Corporate figleaves and media power: a few points on Media Lens’s critique of left-wing journalists

by Tom

First published: 29 January, 2015 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Media

Media Lens's latest critique of the Guardian journalist George Monbiot is only the most recent in a series of articles over the years in which they have targeted the small number of left-wing journalists working in the 'mainstream' media.  These occasional pieces have been accompanied by, and interspersed with, some ill-tempered exchanges on Twitter with figures like Monbiot, Owen Jones and Mehdi Hasan.

In short, Media Lens's argument is that whilst left-wing journalists like Monbiot may draw attention to important political, social and environmental issues, they can never be honest about the corporate dominated system within which they work since they are not able to attack the very media that grants them a platform.  Their presence, Media Lens therefore argue, helps reinforce the idea that the 'mainstream', or corporate, media is 'free', disguising the limits that in reality are placed on the scope for political dissent.  Figures like Monbiot are, in short, 'figleaves' for the corporate media, disguising its true nature and its great power.

The strategic calculation which underlines Media Len's attacks on left-wing journalists is that it would be better for radical movements if there were no Monbiots working for the 'mainstream' media; that they would be more effective working and publishing independently, and that moreover this would make the media's true role as a mouthpiece for the corporate-state elite more conspicuous.  Perhaps this is true, but it is by no means obvious.

Media Lens emphasise the role played by liberal media outlets like the Guardian and the Independent in limiting the scope of acceptable opinion.  This, I think, is correct, at least to a point.  The Guardian is certainly the go-to media outlet for the liberal wing of the British elite; it is widely read in the Labour Party and is an influential 'opinion former' for its largely urban middle-class readership. 

However, its business model is based precisely around that relatively privileged subset of the population and its circulation of under 200,000 is the lowest in the industry, with the exception of the Independent.  In so far as the Guardian has a direct influence on political opinion, therefore, it is  likely to be concentrated within privileged, even powerful, sections of the UK population.  So whilst it is probably important in shaping elite opinion, it is not at all clear that it performs a major function in diverting the public at large from pursuing radical democratic politics.  The presence of figures like Owen Jones at the paper is thus probably most important for influencing opinion amongst the liberal/left-wing of the elite, strengthening the left of the Labour Party for example.  This will, it should be emphasised, have important social impacts, but the impact is not obviously 'ideological' in the sense that Media Lens's advocacy seems to imply. 

In so far as the presence of radicals within the corporate press influences public opinion, I think it is likely to be mostly through the indirect influence on editorial decision making within the BBC and other broadcasters, who use the press as a gauge of acceptable political opinion.  All the research on media power suggests that it is television that has the broadest reach, and which is the most trusted by the public.  Yet in their latest 'alert', Media Lens attack Monbiot precisely for criticising 'everyone's favourite media punch bag, the BBC', rather than his employer. 

Does the ubiquitous presence of Owen Jones on our television screens set back social movements by disguising the insidious nature of media power?  And is that, in turn, drawing more people into sympathy with the 'establishment', than into social movements which challenge it?  I very much doubt it.  But I don't know the answer.  And actually I don't think anyone does.

This leads us to what, I think, is a problem with Media Lens's approach.  They draw heavily on the 'propaganda model', a theory of media performance developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky which argues that certain structural constraints such as private ownership and advertising lead the apparently 'free' media to act as a de facto propaganda system.  The 'propaganda model' is a powerful theory for explaining why the private media overwhelmingly reflect the interests and perspectives of elites, but it's formulation can lead towards functionalist thinking and in turn towards dogmatism and defeatism.

What I mean by 'functionalist' thinking is, in short, an understanding of society as a system made up of different parts which perform certain roles facilitating the functioning of the system as a whole.  Such thinking leads us to see media organisations, for example, as institutions which perform an ideological role within the social system (reproducing its structure and its inequalities).  It is this thinking, I think, that leads Media Lens to assume that journalists like Monbiot are ultimately 'functional', if you like, for the media system and the broader corporate dominated social system.  But, as I'm sure Media Lens will concede, we simply do not know whether the presence of left-wing journalists - 'figleaves' - within the corporate media are advantageous or not for corporations and social system they dominate.  Neither for that matter do those who manage the corporate media on behalf of those interests.  To assume otherwise is to attribute an inordinate level of knowledge and power on behalf of the corporate elite, something which can only lead to the sort of disillusionment with which we on the left are regrettably so familiar.  Is it not just as feasible that in bringing in 'figleaves' like Monbiot and Jones, media elites are unknowingly contributing to social movements which oppose the very interest they represent?

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