Martin Cloake discusses issues around media manipulation and self-censorship, ownership, and the questions for a progressive cultural policy on the media to address.
On the morning after the last General Election, Channel 4’s Jon Snow introduced the channel’s post-election roundup with the following words: “I know nothing. We, the media, know nothing.”
He was not the only one to pick up on the fact that it is not just political discussion that has been transformed, but the way that discussion is framed. Of course, both can be seen as part of the political process, but understanding the way the media has set the parameters of the debate is key to beginning to understand what has happened.
For too long the public has been told what ideas are acceptable and what are not. Large parts of a media that established itself by reporting what happened became a media that commented on what happened. This was, to some extent and especially in the print media, a product of digitalisation and the era of instant news. But it increasingly became the case that much of the media presented interpretation as fact much more starkly than traditional notions of perspective had recognised. Where that ended up was demonstrated in 2017’s General Election.
Reading the Labour Party manifesto, anyone with a passable historical knowledge of the history of the last 200 years and of the development of the Labour Party would have seen an ambitious social democratic programme. I need to be clear here, because the shaping of debate I’m talking about means that ‘social democracy’ has come to mean something very different to that traditional definition. The social democracy I’m talking about is defined as “a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy”.
Neoliberalism and the media
Over the last 30 years, as neoliberalism has taken hold of every part of our lives, the idea of any intervention to promote social justice has been pushed to the fringes. That has happened to such an extent that intervention to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, denounced as misguided reformism by actual Marxists, is now presented as actual Marxism by establishment commentators. As establishment desperation began to set in in the days running up to last year’s General Election, the bogey word “Marxists” was increasingly deployed to describe Labour 2017. (And if you want a definition of ‘neoliberalism, by the way, you can do worse than read this from //medium.com/@renegadeinc">Renegade Inc.)
The fact that people saw through the attempt to portray reform as revolution is very significant. Because the centre has been shifted leftwards. This idea of the centre has dominated UK politics for decades. It is presented as a scientific fact. The centre is the place where most people are, a fixed point, and the way to be successful in politics is to go there. Or so we are told.
But the centre is not fixed. Take this example. In 1830, if you had suggested women should be able to vote you would have been on the political fringes. If you said the same thing in 1930, you would have been reflecting mainstream opinion. The centre ground shifts because circumstances and attitudes change.
Occupying the centre ground was central to the concept of New Labour. That focus on the centre continued while the entire ground moved to the right. Margaret Thatcher had reshaped society by imposing a vision and seeking to take people with her. In this, she largely succeeded. So New Labour’s pursuit of a centre ground already to the right of traditional Labour vision was already a retreat. What’s more, presenting any achievement as centrist rather than left made the supposed unpopularity of left policies a self-fulfilling prophecy. To succeed, an idea couldn’t be left of centre, therefore any idea that did succeed could not be left of centre. So instead of moving the centre ground left, it continued to move right. And that made it so much easier for those achievements to be undone by subsequent governments.
For all the success of the three New Labour governments, the party got five million fewer votes in 2010 than it did in 1997. The interpretation of that fact across pretty much the entire commentariat was that the centre was moving right. So the only conclusion was that if occupying the centre was the key, you had to move right.
But for increasing numbers of people, moving right wasn’t delivering. And what’s more, it was making Labour irrelevant. All they saw was a watered down version of what was already on offer. So they gave up. The last General Election was supposed to be the final act in a long process aimed at wiping out even the possibility of discussing left-of-centre ideas. It didn’t work, because what people saw were ideas they liked, ideas they thought could and should work. And that was because those ideas were increasingly presented outside the parameters described above.
It was fascinating reading about the media strategies deployed by Labour in the election. Especially so when the accepted wisdom of the media strategy experts who got it so wrong was that Labour’s media strategists were getting it wrong. Matt Zarb-Cousin was one of Labour’s media strategists – he’s well worth following on Twitter at @Mattzarb One of his tweets post-election day said that “In the last week of the campaign, 25% of UK Facebook users saw a Momentum video in their news feeds.”
What’s notable about that is not just the reach, but the fact that the means of distribution and exchange – to coin a phrase – have changed. He went on: “Momentum focused on producing quality content that would be organically shared. If your mate shares it, you’re more likely to watch it”.
The great Conservative communications guru Lynton Crosby was, said Zarb-Cousin, exposed because he used “analogue methods in a digital context”. The rules of engagement have changed.
There are signs that sections of the established media recognise this. But fewer that they understand it. The excellent Liz Gerard, @gameoldgirl on Twitter, mocked the stories in the printed press bemoaning ‘fake news’ and ‘distortion’ on an internet that was portrayed as misleading ‘vulnerable younger voters’. It is indeed a bit rich for some of the traditional media to seek to blame social media for spreading ‘fake news’ when too many in traditional media have played too fast and loose with the facts for too long. The ire of the traditional press big beasts cannot be too far removed from the effect new forms of media are having on their commercial model either.
The new, progressive media?
As a result of all this, the cry for some time among those on the left has been ‘create your own media’. And the internet has helped that happen. But…….
While there are some excellent sites providing in-depth reporting, analysis and opinion — and which remember there is a difference between those three things — there is also material that looks a little too much like what the traditional media has done for too long as well. Using methods we have criticised to get across a message we agree with cannot be the way forward.
Being left-leaning and working in the media has always presented a challenge. Asking awkward questions, trying to stand up claims, pointing out uncomfortable truths — all these staples of the trade tend to irritate people whose primary concern is to get the line out. Equally, the almost religious fervour with which some in the media promote the mantra that all of us in the trade must be ‘unbiased’ means we do not acknowledge enough the fact that every individual brings a degree of bias to every situation. Which is why progressive media reformers have always argued for a diverse set of views to be encouraged.
Calls to reform the media seem too often to be calls to control or regulate the media. And that brings with it serious problems. Because who will make the decisions about control or regulation? Will their biases be acknowledged?
Some attitudes to the media on the left seem sometimes to be more about closing down views that aren’t agreed with than anything else. It could be argued that it’s a more honest approach than shutting down views by placing them outside the parameters of permitted conversation, but the end result is the same. Shutting down conversation is rarely a good thing.
The censorious tendency comes partly from a belief that ‘the media’ is to blame for the left’s ideas not being accepted. But that’s too simple a view, and one that assumes the vast majority of people are so stupid they will believe everything they read. I’ve explained above why the media’s role in setting the terms of debate is important, so I’m not arguing that the media has no effect. I have much sympathy with the analysis in this piece from Press Gazette headlined Why Labour supporters may over-estimate the influence of the partisan pro-Tory press, but I think it misses an appreciation of the role the press does have in setting the mood music.
While much of the press behaviour of recent times is rightly being called out, and while the growth of a more independent, DIY media should be welcomed, we can’t simply seek to replace a right-partisan media with a left-partisan media. Not least because we should have confidence in the strength of our ideas. Reforming the media was supposed to be about getting a fair hearing for multiple views.
I worry, too, about enacting measures such as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 for the same reasons as two of the more progressive newspapers, The Guardian and the FT, did.
So there are lessons to be learned all round. The traditional media needs to understand what is happening, and to do that requires listening to the people who are making it happen. A particularly big challenge for traditional media is accepting that its audience contains people who may be more well-informed about a particular subject, and who can counter accepted narratives quickly and accurately. Those deploying newer methods, and those consuming what those methods disseminate, also need to look at the more traditional standards those working in the trade sought to use to see what needs to be retained. The sad thing about saying that is that ‘traditional methods’ means phone tapping rather than standing up stories and protecting sources in too many people’s minds.
Grenfell Tower and the media
Barely a week after the Election, the fire at Grenfell Tower happened. The reporting of the fire and its aftermath prompted some of the fiercest debate yet on media coverage and the assumptions behind it. Many of us who remembered coverage of Orgreave 33 years before, and Hillsborough four years later, recognised some familiar tactics. Some elements of mainstream media sought to find individuals to blame, while others sought to portray angry residents getting organised as a “mob”. And any attempt to suggest that political decisions were to blame for what happened was denounced as ‘making capital out of tragedy’.
Let’s be clear what that last accusation amounts to. It is an attempt to shut down discussion on what caused an event that led to people burning to death in their own homes, and that is leading to continuing suffering. When shutting down legitimate discussion is put forward as an accepted mainstream opinion, the reasons why people are opting to create and consult their own media – something John Pilger called the fifth estate — become clear. But what recent events have also shown is that this new media is not without fault.
There’s been a feeling in the business for years that the media is disproportionately interested in itself, but the current discussion of the way it operates is directly connected to the way it interacts with people — something that elevates the discussion above the realms of media theory and into real life.
One of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject is the take by Buzzfeed political editor @jimwaterson This Was The Election Where The Newspapers Lost Their Monopoly On The Political News Agenda. It looks not only at how the ability of the traditional print media to shape debate seems to have diminished, but also at how new forms of media have changed the rules of engagement. That analysis, in itself, is nothing new, but where Waterson’s piece moves things on is in examining those new media forms in more depth. And an observation he makes after doing this should make us pause for thought.
“Crucially the lines between what is political reporting, what is political comment, and what is simply partisan internet ephemera seem to be blurring — to little concern from an audience who don’t distinguish between spoof videos, traditional analysis pieces, and celebrity endorsements.”
It’s the bit about the audience having little concern for what is happening that stands out.
You don’t have to believe the old myth that ‘journalists must be impartial’ to be concerned about that, and it’s worth expanding a little on that idea of journalistic impartiality before moving on. Good journalism certainly should mean being curious, open to facts that challenge the writer’s interpretation, and willing to consider opposing viewpoints. But to imagine that any individual living in any society is not shaped by their surroundings and experiences is fantasy.
One of the things that shaped me as I grew up was reading John Pilger in the Daily Mirror, and I tend to agree with his view on journalistic impartiality.
“The problem with those words “impartiality” and “objectivity” is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. “Impartiality” and “objectivity” now mean the establishment point of view.”
That is all too often true, and is why I’ve never been reticent about making clear my own take on issues I write about if I can. Something which, ironically, has made it easier for some people to immediately dismiss what I say. There are advantages in styling yourself as an impartial teller of truths.
But we seem to be reaching a point where what is happening is that some of the media emerging to challenge ‘the establishment’ is merely mirroring it. And where the response when this is pointed out is increasingly along the lines of ‘who cares, the mainstream media have told lies and misrepresented things for too long’.
Take an argument that broke out in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The Skwawkbox, one of the new left-leaning sites, published a story headlined Govt “puts ‘D-Notice’ gag” on real #Grenfell death toll #national security. The Skwawkbox story is here, so you can read it for yourself. All that has changed since it originally went up is the headline and the explanatory note at the top. Just to fill you in on the argument, here’s James Ball on Buzzfeed running a story about the Skwawkbox piece.
//medium.com/@martincloake/the-fifth-estate-needs-to-beware-mirroring-the-media-it-deconstructs-a52dd31a24b">I set out my views on the way the story was handled on my Medium channel, and I’ve used and developed some of that piece here. I concluded with the following observations.
I’m all in favour of Pilger’s fifth estate, something he defines as: “a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power”
What we are witnessing now can be seen as the rise of such a fifth estate, something that has been aided by the growth of the internet and its ability to deliver not only the means of production but of distribution to hands outside the control of the big media corporations. But such a fifth estate can only really succeed if it is trusted, if it delivers information as honestly as it can and invites readers to learn from their own conclusions.
At the end of Jim Waterson’s article on the breaking of the mainstream newspapers’ monopoly, he quotes Matt Turner of Evolve Politics. Turner says:
“The direction of travel for political journalism is set and the crossover between activism and reporting is only going to increase: ‘People want writing and content that lights a fire in their belly and gets them riled up’.”
I’m not convinced the crossover between activism and reporting increasing is necessarily a good thing – and I speak as someone who has written politically engaged journalism. I worry about the observation Waterson makes about the line blurring between “political comment and what is simply partisan internet ephemera”. That’s partly because I believe my political views can stand up to journalistic examination, but also because I believe it is important for people to trust what they are reading isn’t being spun. Deconstructing the spin is very different to reversing the spin.
A democratic media policy
All of this also raises questions about the media policy a progressive government would need to enact. The focus of Labour’s last manifesto was on ownership, and the need to promote pluralism and prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of interests is obvious. But there are deeper questions. Much of the discussion promoted by initiatives such as the Movement for Cultural Democracy is around rolling back aggressive commercialisation. But it’s questionable how relevant the argument that media standards are driven down in order to secure greater profits is in an age when the commercial model the media was built on is broken. It’s a business trying to make money from producing something that increasingly few people want to pay for. Arguing that media should be paid for is becoming as difficult as trying to convince the under-25s that music should be paid for.
I think it is too simple to say that rolling back commercialisation is the answer to the question of how we achieve a better media. That doesn’t mean dismissing the very real negative effect of poor pay and resourcing on the quality of what is produced. It just means realising that is only part of the picture. There are other questions to confront too.
How far would a progressive government be prepared to tolerate dissenting views? What are the limits of debate? What is an acceptable way of conducting debate? Should there be any limits or restrictions at all? How do you ensure measures intended to protect individual citizens against the power of media companies aren’t used to restrict the power of media companies to hold those in power to account? Recognition of the realities of who holds and wields power are necessary here.
All these questions are being played out in the debates between traditional and the self-styled alternative media, and in the National Union of Journalists, where there continues to be a rift between a grass roots worried about the practical effects of measures such as Section 40 and Leveson 2 and a layer of activists and the union machinery itself that is predisposed to both. It may be that, instead of looking to traditional methods of imposing regulation, the tougher task of embedding the kind of professional standards that are central to a progressive trade unionism is the answer. In short, convincing people people something is the right thing to do could be more effective than telling them.
The more you look at it, the more the need for a back-to-basics discussion becomes clear. Plurality sounds a noble objective, but how do we really deal with multiple views, especially when they push the boundaries of what we hold dear? Can a commitment to a set of views and sheer bloody minded awkwardness ever sit comfortably together? How do we establish accepted and recognisable standards of producing media in an age when the concept of truth and the idea of objectivity are under challenge as never before?
These kinds of questions may be frustrating to those looking for clear solutions, but we won’t get the clarity needed if we don’t confront them.