What Can We Learn from the Murdoch Scandal Part 2: The Journalism to Come…

What will happen to journalism now?

The obvious point first: the shortcomings of the mainstream media are hardly down to Murdoch alone. To suppose that his demise, if it happens, will change the game is really rather naïve, as Media Lens rightly point out. The various structural factors that effect the impinge on the media, illustrated in the work of Chomsky and Hernan and, although taking a different view, described Nick Davis, who broke the phone-hacking story, won’t be affected all that much. What’s more, many of the most damning abuses of the press, whether the smear campaign against Scargill detailed in Seamus Milne’s The Enemy Within, the failure to effectively question the war in Iraq, and so on, are not solely Murdoch’s responsibility.

As John Pilger writes in New Statesman:

“The truth is, Britain’s system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on Murdoch’s 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 as maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of “free speech”.”

This isn’t to say that this isn’t a victory of sorts. The scandal and it’s reprecussions may well deprive US and UK politics of one of it’s most vitriolic bullies. But things need to be kept in perspective.

This leads to the second point: there have so far been a few calls for greater regulation of the press. Rushed, stage-managed legislation, which is the government’s tried and tested method for re-asserting authority in the face of everything from knife crime to dangerous dogs. It ignores the more structural factors, including the tiny number of huge media companies and would rely on institutions, such as the PCC, to the police to the government, which are either toothless or in the latter two cases clearly incapable of standing up the media pressure, as we have seen. There is an argument for some media reform, however, regarding Britain’s draconian libel laws, discussed here. Further down I will be looking at Dan Hind’s ideas for a more a democratic media.

The British Establishment Shaken

What is potentially crippling for the Establishment is what the scandal has exposed about the behavior of British elites.

In the context of the coming year, with all the likely tumult and protest, this could be extremely important in shifting the balance. This is particularly so amidst the wave of very visible police misconduct, ranging from Ian Tomlinson’s unlawful death to the mass arrests at Fortnum and Mason. Similarly, there been a number of high profile deceptions amongst the powerful including, as Seamus Milne rightly notes,– the Iraq war, the deregulated banking system, and the expenses scandal.

How to interpret this is an open question. Some have argued that it’s a matter of elite ‘corruption’. Consider for example to line taken by Milne in the article above:

“These revelations should ram home the reality that Britain has become a far more corrupt country than many realise. Much of that has been driven by the privatization-fueled revolving door culture that gives former ministers and civil servants plum jobs in the companies they were previously regulating.”

While I understand this position, I think a more productive line of inquiry would consider this being more a crisis of visibility than anything else. I don’t want to injure this argument by condensing it, so for more on this I would check out Richard Seymour’s posts on Lenin’s Tomb here, here and here.

A side note: the most visible response from the ‘left’ so far has been the exploits of Jonnie Marbles, who pied Murdoch during a Parliamentry session. It’s hard to know how this has been received by the public, but the 1, 103 primarily hostile comments following a piece Marbles authored for the Guardian suggest that it has not gone down all that well. Given the need for a strong radical movement in coming years, if this is the kind of reaction that such tactics are receiving, it might be time for a rethink.

The Future of the Media

Finally, I’m going to consider the media in general, and a suggestion for the future. On this subject a rather refreshing view comes courtesy of Dan Hind’s excellent The Return of the Public. Here, he distinguishes between the republican ideas of ‘the public’ –  free persons who “participated in government and together articulated the public interest” – and contemporary ‘public opinion’, where the public merely act merely as spectators. As Hind writes:

“The educated public listens and observes, critically to be sure. But it does not speak for itself. Its chooses between candidates offered in the electoral process, and can applaud or catcall the activities of the political performers…Though flattered with the title of public, the emerging society organized around the club, the tavern, the stage and the novel is better understood as an audience.”[1]

This distinction, which becomes electrifying when combined with Hind’s reading of the republican strain in pre-1688 radical thought, is an important one. As Hind is well aware, the ‘freedom’ promoted by our democracy is limited by the inequality of assets, i.e. the fact that I am dependent on other, more wealthy people to live, and thus unable to play a comparable role in running things. On Hind’s reading, radicals like George Winstanley recognized this and thus thought that real equality would involve an equal distribution of land, which today we could generalize to ‘productive assets’. Instead, we have formal equality and unequal assets, meaning that our primary ‘public’ function is as commentators. On this reading,  the repeated articulation of journalism’s self-aggrandizing claim to be the hallmark of democracy looks a little weak.

While this may be stretching things a bit, I would argue that this helps us understand Murdoch’s capitalist strategy. This has typically involved building a consumer base before reaching into politics ,ranging from the smut and sport of the Sun or the entertainment provided by the Fox Network. Passive spectators are not particularly distinct from consumers and there is a certain logic in exploiting the desire for entertainment and turning it into a political weapon. When all people are doing is watching, it’s hard to imagine Newsnight being an easier sell than celebrity gossip, especially given how remote the prospect of political influence is from most people’s lives.

It’s possible to ascribe an even darker aspect to media entertainment, if we feel the need. In Morozov’s book,  The Net Delusion[2], the author produces evidence that households in East Germany with greater access to western television were more politically satisfied than their less entertained neighbours. Throughout his work, we are given examples of entertainment in place of ideologically-driven party discipline being adopted by authoritarians throughout the modern world, given it’s utility as a pacifier. Particularly clear examples can be found in Italy and Russia, but these are far from unique.

This brings us to the question of what we should be asking for in place of a more regulated media environment, and this is another area where Hind is of interest. He suggests a collective system of production, where collective voting over the commissioning of programes, research and investigation would determine the content of the news. This would begin with publicly funded institutions, like the BBC, which could devote a certain segment of their budget to publicly directed journalism. The details of this scheme are too many to discuss in depth here, but the basic idea is extremely sound. As he writes:

“My first proposal, therefore, is that a public commissioning system be established to run alongside the existing public service and commercial broadcasters and publishers. In this system citizens would, collectively and equally, make decisions about the allocation of resources of journalists and researchers…Each citizen should have an equal say in how public money is used to support journalism in the public interest. There is no need for a separate group of editorial decision-makers to stand between the commissioning audience and the investigating journalist.”

In the face of calls for greater regulation or the temptation of idle despair, it is imperative that we begin to think about alternatives to the present model. What’s more, with the advent of the internet as a means of mass communication, we are seeing a growth in citizen journalism. The extent, reach and potential of these new forms is not clear, but the potential may be vast.

[1] Hind, D The Return of the Public (2010) Verso pp. 39

[2] Morozov, E The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (2010) Allen Lane

[3] Hind, op cit, pp. 158

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