Meejit 05-04-2007

So Sue me; Cooking the history books; Amazing Anschutz

So Sue me

Last month's Meejit column, in which I wondered – partly in light of Village's own well publicised struggles – if the “free market” should always be regarded as the best arbiter of print-journalistic survival, and even cited a Norwegian alternative model, was a bit of a deliberate invitation to a sneer, to be perfectly honest.

And luckily for all concerned, the Sunday Times took the bait, in the form of its charming “Sue Denham” column. (I've often wondered how the newspaper's longstanding delight with that column's witty name endures the existence of a Supreme Court justice with the same moniker. I tell you, if there is ever so much as a Senator Meejit there's no way Village will let this title carry on – it's been lucky to last this long.)
It is generally the case that if you ask if the way things are done in the here and now is actually the best way that nature and society could possibly ordain, then you're likely to get sneered at, at the very least. And that goes double in journalism, of all professions the most stultifying repository of conventional wisdom and status-quo-worshipping entropy, all the worse because it so often disguises itself in the gaudy garb of cultural iconoclasm.

It's not that journalists are particularly dim; just that they've got jobs to do, and one easy-and-quiet-and-latent part of that job is submerging the complex economic and ideological foundations on which the industry rests so that they're not normally seen. One of the many great things for me about moving on from being a work-a-day hack to the academic life, studying, for example the history of the media or its international manifestations, is the discovery that, hey, it's not always and everywhere regarded as the case that the highest professional vocation consists of, say, penning pseudonymous sneers for Rupert Murdoch.



Cooking the history books

In March, for example, I was fortunate enough to be hearing and giving lectures on press history in various parts of the former Soviet Union. Funny enough, students and journalists in that neck of the woods seem quite keenly aware of the economic/ideological building blocks of the media, and they know too that those foundations are subject to shifting as well as settling.

Among journalism students there, it probably helps that they study the history of the press for about five years; it also helps that they and their teachers have seen everything change in the last two decades. Those changes, drastic though they were, now see a dreadful media (albeit differently dreadful from the Soviet version) resting very obviously on the society's new corrupt “free market” power structure.

It has been intriguing to see Conor Sweeney's reports from Moscow in the Irish Times seem to grow increasingly historically conscious as he spends more time there, as well as more conscious of the thinness of the veneer of wealth that lies over the place. (Ireland's thicker veneer seems largely to defy journalistic penetration, at least by the local media, now obsessed with election tax-cut pledges.)

However, historical consciousness seems by definition to be problematic in most Western journalism. How else to explain, for example, the Irish Times magazine, a few weeks back, devoting several bright pages to the glorious story of the Shelbourne Hotel, and asserting that “the Constitution... Bunreacht na hÉireann” was penned there by Michael Collins and his committee in 1922. Maybe this was simply more evidence of the Blueshirt takeover of the paper, but it seems to me the fact that such a basic misstatement could not only be written but seen, subbed and printed doesn't bode well.

Amazing Anschutz

The misuses and abuses of history don't of course confine themselves to the journalistic media. There is an intriguing example just arrived in our cinemas: Amazing Grace, a pretty-enough piece of costume drama about the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British empire two centuries ago.

This is, on the face of it, a film precisely about a group of people – and one in particular, William Wilberforce MP (pictured on opposite page is the actor who plays him in the movie) – who insisted against social pressure to the contrary that, well, the way things are done in the here and now is not actually the best way that nature and society could possibly ordain. At great risk to himself – well, he had awful colitis, and the stress didn't help – Wilberforce stood up to various decreasingly powerful forces until he won the ultimate victory in parliament.

The problem is not simply the silly anglocentrism of a film that asserts that the principle forum for combating slavery was to be found in London. There is a deeper narrative here: Amazing Grace comes from a US production company, Bristol Bay Media, that is part of the media empire of billionaire Philip Anschutz, an American right-wing Christian who funds, among other things, anti-evolution campaigns and absurd efforts to paint the media as a vast left-wing conspiracy.

Thus the effort to make a religious social conservative such as Wilberforce (who was opposed to trade unions and democratic suffrage reforms) into the prime hero of the anti-slavery struggle has real propaganda content today. Amazing Grace has got a campaign spin-off, Amazing Change, which seeks to channel audiences' reforming impulses into disguised Christian-conservative activism.

Anschutz is perfectly entitled to his views and his campaigns. But with a feel-good movie at his back, those of us who don't share his agenda need to be wary of how, for example, the campaign to combat “present-day slavery” leads to suspicion about immigration, as well as futile and disempowering prohibitionism about the sex industry. There are many other ways to tell these stories.π