Hackgate: A triumph for the liberal media?
David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of Medialens. They spoke with NLP’s Edward Lewis about the significance of the News International scandal and its likely implications for the British media.
You write about the depredations of the corporate media, viewing them as forming a system of propaganda on behalf of political and economic elites. Put the current revelations about phone hacking in context – how do they compare with other abuses perpetrated by the British media? Or do you believe it is crass to make such comparisons?
It’s not that the corporate media perpetrates abuses – it is the propaganda arm of a corporate system that systematically subordinates the vast majority of people to maximised profit. Human society is in thrall to a system of control that constantly works to stifle freedom of thought and expression in individuals and in nations seeking independence and genuine democracy. The environment is in thrall to the same self-blinded system that places maximisation of profits above the need to respond to threats to global survival. Other consequences include an on-going state of Permanent War for human and natural resources, with literally millions of dead over decades, the widespread use of torture, economic strangulation, terror and so on.
Obviously, compared to crimes on this scale, the phone hacking scandal is a pretty minor issue (we can consider what Iraqis, for example – victims of a much more malignant expression of Western media corruption - would make of it). Noam Chomsky has pointed out that big business is not in favour of corruption – it is inefficient, chaotic, costly to business. Also, elites do not want to live in a police state; they don’t want to risk falling victim to corrupt police, criminal gangs, tyrants. So although phone hacking is a relatively small example of media toxicity, it is an important issue for elites with the power to defend themselves.
Some have claimed that the blow struck to the Murdoch empire by recent events will free politicians to pursue more progressive policies, which they have been deterred from doing hitherto. Do you see this as a likely prospect?
Murdoch’s empire is only one part of a media system that fights progressive policies tooth and nail. Recall that party politics is in effect owned by corporate and other establishment centres of power – parties and politicians are selected and supported because they are both system-supportive and good at selling the illusion of democracy (Clinton, Blair and Obama are prime examples). For the most part, the three main parties have interchangeable policies on key issues – even the complete collapse of the Murdoch empire would do little or nothing to change that.
If Murdoch’s grip really were broken, then politicians might have less reason to fear that their personal peccadilloes would be splashed across the Murdoch press. But other internal and external political and economic constraints on political freedom of actions would remain absolutely in place. Politicians will only pursue progressive policies if they are put under significant public pressure to do so; not because the News of the World has closed.
A crucial part of your view that the media are subservient to elite power is that those which appear to be the most critical, such as the Guardian, actually tend to confine their dissent within boundaries that are acceptable to the powerful. But in this case the Guardian has led investigations that have been threatening not just to the corporate empire of Murdoch but also to the upper echelons of the police and political establishment. Doesn’t this undermine your view that the British liberal media are really ‘guardians of power’?
It’s true that the Guardian has produced good journalism exposing some of the corrupt links between News International, the police and politics. But as noted above, big business does not favour corruption, and elites do not want to live in a police state. Watergate was another example where elite interests defended themselves against a section of elite power that had overstepped the mark. Did the Watergate exposures indicate that the US press were not ‘guardians of power’? Obviously not. In fact the reverse is true – the same US press completely ignored political attacks against left-wing political parties and movements by the same people responsible for Watergate.
It makes good business sense to expose the crimes of media competitors (as at Nuremberg, preferably crimes unique to the enemy). News International’s The Times and Sunday Times are, after all, in the same ‘quality press’ market as the Guardian and the Observer. Weakening Murdoch’s grip on the UK benefits other media, including the Guardian/Observer. The Guardian’s scoops have helped bolster its reputation for investigative journalism, its brand, at a time when it is losing money and cutting staff.
The notion that a more honest media can emerge from this, one capable of systematically challenging official propaganda is absurd. The same structural constraints ensuring propaganda services on behalf of elite state-corporate interests remain in place. Downplaying or overlooking these constraints, with talk of a ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for journalists and a ‘new manifesto for media ethics’, is about repairing the appearance rather than the reality.
The Guardian has nothing at all to say about the structural corruption described in our first answer above. For example, the fact that the political system does not just have corrupt links with a media empire, but is to all intents and purposes owned by elite interests. Who can deny that Blair transformed the Labour party into a second Business Party, a second Tory party, thus removing any semblance of democratic choice? And yet the Guardian has never identified this blindingly obvious corruption of the political system as a fit topic for discussion. John Pilger put it well:
‘[T]he truth is, Britain’s system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on News International alone, but on the Mail and the Guardian and the BBC, perhaps the most influential of all. All share a corporate monoculture that sets the agenda of the “news”, defines acceptable politics by maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of “free speech”. This will be strengthened by the illusion that a “bad apple” has been “rooted out”.’
Thus, even if Murdoch’s empire were to collapse, there would still be no ‘free press’, no responsible corporate news agenda and no brave new world of media democracy. For these to take root, the stranglehold of corporate media and corporate politics needs to be broken. And that will only happen when enough people demand change.
Your comments here seem somewhat exaggerated. You claim that the Guardian has ‘never identified’ the fact that democratic choice has been undermined by the fact that the Labour Party has been transformed into a ‘second Business Party’. But there are countless articles in which Seamus Milne, George Monbiot and others have critiqued New Labour in precisely these terms. Exposing the ways in which the Guardian reinforces narratives that serve corporate power is surely a crucial task, but isn’t your work on that front undermined by hyperbole?
Well let's take a look at one of your examples. Seamus Milne does make oblique references to “the appeasement of corporate muscle”, to the fact that bankers and businessmen “have called the shots”, to “links between government and business”, and so on. But we were talking about openly stating and exploring the fact that “the political system does not just have corrupt links with a media empire, but is to all intents and purposes owned by elite interests… thus removing any semblance of democratic choice?” Milne hints in this direction, but that’s all. And he is the Guardian’s chief ‘dissident’ figleaf – he is as good as it gets (which is why you cited him).
A serious discussion of the problem would also involve detailed analysis of exactly how corporate power has taken over the major political parties in both Britain and the US. This would be used as a framework for reporting, for example election coverage. It would be backed up by serious investigation of the people, groups and finances involved, exploring motives and goals. How was the Labour party taken over, bought up and retained by establishment power? How are non-corporate friendly parties prevented from arising and achieving influence? What has been the media role in facilitating and hiding this destruction of democracy from the public?
But in fact, aside from vague gesturing in the direction of the truth from one or two heavily compromised ‘dissidents’, the Guardian devotes simply huge resources to presenting elections as important, meaningful choices, rather than as a fraud perpetrated on a nation essentially under corporate occupation (corporations being, of course, tyrannical systems of power). The level of Guardian complicity was summed up in 2005 when its editors actually urged voters to vote for Blair despite his massive war crimes in Iraq: “We believe that Mr Blair should be re-elected to lead Labour into a third term this week.”
The Guardian could have focused on exposing Blair’s role in destroying democracy by transforming Labour into another Tory party. Instead it urged readers actually to vote for him! That really said it all.
There is now discussion in the mainstream about a variety of media reforms, notably replacing the Press Complaints Commission and, more ambitiously, diversifying the ownership of the British media to prevent power being as concentrated as it currently is in the hands of News International. What is your view of these proposals?
At least the mood has been lightened somewhat by the hypocritical (but required) political attacks on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It’s funny because, while Cameron and co are demanding it be scrapped, it is supposed to be independent and so, in theory, cannot be scrapped on government orders. In fact it is not independent – it is a poodle - and it will be scrapped or radically ‘reformed’. Bush and Blair were scrapped and replaced when their brands became irredeemably tarnished, when people began to see through the illusion. The tarnished PCC brand will also be scrapped and a new illusion will be put in place.
The “ownership of the British media” has always been a red herring. The problem is not that the media is owned by this or that corporate power, but that it is corporate power.
Originally published on NLP. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.