UK leftie intellectual and Guardian writer George Monbiot recently wrote this fascinating article (h/t phillip ure) on the media. Drawing on recent events in Canada but extrapolating the implications to the United Kingdom the message is just as relevant for New Zealand given that the same main media powers are in play throughout the Commonwealth and given that each country’s public broadcast systems are under the same pressure.
The theme is how supposedly impartial state broadcasters have become mouthpieces for the elite.
The article draws on recent Canadian experience and the treatment of reporters for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In Monbiot’s words:
In 2013 reporters at CBC, Canada’s equivalent of the BBC, broke a major story. They discovered that RBC – Royal Bank of Canada – had done something cruel and unusual even by banking standards. It was obliging junior staff to train a group of temporary foreign workers, who would then be given the staff’s jobs. Just after the first report was aired, according to the website Canadaland, something odd happened: journalists preparing to expand on the investigation were summoned to a conference call with Amanda Lang, CBC’s senior business correspondent and a star presenter. The reporters she spoke to say she repeatedly attempted to scuttle the story, dismissing it as trivial and dull.
They were astonished. But not half as astonished as when they discovered the following, unpublished facts. First, that Lang had spoken at a series of events run or sponsored by RBC – for which she appears, on one occasion, to have been paid around 15,000 Canadian dollars. Second, that she was booked to speak at an event sponsored by the outsourcing company the bank had hired to implement the cruel practice exposed by her colleagues. Third, that her partner is a board member at RBC.
Get the feeling that Lang had a conflict of interest in the matter? It only gets worse.
Lang then interviewed the bank’s chief executive on her own show. When he dismissed the story as unfair and misleading, she did not challenge him. That evening she uncritically repeated his talking points on CBC’s main current affairs programme. Her interests, again, were not revealed. Then she wrote a comment article for the Globe and Mail newspaper suggesting that her colleagues’ story arose from an outdated suspicion of business, was dangerous to Canada’s interests, and was nothing but “a sideshow”. Here’s what she said about the bank’s employment practices: “It’s called capitalism, and it isn’t a dirty word.”
Monbiot then drew comparisons with the situation in the United Kingdom.
This is grotesque. But it’s symptomatic of a much wider problem in journalism: those who are supposed to scrutinise the financial and political elite are embedded within it. Many belong to a service-sector aristocracy, wedded metaphorically (sometimes literally) to finance. Often unwittingly, they amplify the voices of the elite, while muffling those raised against it.
A study by academics at the Cardiff School of Journalism examined the BBC Today programme’s reporting of the bank bailouts in 2008. It discovered that the contributors it chose were “almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.” The financiers who had caused the crisis were asked to interpret it.
The same goes for discussions about the deficit and the perceived need for austerity. The debate has been dominated by political and economic elites, while alternative voices – arguing that the crisis has been exaggerated, or that instead of cuts, the government should respond with Keynesian spending programmes or taxes on financial transactions, wealth or land – have scarcely been heard. Those priorities have changed your life: the BBC helped to shape the political consensus under which so many are now suffering.
He also referred to trends in reporting on environmental issues and noted “a near total collapse of environmental coverage on ITV and BBC news: it declined from 2.5% (ITV) and 1.6% (BBC) of total airtime in 2007 to, respectively, 0.2% and 0.3% in 2014.”
It would be interesting to see a similar analysis conducted in New Zealand. I suspect the results would be the same. Amongst commentators on state media only Jim Parker and Rod Oram and occasionally Bernard Hickey are willing to challenge the corporate conventional wisdom. And in terms of reporting on environmental issues you would have thought that the recent news that 2014 was the warmest on record and evidence of a potentially civilisation ending phenomenon would have attracted more attention. Yet judging by the weekend papers the local media is more interested in a boxing match between an ex black cap and a supposed celebrity blogger.