Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Stopping Murdoch is not enough
In a matter of weeks the political class has gone from cap-doffing servitude to outright hostility to Rupert Murdoch and News International. It feels almost surreal watching Ed Miliband and David Cameron publically attacking Murdoch when until recently they would have stopped at nothing to curry favour with his newspapers. Tony Blair's former special advisor Lance Price even said in his memoirs that Mr Murdoch was the “third person to be consulted on every major decision” during Blair’s time in office. Asking who voted for this – after all, the most obvious question for any serious democrat – was apparently off-limits for our politicians until last week. Now they are asking nothing else.
Anyone who has ever read a copy of Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper, if read is the correct term, would be hard-pressed to find any worthwhile contribution to British cultural life within its pages. Those who have felt the wrath of the Sun in recent years have ranged from asylum seekers to benefit claimants to the straightforwardly eccentric. The Sun and the NOTW also tap very successfully into a layer of public veneration of the military and a proud hatred of anything remotely French or German. This mentality can be seen most visibly during football World Cups or on the eve of a war, when a failure to applaud or cheer at the correct volume is treated as high-treason or a sign of closeted homosexuality.
The problem for the left - and it is a real problem - is that the public buys this sort of thing in droves. Several years ago the then-editor of the Mirror Piers Morgan tried to include more “serious” news in his paper, only to see circulation decline dramatically as a result. Going by the sales figures at least, if it’s a contest between hard news and peado-bashing the latter tends to shift more copies.
Some on the left are celebrating Murdoch’s setbacks as if the destruction of one man will solve the problem of a biased, corporate media and usher in a new, progressive era. In reality, the problem is not so much Murdoch but a notion of “freedom” that allows wealthy barons to use the media as their business propaganda-wing. As Hannen Swaffer, one of the early 20th century pioneers of British tabloid journalism, put it, “freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to”.
The resulting copy often brings to mind the description given of the Cuban Communist newspaper, Granma, by the late Argentinean editor and dissident Jacobo Timerman, who described his morning encounter with the newspaper as "a degradation of the act of reading".
It is of course a simplification to say that media barons set the political agenda and journalists jump into line. For a start there are many journalists who would refuse to do such a thing. What newspapers and television stations do very effectively is reinforce orthodoxy organically through the reproduction of their own economic interests. Should the media accurately report voices of dissent it may in theory cannibalize itself through a transformation in society’s economic structure. According to Gramsci, we may judge ideology to be effective if it is able to blend with the “common sense” of the people.
Despite what the political right will inevitably say, the call for a democratisation of the media to prevent a few wealthy barons controlling the entire political and cultural information-gateway is not a call for the destruction of freedom of the press, but a demand for a genuinely free and democratic mass-media.
In the clamour to get rid of Murdoch, though, let us on the left not forget the real issue here: media plurality. When Murdoch is gone, it could quite easily be someone else.