Thursday, 8 December 2011

Do market pressures make the British media less propagandistic than the American Media?

"The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantee of independence is profit” – James Murdoch

In their scholarly book, 'Pockets of Resistance' (2010: 129), Piers Robinson et al assert:

"First, as a nationally-based press drawing readers from across the social spectrum, the British press is highly competitive in economic terms. This creates economic pressures for titles to differentiate themselves from one another. As we have seen, rival newspapers operating in the same segment of the market approached the [Iraq] war very differently (the Sun and the Mirror in the red-top market; The Times and the Telegraph as against the Guardian and the Independent in the broadsheet market). In markets elsewhere in the word that contain little direct competition, there is much less rivalry between newspapers and, consequently, much less pressure for them to differentiate themselves from one another".

Anthony Dimaggio makes the same point:

"Outside of tabloid and financial papers, London retains three major print newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, Times, and Independent (with major distribution of a fourth paper, the Guardian of Manchester), whereas New York only has one: The New York Times. The existence of four times as many major print newspapers may provide more space for a diversity of views" (Dimaggio, ‘When Media Goes to War’ (2009): 53) Thus, "Focusing on the question of withdrawal, I postulate that the British press is relatively less propagandistic than the American press in its reporting"(ibid. 31).

In reality, economic imperatives ensure that British and American media report imperial wars, including the attack on Iraq, from within an ideological framework. What Robinson et al perceive as "diversity of coverage" is merely surface appearance that conceals a standardised narrative. Thus they are wrong to claim: "We have found that British news media representation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not uniformly consistent with (Herman and Chomsky's propaganda) model" ( Robinson et al, ‘Pockets of Resistance’ (2010): 130).

The concept of ideology is difficult to define succinctly, but the sociologist Michael Billig ('Talking of the Royal Family' (1992): 13) identifies two of its most important features:

"First, ideology refers to what passes for common-sense within a particular society. Often, ideology refers to those assumptions which are so taken-for-granted that they are not even considered to be worthy of attention. Second, ideology is seen to have a particular social function. It refers to beliefs which confirm the powerful in their position of power and which settle down the powerless into their respective positions of powerlessness. Thus, ideology denotes ways of talking and thinking which render ordinary people unrebellious..."

One assumption the media present to the public as indubitable is the claim that Western leaders are committed to bringing democracy and peace to the Middle East. There were vociferous disputes about whether George Bush and Tony Blair could achieve their proclaimed noble goals, but there was little dispute about whether their proclaimed goals were their real goals. As David Miller puts it, one is free to accuse them of being "foolish or misguided...but to advance the proposition that they are calculating liars in full consciousness of the outcomes of their policies is beyond the pale. Thus discussions of propaganda strategy and deliberate deception remain rare" (Miller (ed), 'Tell Me Lies' (2004): 1). Indeed they do, even in the 'anti-war' press. When Blair announced that Bombs would soon be raining down on the Iraqi people, the editors of the Independent and Mirror felt the need to express their admiration:

"Even those who most disagree with war on Iraq have to salute the leadership qualities of the man who is about to commit British forces to it"(‘Whatever the anxieties over this conflict, Mr Blair has shown himself to be a leader for troubled times’, the Independent, March 19, 2003).

"Even though the Mirror disagrees strongly with Tony Blair over his determination to wage war on Iraq, we do not question his belief in the rightness of what he is doing"(‘We're sold short on scruples’, the Mirror, March 19, 2003).

Eminent figures such as Alan Greenspan - the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve - now acknowledge that "the Iraq war is largely about oil" (Greenspan, 'The Age of Turbulence' (2007): 463). However, despite all of the available evidence, the mainstream media rarely mention this, let alone present it to the public as axiomatic. The Guardian's Deborah Orr and Jonathan Steele are just two of the many journalists who continue promote the lie that thousands of innocent people have died for noble reasons:

“For Blair, the motivation was much more gobsmacking. He really believed he had the moral power and endless resources to make the world a better, more Blair-like place” (Deborah Orr, ‘Manningham-Buller was right about the Iraq war’, the Guardian, July 22, 2010).

“(The neocons') hopes of making Iraq a democratic model for the Middle East have been tipped on their head." (Jonathan Steele, ‘'The Iraq War is finally over. And it marks a complete neocon defeat', the Guardian, October 23, 2011).

"Why”, asks Noam Chomsky (‘Radical Priorities’ (2004): 69), “such efforts to conceal the real history with fables about the awesome nobility of our (leaders’) intentions, flawed only by blunders arising from (their) naivete and simpleminded goodness? I think there is a good reason why the propaganda system works that way. It recognizes that the public will not support the actual policies”

Robinson et al ignore this crucial point. They choose instead to praise the British media for reporting the war in ways that render ordinary people unrebellious.

Some critics of the propaganda model argue that "it does tend to see the world as a sort of top-down conspiracy theory at the expense of journalistic practices as they operate on the ground" (Philip M. Taylor, 'Munitions of the Mind' (2003): 322-323). Those who believe this completely misunderstand Herman and Chomsky's analysis. Under capitalism ideology is not surreptitiously manufactured by editors and journalists in smoke-filled rooms. Media corporations are no different from other corporations. Their raison d’ĂȘtre is to make a profit and what we watch on television and read in newspapers about Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, climate change and the economy etc. is primarily determined by market forces.

To elaborate, capitalism's survival depends on the continuation of wants. We will only buy more if we want more and media corporations have evolved not to inform the public, but to sell the public to advertisers – their primary source of income. What is advertising? "Advertising", explains Stephen Leacock, "maybe described as the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it" (Cited in Kathleen Taylor, 'Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control' (2004): 50). Advertisers promise us that buying their product will enrich our lives. When we are provided with information about the world that challenges our intellects, the less susceptible we are to their powers of persuasion.

Thus, we are fed fables about our white knights spreading democracy and fighting terrorism. The liberal media (in order to attract a more affluent audience) employ a less jingoistic and more ‘professional’ tone. However, the ideological parameters are set by the ‘primary definers’ (e.g. military spokespeople and government officials) who provide a constant flow of news at low cost; fact-checking can be expensive and time consuming, but information provided by elites is considered veracious and newsworthy because of the source.

Herman and Chomsky use the term 'Flak' to describe how elites police the parameters of respectable debate. Lawsuits and strident letters are just two of the measures that are used to discipline outlets that shine a bright light on the rapacious activities of big business and the state. British journalists are not "subject to the rigid socialization of American journalism schools, which require to conforming to journalistic norms of "objective" reporting"(Dimaggio, ‘When Media Goes to War’ (2009): 53-54). Most are, however, already under the illusions of ideology long before they enter newsrooms and, like the prisoners in Foucault's 'Panopticon', they use self-surveillance to avoid ‘flak’.

In conclusion, the 'free market' ensures that that media are not merely the puppet of dominant elites. It serves their interests by creating an ideological prism within which all further coverage and debate takes place. The argument that debate is more lively in Britain seems to be correct, but it does not follow that the British media is less propagandistic the American press. Thus, the propaganda model remains completely intact.

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