Profit before people

Profit maximisation is the primary aim of the media; serving the public interest and holding institutions of power to account is of only incidental concern. By Vincent Browne.

The hacking of the mobile phones of murdered British schoolgirls and their close relatives is not a bizarre occurrence of the modern media world. 

It is an inevitable and predictable consequence of the frenzied corporate media culture, driven by an incessant demand for profit growth, quarter after quarter, indifferent to any consideration other than the further enrichment of already vastly wealthy shareholders.

That culture will allow cosmetic regard for what are laughingly called ‘‘media ethics’’, lest persistent disregard endanger persistent enrichment. But ethics are merely instrumental.

There is also, of course, the vanity factor, which sometimes distracts from the profit drive, but not for too long.

This is as true in our media environment as elsewhere.

The notion that our newspapers and broadcast media are objective, independent entities holding the institutions of power to account is naive. 

All such media, including our public service broadcaster, RTÉ, are driven by the objective of profit maximisation - even though (especially in the present circumstances) any profitability at all would be welcome.

The primary objective is not to service the public interest, although serving the public interest to some extent may be a means to profitability. Holding institutions of power accountable - rather, holding some institutions of power (never themselves) accountable - may also help profits along in some media markets.

These media seek to deliver audiences to advertisers.

That’s what they are about, and that shapes almost entirely what they do.

Some media seek to deliver a niche market to advertisers, a market comprising people with a great deal of disposable income, or whose companies have disposable income arising from their niche categorisation.

For instance, the segment of the market known as AB, the professional and managerial class with high disposable income, is a key target audience for many advertisers. 

Any newspaper or broadcaster that can deliver that market cost-effectively will get the advertising.

Other media seek to deliver a broad market and, if they succeed, a lot of mass market advertising will follow. Delivering a broad audience is challenging. Newspapers and other media in this arena are encouraged to sensationalise, to win immediate attention and impulsive buying. 

For this reason, gossip about people regarded as celebrities is much in demand. Sex, of course, is a big seller; sex and celebrity even better. Sex and the royal family is a fantastic combination. Anything to do with high-profile crime is ‘‘hot’’, all the more so if the victims are cute children and their parents are middleclass or, better still, celebrities.

Sensationalising crime is a surefire winner. And nowhere along the way does it matter whether great and unjustifiable harm is caused to innocent people, or whether privacy is unjustifiably invaded. Sometimes, it hardly matters if the stories are true. It’s all about winning readers/viewers/listeners as a means to make profits.

This impetus is all the more intense in highly-competitive media markets, such as in Britain and now also in Ireland.

So why should we be surprised that phones are hacked, even when the phones belong to dead young girls, and even if the hacking of these phones gives false hopes to their families that their loved ones are still alive, and even if the police search for the girls and their murderers is compromised?

The story is all that matters: getting one up on competitors, boosting circulations, bloating profits.

It is not credible to argue that newspapers in this country have not done the same or tried to. Irish newspapers have invented stories, unjustifiably invaded privacy, caused great anguish to people without any public interest justification, all for the sake of profit.

There is, of course, vanity there too.

There are countless instances in the Irish media world of reckless disregard for any consideration other than corporate interests of the owners.

We have no reason to feel that what has happened at News International is not commonplace in some newsrooms here.


Image top: Leo Reynolds.