Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/hidES-ZSnRE) 18.11.2022.
WHO GUARDS THE GUARDIANS?: The power and influence
of the Press and the Media
It was once said that a free press and a free media were the vital underpinning of a free society. A means of questioning authority, investigating wrongdoings, and acting as a watch dog over those exercising power. But can that now be said in the age of the massive, global, media conglomerates, owned by highly ambitious plutocrats, with their multi-channel satellite and cable stations, to supplement their newspapers and journals?
In many ways the great modern media machines are almost becoming as powerful and influential, in their own right, as Presidents and Premiers acting on the political stage. A politician, at least one working in a representative system, who makes it to the top of the greasy pole – by skill, luck and intrigue – will have one, or if again lucky, two terms in office (in the US of course, two terms is the maximum). If they are favoured by fortune to an extraordinary degree, as was Mrs Thatcher, they might, at a stretch, enjoy three or even four terms in office. But then they’re turfed out, either by the opposition or restive spirits in their own party, to be replaced by some other individual. However radical and far reaching their power may have been, and whatever radical initiatives they may have pursued, their own power over events has come to an abrupt end, and it is up to others to continue or consolidate their work, or unpick and unravel it.
A media mogul like Rupert Murdoch, however, can carry on indefinitely, decade after decade, unchecked and unhindered, literally to his dying breath, if he so wishes it. He doesn’t have to worry about a party coup, or an election defeat. He doesn’t even fear the criticism of the press, since he owns a great chunk of it to begin with. He can hire and fire journalists at will – and determine the editorial line his employees must slavishly adhere to or face dismissal and replacement. He doesn’t have to seek one vote from one citizen, in order to continue his exercise of power; though he regularly, through his myriad proxies and minions, instructs millions of people, in different nations and continents, how to vote at elections; and which parties and politicians are to be favoured or shunned. Indeed following the 1992 Conservative election victory, the banner headline of the Sun newspaper was: 'It's the Sun Wot Won It.' And even death, though the final enemy of even the most authoritarian dictator, can’t entirely undo and unravel the influence of the media baron. He can pass on his vast empire to some handpicked member of his family or entourage to own and control, in the same untrammeled, autocratic manner. Just as with the old, pre-democratic, monarchical dynasties, the Romanovs, the Hollenzollerns, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons. The media conglomerates are bastions of privilege and patronage within ‘democratic’ societies.
Along with the growing power of the great media corporations, there has also, in many sectors, been a palpable decline in journalistic standards; which has been most marked at the popular, mass circulation tabloid end of the market. Many of the down-market tabloids appeal, almost to the lowest common denominator. With a staple diet of soft porn, gimmicks and giveaways, scratch cards, sex scandals concerning pop and soap stars, recycled palace gossip, tawdry gossip columns, celebrity confessions and daft phone-in campaigns for good measure – and always with an eye on boosting circulation figures and putting one over on their rivals. ‘Bingo and jingo,’ as someone once coined Murdoch’s crude but effective, circulation boosting formula for the Sun.
Indeed if the quality of a society’s commentary on itself – through the press; and particularly the mass circulation tabloid papers – is an index of its health and the quality of its democratic life – then we have a great deal to be concerned about.
The great commercial media machines aren’t objective, neutral observers of society, looking on from the sidelines and merely commenting on and analyzing the play of power and the deliberations of the political class. They are now integral, powerful actors, in the matrix of power, in their own right. They influence the political debate, and they back parties and politicians, particularly those on the right, whose views coincide with their own. Though Mr. Murdoch has opportunistically backed centrists or left of centre parties, in Australia and the UK, when it seemed they were inevitably bound to win. His Sun newspaper at one point even backed the SNP in Scotland, while simultaneously endorsing the Unionist Tories south of the border. Indeed, politicians, like Blair, have gone cap in hand to Murdoch’s court, in order to seek his patronage prior to elections, as if he was some medieval Kingmaker. And indeed, as many commentators have suggested, even fashioned subsequent domestic media legislation so as not to be provoking the ire of News International. The media machines can elevate favoured politicians – such as the late Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher – to the status of icons and demigods, while decrying and demonizing others to the status of pariahs and bogeymen.
And look at the malign influence that Murdoch's Fox News TV station has had on American politics over recent years. It endorsed Trump's big lies about the so called stolen election, and consistently played down the threat from the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, commentators on that station challenged the medical consensus about the need for social distancing, wearing masks, or going into lock-down and talked about the immunologist, Dr. Fauci, as if he was public enemy number one. And one wonders how many of its viewers succumbed to that disease, or even died, because they heeded those nonsensical claims that contradicted what all the medical experts advised?
This isn't an objective news network reporting the truth and holding those in power to account; is a blatant, propaganda platform, selling a racist, populist, right-wing message to its gullible viewers; and is always on the look out for convenient scapegoats – immigrants, Muslims, Liberals, foreigners, and others - on whom to blame all the ills of the world.
It's small wonder that it showered unctuous praise and flattery on Donald Trump, now regarded by many as the worst President in American history, and was of sterling assistance to him in winning the Presidency in 2016. And all that creepy flattery was returned in kind by Trump, who regarded Fox News as his favourite 'news' channel; was a keen viewer and was given soft and accommodating interviews on it countless times. During Trump's time in office, it functioned as a virtual echo-chamber for the White House, peddling almost every cynical deceit and conspiracy theory that came out of the Trump administration.
Trump constantly talked about Fake News; but this was a network that was pumping it out, to its millions of viewers, on a daily basis.
The media empires have sought to alter the parameters of the political debate, as if to dictate what is acceptable and unacceptable, as far as mainstream political discourse is concerned. Is it an entire coincidence that New Labour and the Third Way replaced Old Labour, that Keynesianism has become a discredited philosophy, that the Australian Labour Party has dropped socialism from its political lexicon, as if it was a dirty word, and that supply-side economics has been in the ascendant over recent decades?
It is probable that in the UK, the fact that the pro-Brexit camp won the referendum over our membership of the European Union, was brought about, in no small part, to the frenetic campaigning of the right-wing press. They have long regarded the EU as a bloated bureaucratic behemoth that stifles initiative, enterprise and nationalism. And some of their more excitable journalists have even on occasion compared it to the old Soviet Union.
Those who own the press determine what goes in it and what line to take on key issues.
Though the media and the press claim to be guardians and watchdogs of the democratic process, they haven't always practiced what they preached. In the Nineteen Thirties Lord Rothermere, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, was an enthusiastic supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists and was an admirer of Hitler, and an advocate of Appeasement, who even went over to Germany to see the Fuhrer in person. And in Weimer Germany, the patronage of the right-wing media baron, Hugenberg, was an instrumental force in propagating the Nazi cause.
Indeed the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, in a speech in 1931, described the press as being, 'Engines of Propaganda,' and that, 'They had power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.'
National elections, indeed the general course of politics itself – with its recurrent crises and controversies – are now as much media events, as purely political ones, with an entire class of pundits and commentators, employed by the news cartels, making copy out of the political drama for the enlightenment of their readers and viewers. Politics, as distilled through the media empires, has become a great, garish soap opera. A daily drama, acted out before the insatiable glare of the media machines. And the political class has reacted to this in turn, by hiring PR specialists, spin doctors, media consultants, campaign managers, press spokesmen and women, private pollsters, focus groups, advertisers, and even style gurus, so as to strike a positive impression in the media spotlight. We now live in an era of buzzwords, sound bites and hand-me-down slogans – along with tax giveaways and rampant privatization – rather than coherent, courageous and cogent politics. It’s surprising that a former B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan, with his ready smile and Hollywood charm, fitted in so well to the new age of media politics; and managed to give a folksy, comfortable gloss to a package of hard right policies that benefited the corporate elite and the military industrial complex (look at the free gift they got with the hugely expensive ‘Star Wars’ programme), at the expense of the urban poor. Or that the celluloid ‘Terminator’, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could barnstorm his way, in Reagan’s political footsteps, to be Governor of California. Or that the reality TV impresario, Donald Trump, who had shown little interest in party politics prior to announcing that he would run for President, managed to get himself elected to that high office. And with the daily hypnotism of the popular press and the multi-channel media, it’s no wonder that the great collective, and self created crisis of Global Warming – which should be at the fore of our attention – is all too frequently blissfully ignored or downplayed, and that we are instead enmeshed in the fantasy world of celebrity trivia and the endless soap opera of personality politics.
Of course, in the extraordinary career of Sylvia Berlusconi, things have gone even further; and media power has gone from being a mere key actor, to the star of the show. Not content with massive powers of patronage and merely influencing things from the sidelines, Mr Berlusconi used the formidable power of his Italian media machine to create an entire new political party, Forza Italia, (in alliance with other right wing parties, including the neo-fascist heirs of Mussolini) which, with the incessant backing of his TV network, was ruthlessly used as a vehicle to take him to power as the Italian Premier (where he has acted, it should be added, in the same highhanded, autocratic manner on the political stage, as in his business dealings). Nothing more graphically delineates the dynamic power of the modern media corporations, that a media baron can use the power of his own company to secure himself the highest political position in the nation.
A ‘free press’ is a perhaps something of a misnomer, in describing these ruthless, commercial news machines. It’s an owned, controlled, conditioned, and manipulated press that we currently have. Organizations like News International have their own power agendas and ambitions. They don’t exist to protect the public interest or to act as selfless guardians of our democracies, but to accumulate wealth and power and expand their own businesses. It is money and power which are the driving forces.
And of course, as well as the large media and press empires, we the huge internet sites, like Facebook and Youtube. These powerful companies, which are international in scope, represent huge, unregulated spaces, where criminals, paedophiles, terrorists, fanatics, cranks, fantasists, ideologues and extremists can have free reign to communicate with their confederates and to recruit new members. These companies are almost laws unto themselves, that set their own rules and codes of conduct, beyond any effective democratic scrutiny and oversight. They also, in Baldwin's words have 'power without responsibility.' And they too must be held to account and be subject to regulation.
We live in a dangerous and unstable world that faces a host of challenges, from climate change, to religious and ideological fanaticism. It is therefore vital that we have news organisations that give people the facts, that believe in objective reality, and are not skewed by ideological fixations and immersed in personality politics. If the channels of communication and information are so polluted and contaminated that they can't be relied upon to give us an honest and accurate picture of the world, then we all suffer as a consequence.
Perhaps it is time that the media itself, that purports to be a mere watchdog but is in reality a hugely influential player on the checkerboard of power (with its own entrenched and vested interests), was itself subject to scrutiny and accountability, and had its inner workings, its modus operandi, and the intentions and ambitions of its key executives and owners, opened to scrutiny and debate. We also need guarding from our self-appointed guardians.
Author about Himself: I live in Halifax, England, and have a background in food production, retail and office work. Have had stories, entitled, The Stairway to Paradise, and The Hold-up, published in the anthology volumes, ‘Even More Tonto Tales’, and ‘Shades of Sentience’. An article I wrote on the Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has been published by Bridge Eight Magazine, in Florida; a fairy-tale I've penned, entitled, The Guardian of the Wood, has been published in the Fantasy Arts and Studies journal in France, and a story I wrote, called, The Personality Cult, has been published by Terror House Magazine, based in Budapest, Hungary. I've had an article on the Titanic published in a literary anthology called Watermarks, in aid of the Calder Valley Flood Relief Charity, and an article I wrote about J.G. Ballard has been published on the cultural literary website; www.literaryyard.com. Have had a volume of my short stories published, entitled, Seven Tall Tales, which is available at Amazon as a book or a kindle, and my play, The Town that Spoke with Forked Tongue, has been published by the internet company, Scripts for Stage.