This article was written following a talk at the Trinity College Philosophical Society in June 2003.
Discreetly displayed on a wall in my downstairs loo, I have three laminated front pages from The Sun dating to the year 2000 AD. Each concerns itself with the short war against the Serbian government of Slobadom Milosevic. The first, dated May 26th, roars “Clobber Slobber!” and features a photograph of the cuddly tyrant with his mouth open.
The second, dated June 6th, shows Milosevic’s house shortly after a bomb destroyed it, beneath the caption, “Serbs ‘Em Right!”
The third, dated June 18th, has a slightly less cuddly Milosevic beneath a neat-wrap caption “Slobber Clobbered!” I imagine the number of people who gawked at the front page of The Sun on any of these days must be close to the thirty million mark. Ain’t it amazing.
To my mind, the basic job of the media is to entertain and inform. In 2003 it seems things have got out of hand. The media entertains, but largely through dumb-ass reality shows that ironically leave audiences in a state of heightened surreality. The media also informs, but the spin on such information has led to unparalleled confusion. Nobody is quite sure who or what to believe. The backers are always the money men, the corporate big-wigs seeking to make their fortunes from commerce. As such, the news is market-driven. A publisher might be utterly fascinated with the notion of running theological debates between rabbis, mullahs and priests on his pages but, at day’s end, he knows he’s going to shift a lot more copies if he can find a close up of Kylie’s bum. Likewise, if it doesn’t suit for the world to dwell upon famines and civil war, the media will run shots of Britney and Madonna snogging. Alternatively the media can whip up a righteous frenzy – the tabloids speculations of a French conspiracy to assassinate Princess Diana sparked off arguably the worst Anglo-French diplomatic crisis since the Napoleonic Wars. To achieve their own agendas, the media bosses have simply acquired the necessary tools to shape popular opinion.
This is a revolutionary age. Every institution is under attack. In fact, it’s almost become fashionable to launch into a right-wing defence of conglomerates. The Christian Church is struggling through the worst crisis in its two thousand year history; namely widespread cynicism and utter apathy from its once devoted flock. The entire concept of Democracy is under threat. The common people are scared and angry. Politicians are clearly taking the Michael. And the Irish Government is gradually paving the way for what looks alarmingly like a Police State.
And so too the Media is under attack.
The people of Planet Earth in 2003 have suspicious minds. Perhaps it’s all those conspiracy theories flying around. Perhaps it’s simply the fallout of the endless scandals permeating the highest ranks of church and state. But all our distrust must be based on more than mere instinct. The media supplied the data and no doubt a good deal of well-spun opinion. We adapted this data and make it the basis of our own opinions. In that case, the media must be said to be working.
However, one of the hazards of the modern age is that so much information is available that it’s utterly impossible to harness it into any manageable format. We are constantly bombarded with data, statistics, opinion and spin. Discourse is splintered between all the individual media corporations and the umpteen thousand websites purporting to tell the truth. This should ideally lead to a much more questioning and challenging populace but the human inclination to take it easy means most people will choose to idle through a glossy mag rather than engage in a serious but exhausting article about the future of the world.
In Ireland, the State is technically obliged to enforce a law on the media in which a certain amount of radio time must be given to discussion of political and cultural matters. However, as I heard Bryan Dobson, the RTE news anchorman, say in Trinity College Dublin lately, this law is regularly flouted as there’s obviously much more interest in the Top 40. Even so, all this diversity of media available to us means the choice is our own. And perhaps, as Michael Binyon (The Times, a self-confessed Murdoch minion) suggests, the competition between so many newspapers and magazines actually “dumbs up” standards. How would we know of all these global horrors if the rat-pack weren’t out there busting their balls to secure the golden scoop? Binyon believes it’s this choice that enables an informed democracy. Whether you go for a Guardian / Paxman combo or the straight up Fox News / Sunday Sport / Soapwatch deluxe, its your call. Or we can go online and look up The Jordan Times. And if you really think reading news blogs on www.georgewbush.com is going to keep you on the pulse, go for it.
Bryan Dobson conceded that the multiplicity of choice is under threat from the mergence of once independent bodies, be they local radio channels or global conglomerates run by faceless chief execs. He believed this trend of monopolization posed the greatest danger to the freedom of expression. A few people do own an awful lot of media. In a rare interview with Rupert Murdock after the 11th September bombing of New York, the Australian mogul declared his support for an all out strike against Sadaam Hussein whom he held responsible for the attack. He reasoned that if Sadaam stayed in power, he would soon take control of the entire Middle East. The following day, by extraordinary coincidence, all 175 of his editors agreed with him. Thus the world was presented with some 40 million newspapers stating the dubious opinion of one man. It is fair enough, said Dobson, for Murdock to sensationalize because that’s business and he’s a brilliant businessman. But the monopolization culture is profoundly more worrying.
In 2003 the US and UK governments passed legislation removing the restrictions formerly placed on such oligarchies obtaining monopolies. One reporter, working for The Times, wrote a story that went so against the grain of Murdock’s pro-Israeli thinking that he was forced to resign. His crime was to describe the death of several Palestinian leaders as “assassinations” rather than “target killings”. He also vocally objected when his editor decided to omit the fact that a 12-year-old Palestinian boy was killed during the shoot out. This isn’t dissimilar to the CNN’s refusal to cover the anti-war protests in San Francisco in March 2003. Or indeed to the way newscasters now use expressions “terrorist” and “enemy combatant”. When America goes to war, Sky News becomes the visual equivalent of Pravda, noble eagles soaring, trusty stealth bombers twirling over dusky mountains, fresh-faced heroes saluting those about to die.
Making a profit out of one’s newspaper is one thing but deliberately concealing the truth from ones readers is outrageous. Yes, there is an argument that the truth is not out there after all because there is no one universal or objective truth. Every story has its own facts and every fact is open to its own interpretation depending on the cultural or political background of the person reading it. Perhaps this failure to communicate news could sometimes be written off as merely a differing opinion. But the Orwellian nature of some of these recent cover ups is deeply alarming. The media is not just a money-making industry but a watchdog for this so-called democracy. It has a responsibility to raise all issues relevant to our future and allow us, the people of Planet Earth, to make our own minds up. Some say it is our own fault if we believe the lies we read. “You can’t shift responsibility like that! Don’t blame Fox News! It’s up to you to read up and research. Know thyself!”. The fact is, Bush and Blair told blatant mistruths in order to justify the war on Iraq. Their true motives are still unknown although securing the oil fields is odds on favourite with most bookies I know. The majority of people opposed the war. The Western media were split down the middle. Those papers that supported war published Bush and Blair’s lies and so duped their readers. One hopes it was all in good faith but frankly I doubt it and certainly until Bush and Blair address the world honestly on the subject, suspicion will rankle and grow.
What gets me is that the people of Ireland were opposed to war in the Gulf. I was one of several thousand people who marched around Dublin one afternoon in protest. That night every pub in the capital city was packed with people who really thought they could change the world. The government utterly ignored us, failed to address the issue, continued to use Shannon Airport as a base for Americans and is now amazingly silent on the entire subject. They’ve made us all freak out about smoking instead! As far as I could work out, even the papers were opposed to the war! But still the State didn’t listen.
But what alternatives do we have to global conglomerates? State conglomerates? God forbid!
It is wrong that all Bertie’s questions are vetted before he appears beside Kenny or Dunphy. He’s been prepped beforehand and that’s wrong.
I’m not suggesting that the daily Oireachtas Report be bumped up to prime time but there are clever and fun ways of making information available. The Simpsons is a case in point. A story in the unindependent Independent said Murdock was going to sue The Simpsons for running crawling text lines at the bottom of the screen like “Study: 92% of democrats are Gay”, “If JFK were reincarnated, he’d be a republican” and “Oil slicks found to keep seals young and supple”. But the concept rather floundered when people were reminded that The Simpsons is part of Murdock’s own Fox company!
Is there a global conspiracy amongst media tycoons?
The BBC is relatively independent as it is only a quasi-state owned business.
One of the greatest hurdles for our future, claimed a Taiwanese speaker, is the conflict of culture. We have no idea how, say, the mind of a Taiwanese man or Lebanese woman operates. Our minds o’erflow with inherited distilled prejudices and carefully blended colonial bigotry. The media can play an important role here by spreading knowledge of other countries and other people. Alas, too often, papers stick to their own cultural viewpoint.
The Irish media has come on in leaps and bounds since the 1980s when nobody even dared mention the Taoiseach’s illicit romance with Ireland’s leading columnist. Perhaps because that wasn’t strictly relevant? It is wrong to say the media are failing us. In these times many institutions are failing us – particularly the Church and State. But the media is not failing is. However, if you were to ask was the media doing enough for us?, that would be different. Has the media got its priorities right? I don’t think so. We all but magazines and newspapers every day. We nearly all watch television by night. But sometimes we do these things not to dumb ourselves down and veg out but because we actually want something that’s going to give us a boost. We want to absorb, to astound, to marvel!
The internet is the most democratic mechanism we have. Bulletin boards have already achieved immense success. But less than 10% of the world have internet access. One of the leading web-media sites is Indymedia which boasts 134 sub-sites in every continent. Recently described as “the bin tax website”, Indymedia have a leftist approach to news and hope to strike against sensationalism. I was watching Sky News when the first stories about the bombing of Oklahoma were emerging. The newscasters were in ecstasy as the number of victims rose higher and higher. The inclusion of children amongst the dead sent them into a most amazing reverie. “Remember folks, this isn’t happening in some far off country. This is happening here in America, right in your back garden. Back after the break”.
At the end of the day, all papers and TV channels are accountable in that, if unsatisfied, readers and viewers can simply change channels.