2007 - 2022

Privileging the Moral Arguments

keyboardactivists.jpgWhy the mainstream media will continue to privilege economic arguments and what we can do about it.

It is by moving beyond notions of ‘deliberate’ and ‘explicit’ media manipulation that it becomes possible to understand the much more pernicious forms of unconscious bias which pervade all mainstream news production. This ‘stucturalist’ argument is intended as a reply to recent commentaries such as those of Richard Walker  and Darren McGarvey.

One of the biggest mistakes, most commonly made by people trying to understand the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, is that the two sides, Yes and Better Together can be conceptualised as a sharp division between privileged groups who wanted to keep things as they are, and working class groups who wanted change. The reality is much more complicated than this. It centres around the binary opposition between people who privilege economic matters on one hand, and those who privilege moral matters on the other. The truth of this insight rests on the fact that the middle classes or privileged groups in society are not (and have never been) a homogenous group.

Although the Yes campaign was driven by large numbers of grass-roots activists, the discourses which animated the independence case in the referendum, came almost exclusively from middle class or privileged voices from Scotland’s cultural elite. Equally, a trip to Ibrox would have provided a great deal of evidence that there were large numbers of working class unionists, but there was even less of an affinity between them and the likes of Alasdair Darling or Gordon Brown.

As I have previously pointed out in Bella the independence campaigns were played-out through these two opposing binaries. On one hand we had the Better Together campaign which campaigned almost exclusively on the primacy of economic matters such as the currency issue, pensions, insurances, banks and businesses moving to England, oil revenues falling, supermarket prices rising, uncertainty in import and export tariffs and, ironically a raft of other financial ill effects which would result from being excluded from the EU’s single market.

The Yes side, which had an almost complete monopoly on Scotland’s cultural community, built their campaign around moral issues such as the ending of illegal wars, ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons, eradicating food banks and benefit sanctions, reducing poverty and narrowing the gap of runaway inequality through redistributive policies. To some extent, economic issues were important, but they were framed as matters of social policy, rather than purely economic policy.

In another article for Bella I explored the role of the media, showing the extent to which ‘unconscious’ forms of bias remain hidden to most people, particularly those working in the media itself. Further to that discussion, the most important form of unconscious ‘bias’ practiced daily by the mainstream media during the referendum, arose from the fact that the coverage of the issues almost exclusively privileged economic matters, with moral arguments being relegated to the periphery of the debate if not largely ignored.

In order to understand this pernicious yet invisible form of bias, it is necessary to understand the extent to which all mainstream journalism and news media is driven by its obsession with the market share of an ever decreasing audience. The single most important issue in mainstream news media revolves around readership numbers, viewer and listener figures and audience ratings. This is the central concern for every single newspaper, radio station and television network in the UK, no matter how big and prestigious, or how small and provincial. This obsession with market share has many serious, but mostly hidden, consequences.

Firstly, the fierce competition, which exists both within news organisations (between members of the same news team competing for roles, scoops, top stories, promotions etc.) and between news organisations (such as the ratings wars between the BBC Scotland and STV), results in the almost total homogenisation of news. The idea that competition creates diversity is, of course, a complete myth. A cursory glance at the front pages of the main newspapers and a flick between channels shows that in most cases, the opposite is true. This explains why, more often than not, the only difference between the stories in newspapers and on TV networks is their running order.

Secondly, the ratings wars which arise from this obsession with market share, means there is little time to explore issues in any great depth. Relentless competition creates an environment of extreme pressure and stress for journalists and media managers who are acutely sensitive to the need to augment or at least maintain audience share. Another difficulty arises from having to deal with all the insecurities which arise from failure to maintain their share of the market. This pressure to conform to market forces produces a ‘distortion effect’ which almost always goes completely unnoticed.

The solution to the pressures that this ruthless and relentless competition brings is ‘fast thinking’, which means thinking in clichés, thinking in ‘received ideas’, serving up ‘cultural fast food’, in small bite-size portions, for mass popular consumption. Having to maintain or even augment market share creates an obsession with not being boring or irrelevant, a trait which leads news producers to constantly search for the sensational and the dramatic aspect of the same stories. This process almost always leads to a significant distortion of the everyday events it covers.

Thirdly, the obsession with market share places media bosses and the journalists they manage, at the heart of a community which they cohabit with managers and executives from other industries; business people, accountants and economists, and any other enterprise which promotes an economistic view of the world. The practices as well as the views and opinions of the mainstream news media are thus broadly homologous with those of a much wider group of organisations, agencies and institutions that think in measurables, have targets and bottom lines, and who actively compete for a share of their respective markets.

Those who populate this group will be statistically more likely to see the world in economistic terms, one reason why they are also statistically more likely to occupy positions which lean to the political right. Membership of this economistic cohort tends to result in the unconscious belief in the sanctity of ‘market forces’, which inevitably results in the privileging of economic issues over moral ones. This is why mainstream news is not only dominated by economic issues but why there is a disproportionate number of business people on news and current affairs programmes.

This is where the real problem of hidden bias lurks. It also explains why the independence debate, mediated and managed by the mainstream media, was so comprehensively dominated by ‘economic issues’ as was the referendum on EU membership.

So, in short, I both agree and simultaneously disagree with Richard Walker  and Darren McGarvey.

The independence movement does have to change the way it approaches a potential second referendum. But rather than simply saying ‘stop berating journalists, they’re only doing their job’ (Walker), or stop blaming the BBC, the Yes movement must take a much proactive role in controlling the debate. The priorities should be to remind journalists, and indeed their audiences, that ‘the economic argument’ of any issue is always a highly political perspective, and one favoured by a group who are much less likely to be advocates of change. It should be stressed, by everyone involved in the independence movement, that moral arguments are just as important as economic arguments (for some of us more so). Indeed the evidence exists insofar as moral arguments were important to a very large section of society (clearly the 45% who voted Yes in 2014), and that moral arguments should have equal weight in any future debate on independence. There is no doubt that mainstream media journalists will almost certainly see a left-wing bias in this assertion, that’s fine, as it can only bring into consciousness that which is always hidden: namely, the unconscious economistic (and thus mostly right-leaning and conservative) bias of the vast majority of mainstream journalists.


Comments (13)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. john young says:

    If we don,t rid ourselves of the neo-con tories we might just be heading into hellish wars driven by those eejits in the USA,we are tied to them whether we like it or not and it will probably be too late anyhoo for us to extricate ourselves,there is so much madness/badness coming from across the pond,I fear the worst.

  2. Endrun says:

    By doing so you vacate a territory which many people consider to be critical. Pragmatism is not to be underestimated. In this campaign you have to be prepared to fight the economic argument. The difference this time is illuminated by Davis being examined in committee and admitting that some agricultural tariffs are 40% – in a food exporting nation like Scotland, how is that going to go down. It is no longer a case of uncertainty (indy) = bad, vs certainty (UK) = good, it is now uncertainty (indy) = bad, vs uncertainty (UK) = bad.

    Debunk estimates, point out that Scotland isn’t Greece, Scotland could be Norway – with Whisky and Food. (Apologies to the Norwegians but I am not sure they are well known for food exports).

  3. Doghouse Reilly says:

    Which is to do no more than to say that news, like other forms of information are now a commodity and the process of reporting it is distorted by the need to extract value. Bias in commercial news outlets is a product of capitalism more than conspiracy. Conspiracies may exist, but even without them news would be packaged in the way that most folk want to hear because that’s the only way it will sell.

    And whilst I would agree that the moral case can have real force it is still necessary to address the economic consequences and be honest about them. I don’t mean just will Scotland be better or worse of but who in Scotland will be better or worse off?

    Honesty requires a distributional analysis.

    Independence that simply entrenches existing inequalities isn’t independence at all. And an independence that challenges inequalities in a meaningful way will need to live and be comfortable with the accusation of being left wing, and the challenge to vested interests.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I agree, and therefore ask the ethical question: what good can an independent Scotland do in the world?

    We can perhaps immediately start by righting wrongs of mainstream Britishness. We can for example remember those we have killed not just who died for the Empire, and honour those we have wronged at home and abroad.

    We can start labelling our products to show their true environmental, human and animal cost. And then have a discussion about banning, reducing and using alternatives.

    We can begin building up a reparations fund with both progressive, institutional-wealth and inherited wealth taxes. And then have a discussion on how to use it.

    We in Scotland are well placed to start uncovering those historical silences that generations of British academics have been complicit in. We can turn our national social sciences towards the de-propagandising function pioneered by the Glasgow Media Group, but on a global scale.

    We should expose mainstream economics as an anti-science, and train a new generation of environmentalists, social psychologists and political philosophers instead.

    We should be working out a military policy that is truly geared to defence and threatens no-one.

    We could free our intellectual property and make it available to the world, not hoard it for personal gain and hold back development (James Watt’s steam engine patent shame). A nationalised pharmaceutical industry would be a start.

    We can accept being materially poor but digitally (and culturally) rich.

    We can turn our education and training systems to producing the carers and defenders, builders and growers, creators and curators, healers and peacemakers, teachers and researchers, far-seers and people-understanders that the world really needs.

    And we should do all these things not because they benefit us in some way or make us look good, but because they are the right thing to do.

  5. Wul says:

    “…but even without them news would be packaged in the way that most folk want to hear because that’s the only way it will sell.”

    It’s a pity we don’t have a state-funded, impartial broadcaster with a remit to inform and educate and no need to produce profits.

  6. Doghouse Reilly says:

    Indeed, our state broadcaster reflects a cultural hegemony as would any such Scottish institution post independence.

    And just because you agree with something doesn’t make it free of bias.

    But for all its faults the BBC stands between us and Fox news. There is a reason Murdoch and his ilk attack it so aggressively. I won’t do their work for them.

  7. Crubag says:

    The Yes campaign largely lost the last referendum, I would say, on economic grounds.

    The proposed reframing doesn’t seem to help with that. The economic bedrock needs to be there, not just trying to change the question.

    And it really isn’t that difficult, conceptually at least. Scotland would need its own currency and central bank, and a path and timeframe to move from sterling to the new arrangements (including how to repay existing debts and mortgages, pension arrangements, welfare eligibility, new systems etc.).

    The economy that will be making this possible will still be a largely market economy with elements of public ownership, just like every other economy in the developed world. Alternative visions might seem to become more possible with a smaller state, but the electoral record is that those switch off voters rather than enthuse them, so beyond mobilising those small, pre-existing groups, I don’t think there would be much impact .

    1. Doghouse Reilly says:

      So back to my questions, who will be better off? who will be worse off?

      I don’t mind being poorer to end homelessness and poverty. I object strongly to poorer households being worse off so that the people that own Scotland can continue to live in luxury or to appease middle class voters.

    2. e.j. churchill says:

      ‘Reframed’ are one of the few tools SNP has. TM actually did Scotland a BIG favour in the six years. That is enough time to build an outline economy, with a modest central bank, issue some bonds and have a mostly convertible currency.

      Beyond ‘re-framing’ the economic cupboard is pretty empty, and with transparently insincere apologies to the ever-sillier JC, the groat is looking like to top of the few & poor choices of currency options.

      Will SNP be smart … for once, and ride the gift horse? Nah.

      ’tis sad


    3. e.j. churchill says:

      The ‘moral argument’ is a proven loser. 55-45 the last time it was used. If a supercharged, refined, polished Moral Argument 2 is of offer, figure 45% was WAAAAY high.

      People don’t forget being lied to and played for a sucker.

      I have no idea why SNP pretends surprise that they are challenged on EVERY presentment.

      ’tis sad


  8. Eric says:

    We need to take on many of the received ‘truths’ of neoliberalism head-on, and we can cite impeccable sources to debunk much of their low-tax economy nonsense to do this. See Ha-Joon Chang’s ’23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ for plenty of solidly evidenced arguments for a more equal society with quality social services etc. The truth is that neoliberal orthodoxy is actually harmful to the economy, however you define it.

    Further thoughts here: https://biowrite.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/scottish-independence-in-end-days-of-capitalism/ .

  9. James says:

    This is one of the things we need to think of. Good and clear explanation by the author.

  10. James says:

    Good and clear explanation by the author.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.