It is a remarkable characteristic of major shibboleths in our society that matters that would quickly be seen as being logically contradictory, factually unsustainable, rationally incoherent or merely ridiculous can survive unscathed as conventional, unchallengeable wisdom for endless decades simply because they are long established in society as sources of unexamined authority, and the incoherence is never allowed to be exposed to critical, independent examination outside the narrow context of the established, even revered convention, or beyond the control or reach of the arbiters who manage it; the priesthood of the conventional wisdom. This statement is too abstract, so I shall attempt to provide it with context: I am writing here about newspapers and journalism and the absurdity of the authority or credibility they too easily claim and are allowed to indulge as a frankly risible claim to represent a free press and ‘liberty’: would that they did.
Neither the Syria debate in the Westminster Parliament nor the Forth Bridge crossing furore has added greatly to public enlightenment of the relevant issues, but both controversies have nevertheless served to illuminate public knowledge, obliquely but effectively, about important contemporary political matters, but in unintended ways. In particular these events have usefully cemented in public understanding the degree to which the print media is a complicit participant in the wider Westminster Cartel (the system through which political parties, newspapers, broadcasters and major institutions exclusively ‘fix’ the national political agenda, its content and the limits of debate), and has revealed to the public the extent to which the broadcast media is prepared to dance to the print media tune, and the print media to serve a uniform ideology.
This new and transformative public awareness of the press as a scarcely disguised organ of public relations dissemination acting on behalf of what is little more than the wider, deeper culture of the State, is an outcome the press did not intend, but appears quite remarkably incapable of assimilating; presumably because the press only possesses one public message dissemination technique; or should that read ‘propaganda method’? Which it duly repeats each time the Westminster Cartel calls it into cohesive action to sell a controversial policy (Iraq, Syria, Austerity, Bank ‘Regulation’ or whatever serves the Cartel); and which the press executes with ever greater exaggeration and whipped-up hysteria, in the hope that if it fails to convince intelligent opinion, it will at least always succeed in moving the centre ground ever further right and silence quiet, reasonable, balanced moderates with the fear or implicit intimidation that moderates who protest will thereafter be vilified as ‘extreme’ (left) from a centre-ground of public discussion in which the freehold is owned exclusively by the print-media (in loose association with broadcasters) and which has been permanently moved, unnoticed in the clamour, far to the right.
What is striking about the way that the print media is prepared, more or less brazenly, to become simply an orchestral player, providing the ‘basso continuo’ behind the Westminster neo-conservative (soap) opera libretto; is the obtuse disregard of the press (journalists, editors or owners) for the quite obvious fact that the public, especially in Scotland, have noticed the lack of press independence, and the (often crude) priority newspapers give to directing public opinion towards broad official (Westminster Cartel) objectives, over holding either the Government or even Westminster itself to account: still less to meeting any of the real aspirations of the public.
In short, the public have at last ‘found-out’ the nature of the ‘press’. In part at least this explains the collapsing circulations of the press that both owners and journalists so eagerly wish to ascribe solely to technological change and the rise of social media as a merely technical innovation. The transformation of the public mood is political. The rise of social media as a political power, and of public opinion/citizen journalism websites is, almost as much as the technology, a product of the failure of the print press to serve the public’s priorities, interests or liberties.
The fact is that technology has begun a revolution that in its execution has revealed the extent to which the traditional print press is not the defender of the public interest, but rather the promoter of its (owners) vested interests that happen to coalesce nationally, and internationally, with the power and influence of the Westminster Cartel. The print-press as an independent source of news, or as a defender of the public interest is now, effectively redundant; ruined by the incorrigible hubris of the print press.
The absurdity of the press position as a promoter of press ‘freedom’ or even ‘free markets’ is easily illustrated; although it requires a recalibration of what both terms mean for the public, and a capacity to look afresh at what currently is conventional wisdom in the relationship between the print press and broadcast media, and to appreciate the underlying absurdity of the print press relationship with both broadcasters and the public.
The major print-press newspapers are broadly ‘free market’ enterprises run by businessmen or entrepreneurs, and run for profit and to provide returns to shareholders. Their first concern is not anyone’s freedom (save their own), but circulation. They are there to sell; nothing more nor less. Their business is to publish ‘news’; a process which requires newspapers also to decide (along with broadcasters) what is the “news” (what counts as newsworthy) they publish. This is unusual or possibly unique in business; people in the ‘shoe’ business do not typically decide what is a ‘shoe’; a watermelon is never classed as a shoe. Newspapers are quite different; they decide what is “news”.
Newspapers or broadcasters have a significant capacity not only to select what is “news” but in doing so, to shape the ‘news’; and in that complex process both to invent the “news” and to reinvent it, time after time after time. This strange marketing facility, to decide what is ‘news’ gives the newspapers (and broadcasters) extraordinary, and often unnoticed, power. They sell a product the authenticity of which the public must accept at face value; or they did until the rise of social media and the internet. Now, the public is no longer sure. What is “news” can now be seen by the public often to be the outcome of either deft or bad management, but at the very least, of deliberate shaping or manipulation.
For reasons that remain something of a mystery to me, the BBC (which not only does not accept advertising revenues but bars advertising by commercial businesses on its broadcast outlets) makes an exception for its treatment of newspapers from all other commercial, profit-driven enterprises, and quite freely, even lavishly, advertises not only the business of newspapers, presumably because they print ‘news’, but the products, the individual business and brands. They turn the business of ‘news’ itself into a kind of ‘infomercial’.
Over the years there have been many programmes or parts of programmes on both television and radio devoted to newspapers and journalism; providing free advertising for commercial newspaper enterprises and promoting their value, and the purported authority and knowledge of the journalists (first and most famously perhaps on ITV with ‘What the Papers Say’; effectively it was free advertising for newspapers). The BBC News Channel has a nightly 15 minute programme that simply reviews the newspapers, and typically invites two newspaper journalists to discourse on the daily content. BBC Radio 4 has a weekly programme that reviews the current state of the media. BBC Radio Scotland follows the principle on selected news programmes at week ends. News programmes may reference newspapers and the opinions they express as a matter of course, as if the newspapers (specific, identified newspapers) provide an essential insight into all affairs that matter. Journalists become “celebrities”. The newspapers are not only provided by the BBC with the ‘oxygen of publicity’ but a cultural framework that only enhances newspapers and their journalists with implied authority as sources of news. Why? Why is this newspaper sales-pitch acceptable on our largest and most established public service broadcaster? Why is it taken for granted?
At the same time it is almost impossible not to notice that there is a revolving door operating between Fleet Street and Westminster, and even in 10, Downing Street. It has become difficult to distinguish between the politicians and the journalists.
We should note that even more inexplicably, while the press media is reviewed, discussed and ‘pitched’ to us on public service broadcasters, the same indulgence is not extended to other broadcasters. Having established the principle (the special privilege provided to businesses in the business of journalism by broadcasters), why is a review of ITV News, or C4 News, or Sky News excluded from the BBC? And vice versa? It isn’t “done”. The illogicality is almost comical, although essentially there is nothing funny about this; apart from the social solecism, such a critique would tend to reveal the narcissistic, inward looking, self-congratulatory nature of the process, and it would invite an independent, critical judgment of the charmed, closed circle of newspapers, broadcasters and politicians (the public face of the Westminster Cartel) who set the political agenda that, of course is designed to exclude the public. Of course the new ‘social media’ news websites are excluded from review by national broadcasters, but that is no surprise, for the independent social media outlets fail to sing harmoniously from the same officially ‘newsworthy’ Cartel Hymn Sheet.
The public are treated as consumers, nothing more; they select their opinions from a table d’hôte menu provided by the Westminster Cartel. Politicians love to call this process “choice”; what people want is choice, we are told. What they “choose” in terms of “news”, however is not to be left to chance.