Hackgate: A Triumph for the Liberal Media?

by Medialens, Ed Lewis

David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of Medialens, they spoke with NLP’s Ed Lewis on the significance of the News International scandal and its likely implications for the British media.

You write about the depredations of the corporate media, viewing them as forming a system of propaganda on behalf of political and economic elites. Put the current revelations about phone hacking in context – how do they compare with other abuses perpetrated by the British media? Or do you believe it is crass to make such comparisons?

It’s not that the corporate media perpetrates abuses – it is the propaganda arm of a corporate system that systematically subordinates the vast majority of people to maximised profit. Human society is in thrall to a system of control that constantly works to stifle freedom of thought and expression in individuals and in nations seeking independence and genuine democracy. The environment is in thrall to the same self-blinded system that places maximisation of profits above the need to respond to threats to global survival. Other consequences include an on-going state of Permanent War for human and natural resources, with literally millions of dead over decades, the widespread use of torture, economic strangulation, terror and so on.

Obviously, compared to crimes on this scale, the phone hacking scandal is a pretty minor issue (we can consider what Iraqis, for example – victims of a much more malignant expression of Western media corruption - would make of it). Noam Chomsky has pointed out that big business is not in favour of corruption – it is inefficient, chaotic, costly to business.  Also, elites do not want to live in a police state; they don’t want to risk falling victim to corrupt police, criminal gangs, tyrants. So although phone hacking is a relatively small example of media toxicity, it is an important issue for elites with the power to defend themselves.

Some have claimed that the blow struck to the Murdoch empire by recent events will free politicians to pursue more progressive policies, which they have been deterred from doing hitherto. Do you see this as a likely prospect?

Murdoch’s empire is only one part of a media system that fights progressive policies tooth and nail.  Recall that party politics is in effect owned by corporate and other establishment centres of power – parties and politicians are selected and supported because they are both system-supportive and good at selling the illusion of democracy (Clinton, Blair and Obama are prime examples). For the most part, the three main parties have interchangeable policies on key issues – even the complete collapse of the Murdoch empire would do little or nothing to change that.

If Murdoch’s grip really were broken, then politicians might have less reason to fear that their personal peccadilloes would be splashed across the Murdoch press.  But other internal and external political and economic constraints on political freedom of actions would remain absolutely in place. Politicians will only pursue progressive policies if they are put under significant public pressure to do so; not because the News of the World has closed.

A crucial part of your view that the media are subservient to elite power is that those which appear to be the most critical, such as the Guardian, actually tend to confine their dissent within boundaries that are acceptable to the powerful. But in this case the Guardian has led investigations that have been threatening not just to the corporate empire of Murdoch but also to the upper echelons of the police and political establishment. Doesn’t this undermine your view that the British liberal media are really ‘guardians of power’?

It’s true that the Guardian has produced good journalism exposing some of the corrupt links between News International, the police and politics. But as noted above, big business does not favour corruption, and elites do not want to live in a police state. Watergate was another example where elite interests defended themselves against a section of elite power that had overstepped the mark. Did the Watergate exposures indicate that the US press were not ‘guardians of power’? Obviously not. In fact the reverse is true – the same US press completely ignored political attacks against left-wing political parties and movements by the same people responsible for Watergate.

It makes good business sense to expose the crimes of media competitors (as at Nuremberg, preferably crimes unique to the enemy). News International’s The Times and Sunday Times are, after all, in the same ‘quality press’ market as the Guardian and the Observer. Weakening Murdoch’s grip on the UK benefits other media, including the Guardian/Observer. The Guardian’s scoops have helped bolster its reputation for investigative journalism, its brand, at a time when it is losing money and cutting staff.

The notion that a more honest media can emerge from this, one capable of systematically challenging official propaganda is absurd. The same structural constraints ensuring propaganda services on behalf of elite state-corporate interests remain in place. Downplaying or overlooking these constraints, with talk of a ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for journalists and a ‘new manifesto for media ethics’, is about repairing the appearance rather than the reality.

The Guardian has nothing at all to say about the structural corruption described in our first answer above. For example, the fact that the political system does not just have corrupt links with a media empire, but is to all intents and purposes owned by elite interests. Who can deny that Blair transformed the Labour party into a second Business Party, a second Tory party, thus removing any semblance of democratic choice? And yet the Guardian has never identified this blindingly obvious corruption of the political system as a fit topic for discussion. John Pilger put it well:

‘[T]he truth is, Britain’s system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on News International alone, but on the Mail and the Guardian and the BBC, perhaps the most influential of all. All share a corporate monoculture that sets the agenda of the “news”, defines acceptable politics by maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of “free speech”. This will be strengthened by the illusion that a “bad apple” has been “rooted out”.’

Thus, even if Murdoch’s empire were to collapse, there would still be no ‘free press’, no responsible corporate news agenda and no brave new world of media democracy. For these to take root, the stranglehold of corporate media and corporate politics needs to be broken. And that will only happen when enough people demand change.

Your comments here seem somewhat exaggerated. You claim that the Guardian has ‘never identified’ the fact that democratic choice has been undermined by the fact that the Labour Party has been transformed into a ‘second Business Party’. But there are countless articles in which Seamus Milne, George Monbiot and others have critiqued New Labour in precisely these terms. Exposing the ways in which the Guardian reinforces narratives that serve corporate power is surely a crucial task, but isn’t your work on that front undermined by hyperbole?

Well lets take a look at one of your examples. Seamus Milne does make oblique references to “the appeasement of corporate muscle”, to the fact that bankers and businessmen “have called the shots”, to “links between government and business”, and so on. But we were talking about openly stating and exploring the fact that “the political system does not just have corrupt links with a media empire, but is to all intents and purposes owned by elite interests… thus removing any semblance of democratic choice?” Milne hints in this direction, but that’s all. And he is the Guardian’s chief ‘dissident’ figleaf – he is as good as it gets (which is why you cited him).

A serious discussion of the problem would also involve detailed analysis of exactly how corporate power has taken over the major political parties in both Britain and the US. This would be used as a framework for reporting, for example election coverage. It would be backed up by serious investigation of the people, groups and finances involved, exploring motives and goals. How was the Labour party taken over, bought up and retained by establishment power? How are non-corporate friendly parties prevented from arising and achieving influence? What has been the media role in facilitating and hiding this destruction of democracy from the public?

But in fact, aside from vague gesturing in the direction of the truth from one or two heavily compromised ‘dissidents’, the Guardian devotes simply huge resources to presenting elections as important, meaningful choices, rather than as a fraud perpetrated on a nation essentially under corporate occupation (corporations being, of course, tyrannical systems of power). The level of Guardian complicity was summed up in 2005 when its editors actually urged voters to vote for Blair despite his massive war crimes in Iraq: “We believe that Mr Blair should be re-elected to lead Labour into a third term this week.”

The Guardian could have focused on exposing Blair’s role in destroying democracy by transforming Labour into another Tory party. Instead it urged readers actually to vote for him! That really said it all

There is now discussion in the mainstream about a variety of media reforms, notably replacing the Press Complaints Commission and, more ambitiously, diversifying the ownership of the British media to prevent power being as concentrated as it currently is in the hands of News International. What is your view of these proposals?

At least the mood has been lightened somewhat by the hypocritical (but required) political attacks on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It’s funny because, while Cameron and co are demanding it be scrapped, it is supposed to be independent and so, in theory, cannot be scrapped on government orders. In fact it is not independent – it is a poodle - and it will be scrapped or radically ‘reformed’. Bush and Blair were scrapped and replaced when their brands became irredeemably tarnished, when people began to see through the illusion. The tarnished PCC brand will also be scrapped and a new illusion will be put in place.

The “ownership of the British media” has always been a red herring. The problem is not that the media is owned by this or that corporate power, but that it is corporate power.


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First published: 15 August, 2011


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4 Comments on "Hackgate: A Triumph for the Liberal Media?"

By David Wearing, on 16 August 2011 - 11:18 |

A few thoughts

On hacking being “a relatively small example of media toxicity” relative to the performance over Iraq, Israel-Palestine, etc, the point is taken, but the hacking story has a rather more fundamental significance, which is being missed here.

What became increasingly obvious as these revelations came out is that News International was effectively running something close to a protection racket in British politics, with the fruits of hacking, blagging etc being used to intimidate politicians into toeing the Murdoch line.

Now you could certainly argue that under capitalism the state will work in concert with corporate interests whether or not specific practices such as this take place. But this in no way detracts from the significance of the fact that a corporation which dominates the British media was able to routinely break the law, use the fruits of that law-breaking to impose a culture of fear on our elected representatives, and apparently was able to rely on the police not making the efforts necessary to prevent them from doing so.

That’s a shocking example of the extent of corporate dominance over (what ought to be) the public realm. And that in turn goes a long way to explaining the ability of the media to express its power in the more malignant ways that Medialens identify.

The exposure of these practices is a huge gift to the left. It lays bare the corrupt nature of the relationships between public servants and private corporations, it lays bare the raw power of these major concentrations of wealth, and it lays bare the capacity that such a dynamic has for producing acts of quite sickening immorality. It forces all this into popular discourse, beyond the left, and vindicates what we’ve always said about how power in this country works.

That in turn opens up a lot of space for the left to push the challenges that we want to make in terms of how the media operate. Its a one-off opportunity to mobilise people and get a fair hearing for practical proposals for popular, democratic control of the media. Medialens talk about popular pressure to challenge power. This is a major opportunity to do just that.

Finally, on the statement that “the Guardian has never identified [the] blindingly obvious corruption of the political system as a fit topic for discussion”, I doubt this will ring true to many people familiar with the paper’s output. The Guardian is certainly a paper of the liberal establishment, in terms of its general character, and being more specific, it gives far too much prominence to the likes of Julian Glover and Martin Kettle. But it is also true that the Guardian gives prominent space to authentic dissenting voices such as Gary Younge, Seumus Milne and George Monbiot in the paper itself, and to Richard Seymour, Ed Rooksby, Ben White, Nina Power and many others on its website. A more persuasive critique of the Guardian’s output and nature would take better account of these facts. The belittling of Milne’s work, for example isn’t remotely convincing.

By John M, on 16 August 2011 - 19:54 |

I agree with David Wearing’s last point. Medialens’s description of Seumas Milne’s writing makes me think that Media Lens’s vision has its own distortions - distortions which prevent the two Davids from noticing Guardian material which doesn’t fit Medialens’s view of the Guardian.

I also don’t really buy the “fig leaf” explanation. It sounds good, but doesn’t fit the reality. Especially in the online world.

By Dan Hind, on 22 August 2011 - 23:22 |

I find it puzzling that Edwards and Cromwell don’t seem to want to outline an alternative system for sharing information and analysis.

Market institutions and public interest broadcasters have clearly failed. The Medialens case against the Guardian is overstated, but there is no question that, taken as a whole, the media fail to describe important matters in ways that enable us to deliberate reasonably as a democratic public.

Why don’t Medialens start arguing for a programme of reform? No one can seriously dispute the broad outlines of their critique. By all means point out problems in the content of existing coverage, but let’s start talking about what we do to secure a better account of the world.

By Joe T, on 29 January 2012 - 09:53 |

The attacks on Milne and Monbiot are just wierd they remind me of the bit in the life of Bryan - you all know the bit I mean… There are lots of obvious baddies out there and even at the Guardian but basically their article on the web site is one long whinge about how Milne paid them no attention (when he was recovering from an opperation and they are so obviously the most tedious kind of ‘what about the workers’ bores who will never be satisfied and just want to sit around quvetching while rome burns) and how George Monbiot doesn’t write about everything every week. The stuff about Monbiot not being sufficiently critical of the BBC is crazy, the man left the BBC after a huge bust up over their editorial policy and has frequently attacked them since.

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