Socialist Worker

Is the media all-powerful?

Colin Barker asks how much the media influences us

Issue No. 1830

WHAT THE media say, and how they say it, obviously matters. Dictators are always keen to control TV and newspapers. These days they also try to restrict what their citizens can read on the internet. The Blair government knows the media matter. Why else does it constantly try to 'spin' news coverage? The left cares too. We get cross when a big demonstration gets little or no news coverage.

In the early 1990s, when 150,000 people attended an Anti Nazi League carnival in south London, neither TV news channel covered the event. I wrote to complain. ITN wrote back to admit that its decision had been political. (It said it didn't want to 'encourage violence' - even though the event had been entirely peaceful.)

Why do the media matter? They're among the most important sources people have for gaining information about what's going on in the world - not just in official politics, but also about how society is developing, what problems exist, and what possibilities seem open for changing things.

The media matter for democracy, which can only function effectively if people have access to information, including the variety of opinions that exist among their fellow citizens.

Are the media biased? Of course. Sometimes it's blatant. The Mail and the Sun actively promote racism against refugees. But the bias goes deeper. The main topics covered by TV and newspaper reporting reflect the existing power set-up in society.

So they focus on what seems to matter in official politics, on the doings of celebrities in the commercial entertainment business (from football to movies and pop music), on crime and scandal. They reflect the biases of normal capitalist life.

They report 'good news' if profits are up, and 'bad news' if workers go on strike. Rising inequality is not really news. Ordinary people's lives - except as victims of crime - rarely appear. They are not 'newsworthy'.

So the mass media, often unconsciously, reproduce a ruling class picture of what matters in the world. And quite often they deliberately set out to paint a picture favourable to government and big business.

But is it true that they are all-powerful in shaping ordinary people's opinions? To answer that we have to think about how people receive media messages. There's a 'pop sociology' theory that says people are just sheep, who go wherever the media dogs lead them.

The media are like hypodermic needles, able to pump anything they like into our brains. Disappointed socialists are quite prone to accept this kind of view. The 'hypo' theory is profoundly elitist. It assumes everyone else is uncritical. We snobs, who can see through these things, are the few clever ones. Is it true? No. The 'hypo' theory forgets that even reading a paper or watching the TV screen is an active process.

As we read or gaze at the box in the corner, we are making judgments. Do we agree with what's being said, or are we making our own tentative judgments about it? If there's a debate on TV, are we taking sides? Indeed, are we seeing things broadcasters never thought we would see?

I grew up in a working class family. My parents wanted their children to do well at school, so we'd have better lives than they had. They refused to have a TV until we were all safely past the age of 16, so it wouldn't stop us doing our homework.

As a result of history my mother had always voted Liberal. In the early 1960s my parents finally bought a TV. We sat one night watching the news, when the Liberal Party conference came on. There was the then Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, declaring in plummy upper class tones, 'I will lead my troops forward to the sound of victory.'

My mother went rigid in her chair. 'He sounds like a Tory!' she exclaimed. From that moment she always voted Labour. She made her own sense out of what she saw and heard. For two decades the Sun newspaper told its readers to vote Tory. Most carried on voting Labour.

And when the Sun, in 1989, said that Liverpool supporters were responsible for the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough, the paper's sales on Merseyside slumped. Sun readers are as critical as anyone else. People become especially critical when they have other sources of information to compare with what the media says.

Not only Merseyside Sun readers, but striking firefighters too knew the Tory press was lying about them. Sometimes the media are forced to follow public opinion. The Mirror, for example, has partly understood that its readership is well to the left of Blair. It has carried excellent articles opposing war on Iraq. The day after the firefighters' strikes were called off, it told the government to pay their claim.

So we shouldn't fear the media. There's a strong case for changing them, subjecting them to democratic control, for widening the range of stories and opinions they cover. But all-powerful they ain't.

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Sat 14 Dec 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1830
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