Written By: - Date published: 11:56 am, January 22nd, 2013 - 51 comments
Categories: blogs, broadcasting, class war, david cunliffe, david shearer, democratic participation, labour, Media, news, radio, tv - Tags:
Democracy needs that news media that provide in-depth and well-researched coverage of a diversity of political perspectives, as I argued in Media Bias & Democracy I. Attempts to ensure impartiality have been most often become a formula for presentation of two sides around a very small and shifting “centre”. Traditionally the UK print press aimed for objectivity, while TV news and current affairs, led by the BBC, aimed for impartiality. As Brian McNair explains in News and Journalism in the UK: A Textbook 5th edit (2009), these are impossible ideals, that should be aimed for, but will never be totally achieved. As the UK Ofcom reported in 2007 (McNair, p37), the rules established a while back to ensure impartiality in the news, when media and communication technologies were less diverse, may now be counter-productive:
This may have fostered a middle-of-the-road culture in mainstream news. Views that do not fit easily within a conventional, two-sided debate can struggle to be heard, resulting in a discussion round a narrow perceived fulcrum.
In NZ and elsewhere, the increased corporate dominance of, and commercialisation of the news media since the 1980s has foregrounded “neoliberal” values of infotainment and individualism, further undermining objectivity and impartiality. In the case of the main television news “impartiality” has long been implemented by a narrow idea of the “presentation of both sides of an argument”. As argued by Stuart Hall back in 1976*, this has most often become narrowed into the default position of the two sides being associated with the perspectives of the two main political parties. This creates a centre point, that becomes the neutral position, presented as natural, masking the way it is constructed. This is particularly true for coverage of contentious or disputed issues such as AGW/climate change. And any views outside this centre point, to the left or right, are labelled negatively as “extreme”.
Various kinds of bias are evident in the MSM coverage of politics and current events. This goes beyond just ensuring the presentation of two sides of an issue, and includes factors like:
The ratings driven values of infotainment result in individualised, headline-grabbing reports of human dramas and catastrophes. These are most usually expressed in simplified narrative terms: crime, disasters, political conflicts (usually between politicians) etc. Little background is given to the political dramas so that policy issues get reduced to sound bites – the slicker the better. We saw this in the coverage of the 2012 Labour Conference where the 2 sides were presented as a drama between Shearer and Cunliffe, mediated by journalists like Patrick Gower. Cunliffe was asked for his position (so the non-partisan prescription of presenting 2 sides was covered). However, presented within the infotainment format, Cunliffe was presented as the villain and Shearer the good guy. This was aided by Team Shearer leaking their demonisation of Cunliffe to the media. This view of Cunliffe was mostly presented uncritically.
Journalists did not do an in-depth and far-reaching investigation into what was happening at the conference. Consequently the ground breaking democratisation and empowerment of the membership was marginalised, if mentioned at all. The deeper and more significant story wasn’t about individuals that could be expressed in simple sound-bites. It was about the will of the collective, the decades long frustration at the hi-jacking of the Labour Party by Rogernomics etc.
These days, the Labour caucus tends to create policy with the intention of firstly presenting it to the MSM. They talk to potential voters through this filter. Some party members, and left blog posters and commenters are now contesting this. This is the sign of a significant shift, resulting form worrying changes in people’s circumstances, in these uncertain times. The result is a struggle to determine the appropriate and necessary left wing direction.
Some of this is done in a way that aims to close down discussion by smearing left wing bloggers and commenters who are critical of the current Labour Caucus. This was seen in the discussion (allegedly) “from the left and from the right” on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon programme yesterday. Matthew Hooton and Mike Williams were huddled around the “centre” ground, which is loosely aligned with the current Labour caucus and the public face of the Key led government. In keeping with this kind of MSM positioning, the solid left wing critiques expressed on The Standard, were labelled as “extremism” written by “nutters”. The diversity of left wing views presented on this blog was ignored, lumped into smears associating such views with the old Alliance Party and Cunliffe supporters.
Since the 1980s, it has been difficult for Labour parties to get favourable coverage of their traditional policies and values in the MSM. Such policies include a focus on collective action, the interests of those on relatively low incomes (workers and beneficiaries), fair employment conditions and pay, adequate social security, etc. When Labour parties have been elected into government, it is by not straying too far from the artificial centre created by the corporate MSM. However, sooner or later the MSM will switch back to the party/ies that more strongly favour the elite, as seen with Tony Blair’s government eventually falling out of favour.
Initially Murdoch and his press supported Tony Blair mainly because there was a shift in the views of MSM consumers away from the then Tory government. New Labour also courted Murdoch by “signaling that it would provide him with a sympathetic business environment should it win the election“. in 2008, with another consumer shift, Murdoch shifted back to his more sympathetic allegiance with the UK Conservative Party (McNair p.51).
McNair argues that press barons like Murdoch are losing their influence and consumers gaining more power, aided by the access to the diversity of news that has expanded on the Web. However, McNair doesn’t account for what followed once the likes of Cameron and Key gained power. All the gentle, slow shifts by the Labour governments away from hard core “neoliberalism” are being ruthlessly undone. Harsher, more divisive and punitive austerity measures are being brought in, savaging the less well-off in favour of the elites.
Each time governments shift from Tory to Labour and back again, the centre is moved further to the right. The only way to truly break the “neoliberal” consensus is for the flax roots to cut out the MSM middle-people and engage directly with the politicians. It’s encouraging that the Labour membership are taking a strong lead in this. Engagement and campaigning from below is a multi-pronged affair that also requires engagement with local communities and individuals. Some can be done online (e.g. on left wing blogs), but this also also needs to be in association with an ongoing range of offline events where people can exchange ideas and experiences face-to-face.
* HALL, STUART (1976) “Broadcasting and the State: the independence/impartiality couplet”, stencilled paper, AMCR symposium, University of Leicester . (This article is discussed here.)