he couldn’t control it, but stamped on the BBC because he could. The ‘sexing up’ scandal and the resignation of Greg Dyke, is an episode that should shame both New Labour and the BBC trustees. As a result of this indirect government pressure the BBC has become reluctant to air programmes that challenge the serving government and over decades a certain type of ‘safe’, ‘moderate’ (read right-wing) and corporate, journalists, producers and managers have prospered at the BBC. This combined with the fact that like Tony Hall they tend to come from a particular class, means that they don’t even really realise the bias because it is just simply part of their common-sense world-view.
(iii) These days very few people have careers spent entirely in the BBC. A successful television news producer or journalist, trained at the BBC, will during a life-long career work for the BBC, C4, ITV, Sky, RT, Al Jazeera and any number of independent producers. Thus ‘the media’ in the broadest sense of the world is far more integrated and for individuals at the BBC there is nothing to be gained in challenging the status quo or gaining a reputation as a ‘leftie’. John Pilger for example wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s media landscape. Thus it is that the influence of powerful ‘media barons’ like Rupert Murdoch can reach deep into an independent institution like the BBC, because if you are a TV journalist today it would be career suicide to piss off Murdoch.
And so it is that the BBC has become simply another voice of the ruling class and just as biased and partisan as any of the commercial media outlets. The BBC is no longer a ‘reliable’ source of news and as a result many of us turn to RT and Al Jazeera – not because we think they are reliable either but because at least we are getting different biased versions of reality that might inform each other.