Socialist Worker

Citizen Shame—do Rupert Murdoch and the press control what people think?

The election showed that Britain’s ‘free press’ is a farce, but do the papers really control their readers’ minds? Nick Clark looks at the influence and limits of the media

Issue No. 2453

Montage of election front pages from the British press

The mainstream media seems to wield huge influence over the outcome of elections. Some sections of the media certainly went into overdrive in campaigning for a Tory victory.

Indeed, the Guardian newspaper has pointed out that the Tory-supporting Sun newspaper ran more articles attacking ex Labour leader Ed Miliband than it did attacking then leader Neil Kinnock in 1992.

Then, after a shock Tory victory in 1992, the paper’s front page claimed, “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

It seems the Sun has won it again.

But is media support really the decisive factor in any election?

A relatively small minority of rich people own the mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. They’re part of the minority at the top of society that owns and controls the big businesses, banks and the state.

Their position in society is based on exploiting workers. They clearly have an interest in convincing the rest of us that this setup is natural— and they will use their control of the media to do so.

But they will also use that power to try and secure governments they think will best act in their interests.

Rupert Murdoch is an obvious example.

Murdoch has switched allegiance between the Tories and Labour a number times since he bought the Sun in 1969.

So the Sun was sycophantic in its support for Margaret Thatcher, because Murdoch saw working class militancy and trade unions threatening his interests.

But in 1997 he switched allegiance to Tony Blair’s New Labour. It promised to be much friendlier than the Tories’ Michael Howard, who was threatening to pass a law banning foreign nationals from owning newspapers. Now the Murdoch press supports the Tories again—at least in England and Wales.

Begging

Labour supporters point out that this is because Ed Miliband threatened to break up the Murdoch empire.

But it’s also because—despite Labour’s surrender to austerity—anything other than a Tory victory would indicate a mood in society that’s opposed to Murdoch’s interests.

This is why many other newspapers also campaigned for a Tory win.

On the day of the election, the traditionally Tory-supporting Telegraph newspaper emailed every address on its marketing database begging its readers to vote Conservative.

And in an editorial on Tuesday of last week, the London Evening Standard newspaper urged its readers to vote Tory “for London”. It’s owned by the multi-millionaire Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.

The thrust of their arguments was that a Tory government would be better for businesses and therefore for everybody else. 

The underlying message was clear—what is good for those at the top of society is good for those at the bottom.

Of course, not every newspaper backed the Tories. The Daily Mirror and the Guardian both came out for Labour.

But these differences only reflect divisions inside the ruling class. 

So the Telegraph’s plea for a Tory vote argued for a continuation of what it called the “open, enterprise-led economic approach that has underpinned our prosperity for nearly 40 years”.

Meanwhile, the Guardian believed a Labour victory would mean a society closer to its Keynesian ideal of “economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty.”

The difference between the two newspapers reflects two competing visions for how best to run capitalism.

But both agree that capitalism is the only way to run society, and so reflect and promote some of its dominant ideas.

Take the Scottish independence referendum last year. At the heart of the Yes campaign was a mass movement involving tens of thousands of working class people who saw the prospect for real change.

Yet the media presented the referendum as if it was simply a clash between different political parties. On one side, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and on the other the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems.

The thousands of people who filled Glasgow’s George Square were given, at best, a supporting role in the media’s narrative.

This is because the dominant ruling class idea is that change comes from above, through parliament, rather than from below.

The flipside of this is that anyone who dares to suggest that real change comes from outside parliament is either marginalised, ridiculed or demonised.

The media’s reaction to Russell Brand’s call for revolution is a case in point. 

At best he’s presented as simply naive or misguided or at worst as hypocritical, egotistical and dangerous.

Yet despite this more than a million people subscribe to Brand’s YouTube channel The Trews. And around 1.5 million people voted Yes in the independence referendum despite the fact that every single newspaper but one—the Sunday Herald—was opposed to it.

Now the Scottish Sun is in the bizarre position of supporting the SNP, while its sister paper south of the border ran a vicious smear campaign against the party.

This shows that while the media can shape and reinforce the dominant ideas in society, they can also reflect them.

Murdoch’s main goal is to sell as many newspapers as he can. So to a certain extent the content of those newspapers will have to relate to the popular mood.

This points to something important. The media have less control over society and the way that we think than some people give it credit for.

The Sun pulled out all the stops in its campaign for a Tory vote in England and Wales. But a recent YouGov poll showed that less than half its readership—just 42 percent—intended to vote Conservative.

The fact is that people’s ideas are not formed by the media, but by the material reality of their everyday lives.

Under capitalism we have very little control over our lives. The ruling class makes all the important decisions about how society is run. 

And life under capitalism can also leave us feeling isolated—as if society is just a collection of individuals competing with each other.

So the mainstream media can work to reinforce those ideas—for instance they encourage us to blame migrants for the lack of jobs and for low wages. 

But those ideas come from within capitalism itself.

It’s also the case that our lived experience can contradict what we’re told in the mainstream media.

Undercuts

The right wing press relentlessly churns out Islamophobic and anti-migrant articles.

And for over a year Nigel Farage, leader of the racist Ukip party, enjoyed a huge amount of air-time and column inches.

But this doesn’t mean that the majority of people are racist. On 21 March this year more than 10,000 people joined the Stand up to Racism marches in London and Glasgow.

And of course, Farage lost his campaign to become MP for South Thanet.

Building the marches and Farage’s defeat both took a huge amount of campaigning by anti-racist activists. 

But they succeeded because people’s experiences of living and working alongside migrants and Muslims undercuts the racist lies.

People can start to question the ideas of the ruling class when their own experience appears to contradict them.

This is particularly true when people find themselves in direct confrontation with the system—such as during a strike.

So the outcome of an election isn’t simply to do with whichever party receives most support in the mainstream media.

It’s also shaped by material factors such as the level of class struggle and workers’ confidence in their ability to change things.

That’s why Socialist Worker is different to other newspapers. It’s not simply about left wing propaganda and exposing the lies of the ruling class, although it does this well.

It’s also a tool for supporting and organising resistance to austerity and racism—and ultimately capitalism.

The new Tory majority government makes that task all the more important.

 


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