The idea that the mass media controls our ideas is a very common one. According to this theory, the media acts as a kind of syringe that injects propaganda directly into our minds.
People are seen as sheep that follow the media more or less unthinkingly. The conclusion is that we are powerless in the face of mass propaganda that brainwashes us into compliance.
This view of the media does not just exist at the margins of society. It’s also a dominant idea within mainstream politics. Leading figures in all the main political parties see winning over the mass media as the key to winning elections – rather than having decent policies that ordinary people could support.
The notion that the media is all-powerful is also used to write off any sense that people can fight back against the system, or that they can be won away from racist or sexist ideas.
All this raises two questions. Who actually controls the mass media? And how much impact does it really have on the ideas people hold?
Under capitalism the mass media is owned by a handful of rich and powerful people that form part of the “ruling class” – the tiny number of people at the top of society who own the factories, offices and other workplaces.
Rupert Murdoch, for instance, owns over 175 print publications across the world, including the Sun, the Times and the News of the World here in Britain.
The ruling class has a clear interest in promoting ideas that justify the status quo and endorse the global system that it benefits from. That is why there are so many clear instances of the mass media pushing propaganda on behalf of the bosses.
In 2002 and 2003, when Britain and the US were preparing to wage war on Iraq, the Sun newspaper gave pages over to detailing how Saddam Hussein’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” could hit British troops in Cyprus within 45 minutes of being fired.
It either ignored or attacked anti-war activists and provided “support our boys” posters for readers to display in their windows.
But media bias towards the ruling class can also be seen in less extreme times. After the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference earlier this year sections of the media ran hysterical articles condemning the teachers’ decision to strike over pay and conditions.
The Daily Telegraph declared that it was “time to crush the NUT like the miners” – referring to the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
This bias goes wider than simply attacking strikers or building support for war. The mass media operates within an ideological framework that accepts and promotes the dominant ideas in society – such as the idea that capitalism is the only way to organise society.
The bias does not exist only in the openly right wing media, but also in media outlets that pride themselves on being “neutral” or “liberal”.
The Guardian newspaper recently ran a week-long series of articles on the global food crisis. This was presented as in-depth, serious analysis. Yet it reiterated some of the worst myths about the food crisis, myths that would rather blame the Chinese for eating too much meat than suggest there might be something wrong with the free market.
The revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the 19th century that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. But this doesn’t arise out of some kind of shady conspiracy within the ruling class.
It’s true that owners sometimes intervene directly in the running of their media franchises. Murdoch is well known for regularly intervening in the editorial decisions of the Sun newspaper.
In May this year Murdoch was asked if he had anything to do with the New York Post’s support for Barack Obama in the US Democratic presidential run off. He answered simply, “Yes.”
But for the most part owners rely on well-paid senior managers and editors who are closely tied to the capitalist class and so share their assumptions and ideas about the world.
If the mass media is owned by an elite that tries to use it to back up their system, how do we explain political differences in the message put out by different media outlets? The point here is that the ruling class is not a homogenous group. There are divisions within it – and the media reflects these.
The Daily Mirror’s stance in the run up to the Iraq war is a good example of this. It took an anti-war position in the context of divisions among the ruling class and an unprecedented mass movement against the war. So it reflected the fact that the ruling class was divided – but it also knew that there was an audience for an anti-war newspaper.
The profit motive can sometimes pull the mass media in different directions and make it appear that it is posing a challenge to the dominant ideology.
For instance, the Daily Mail has recently run several front pages on the rising cost of living in Britain. These rising costs are real. But the Daily Mail’s explanation for them is one that diverts people’s anger away from the bosses and towards immigrants.
Although the ruling class owns the mass media, it does not always completely control it.
The media needs workers to get produced in the first place. And media workers can and have refused to produce some of the worst excesses of racism and anti-union propaganda.
In 2006, workers at the Daily Star prevented the printing of an anti-Muslim page titled, “How Britain’s fave newspaper would look under Muslim rule.” Planned features included “Burqa Babes” and a “censored” editorial.
Workers in the National Union of Journalists called an emergency meeting and forced the Daily Star management to pull the page.
Similarly, during the Miners’ Strike printers at the Sun refused to print a front page of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill that made him look as if he was giving a Nazi salute.
How much notice do people really take of the mass media? It is certainly important as a major source of information and news for many people.
So it isn’t true to suggest that the media has no influence on people’s ideas. But the way our ideas are shaped by the media is much more complex than the simplistic “syringe” theory.
Our consciousness is shaped by our experiences of the world. Marx and Engels argued, “Consciousness does not determine life, but life consciousness.” People’s ideas are shaped by the material reality of their lives.
The majority of people that the mass media is sold and marketed to are working class. There is a huge gulf between the reality of their lives and the dominant ideology of capitalism. That gap can open up a space for that ideology to be questioned, challenged or rejected.
In the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, 96 people were killed after police allowed too many Liverpool football fans into overcrowded terraces.
The Sun newspaper ran a front page condemning the fans, claiming that they were drunken hooligans who stole from the dead. In fact the fans were key to helping the injured.
The scandal of the Sun’s coverage led to a boycott of the paper by newsagents across Liverpool. Sales plummeted and have never recovered. In 2004, the average circulation for the Sun in Liverpool was 12,000 copies a day – 200,000 less than before it printed the Hillsborough story.
Yet the dominant ideology remains and is promoted not just by the media, but by all of the major institutions in our society – including the education system and the legal system.
This leads to a situation where people hold contradictory ideas. People can have anti-immigrant opinions, but also support anti-deportation campaigns that involve someone they know personally.
Although people may reject obvious propaganda in the media, over time it can have an impact in generating racist or sexist assumptions. The mass media can reinforce backward ideas and it’s important that we challenge this.
But the mass media is not the fundamental reason why bigotry persists. Racism and sexism exist because of the kind of society that we live in.
They form part of the dominant ideology of our society because the ruling class uses such ideas to divide and weaken the working class – and thereby preserve ruling class power.
Faced with ruling class bias in the mass media, many people turn to “alternative” sources of media. This is a positive development. Anti-war websites or other alternative media outlets can give people the facts and figures to argue their case with others. They can increase their understanding of the world and their confidence to fight back.
Revolutionaries have always seen producing socialist newspapers such as Socialist Worker as important.
But we recognise that these papers should do more than challenge the ideology of the ruling class – they should act as a tool for organising the struggle against the system.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin described the revolutionary paper as the “scaffolding” around which a revolutionary organisation is built. The scaffolding is clearly important. But it is there for a reason – to build up networks and organisation of people on the ground who can take on the system.
Research has found that the mass media has the biggest impact on those with no political affiliation. The mass media is most powerful when people are politically passive. Building resistance to capitalism can lead millions to question dominant ideas – and can see the power of that mass media melt away.