At their best, mainstream media provide us with pleasurable distraction and vital information, a playground for the imagination and a window on the world. Socialists, however, are all too aware of the media’s systematic biases and distortions of the truth. Despite considerable advances in communication technology, we live, perhaps more than ever, in a world of disinformation and propaganda – ‘fake news’ in today’s fashionable phrase. The press tells us lies – sometimes small ones, such as The Sun newspaper’s infamous report about swan-munching asylum seekers, sometimes large ones, such as the same newspaper’s fabrications about the Hillsborough disaster and Iraq’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (the lie that launched a thousand missiles). There is also a constant undermining of the working class. In Britain, news and current affairs programmes regularly demonize strikers, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, and so-called ‘chavs’, deepening social divisions and discouraging solidarity by pitting workers against one another.
This process is all too apparent in the torrents of outrage directed against so-called ‘benefit claimants’. British newspapers regularly condemn these supposed scourges of society and in the last decade, in particular, the country’s television schedules have abounded with largely malicious, luridly titled documentaries: Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits (BBC), Benefits Street (Channel 4), On Benefits and Proud (Channel 5), or even Gypsies on Benefits and Proud (Channel 5). Despite relatively low levels of benefit fraud, these programmes encourage us to revile some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
What the mainstream media does not encourage us to do is to question the system that makes people poor and vulnerable. On the contrary, to read the news or to turn on the television or radio is to expose oneself to the capitalist worldview of our rulers. According to this worldview, there is no alternative to our current system of leaders, nation states, markets and exploitation. This holds true for liberal, as well as right-wing media. In fact, in their support for certain capitalist imperatives – such as the need for imperialist war – liberal and leftist commentators are sometimes more enthusiastic than conservatives (as I suggested a few years ago in my short book Beyond the Left).
Whether conservative or liberal, the loudest voices in the media are those of the bourgeoisie. Professional newsgathering draws heavily on the opinions of business and military leaders, professional politicians and other official sources. As a result, news agendas reflect the priorities and interests of the capitalists rather than those of ordinary people. And it gets worse: these days, as Nick Davies's book Flat Earth News points out, most news stories are produced not by journalists as such, but by private and state-owned public relations agencies, which have even less incentive to produce unbiased reporting. But why is this so? In a world of growing economic and ecological crisis, poverty and military violence, why do the mainstream press and broadcasters, for the most part, continue to support the status quo? Why do they tell lies, attack the working class, support capitalist wars, and insist that capitalism is the only viable system?
Ownership and Control
The most obvious answer to this question, of course, is that the media industries are owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie, such that, as Marx famously put it in The German Ideology, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. Very true. George Orwell reported in 1948 that “The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics”. And as Chris Pallas, a.k.a. Maurice Brinton, wrote in 1970, “the means of moulding public opinion (press, radio, TV, churches, schools and universities) are in the hands of the ruling class. The media consequently disseminate ruling class ideas, values and priorities”.
The ownership of the means of media production tends to be highly concentrated, giving enormous power to a small number of media owners. These moguls develop close relationships with government. In Britain, the early press barons even held key government positions. For example, Lord Northcliffe, whose newspapers during World War 1 helped to condition the public for total war, became Director for Propaganda in enemy countries. Throughout the twentieth century, moreover, senior politicians and media moguls have established quid pro quo relationships. In 1981, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers strongly supported Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in turn helped Murdoch to buy Times Newspapers, bypassing referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The back-scratching continued a few years later, when Thatcher facilitated Murdoch’s smashing of the print unions at Wapping.
From the mid-1990s until he switched his support back to the Conservatives in 2010, Murdoch also fostered a close relationship with Tony Blair’s New Labour party. Lance Price, a former media advisor to Blair, even called Murdoch “the 24th member of the Cabinet”. It therefore surprised nobody that, when the US and British armed forces invaded Iraq in 2003, every one of the newspapers owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation gave the military action its full-throated support. On television, meanwhile, Murdoch’s Fox News Channel made a fluttering US flag a permanent on-screen fixture and described the deadly invasion as ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. While Murdoch’s star might have faded in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, his story illustrates the power of media moguls to shape editorial content and mould the public mind.
The Power of Advertising
Advertising plays a part, too, in ensuring that the mainstream media content seldom strays far from ruling class opinion. Advertising is not only poisonous in its own right – since the beginning of the twentieth century, in particular, it has promoted false or dangerous needs and created uninformed consumers through distorted and exaggerated claims – but it also contaminates the surrounding media environment.
In early nineteenth-century Britain, in fact, the growth of advertising helped to destroy the working-class press. This so-called ‘radical press’ included titles such as The Poor Man’s Guardian, which supported the Chartist movement. Henry Hetherington, the newspaper’s editor, condemned capitalism as a “competitive, selfish, scrambling” system and vowed that “workers will be at the top instead of the bottom of society or rather there will be no bottom at all”. Clearly, these newspapers posed a threat to the bourgeoisie. Yet as the advertising industries and printing technologies developed in the nineteenth century, only the bourgeois press could afford to meet their production costs. The working-class publications disappeared, not because they were unpopular (on the contrary, they enjoyed the highest circulations in British newspaper history) but because they did not attract advertising sponsorship. Such situations are not unfamiliar today, almost 200 years later, as Facebook and Google hoover up advertising revenue to the detriment of traditional journalism.
Indeed, since the early days of capitalism, advertiser influence over the media has continued unabated. Advertisers prioritize profit, and media content that is critical of the status quo or which simply highlights social problems, is less attractive to them than more light-hearted fare (see Brown and Cavazos's 2005 article "Why is this show so dumb?"). In fact, companies such as Coca-Cola have even refused to advertise during news broadcasts, on the grounds that “bad news” might affect consumers’ perceptions of their product. And when programme makers become too critical of the system, the consequences can be serious. In their influential book Manufacturing Consent, academics Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky cite the case of the US public-television station WNET, which “lost its corporate funding from Gulf and Western in 1985 after the station showed the documentary Hungry for Profit, which contains material critical of multinational corporate activities in the Third World”.
In today’s digital environments, too, media organizations often face advertiser backlash. Last year, for example, a host of corporations including Volkswagon, Tesco and McDonald’s withdrew their advertising spending on Google and its subsidiary YouTube over concerns about video content they deemed inappropriate or ‘extremist’. Youtube is also ‘demonitizing’, that is, withdrawing advertising for, channels that are less viewed and those whose content is deemed to be advertiser-unfriendly. Indeed, by insisting that their products and services appear in high-profile, ‘brand safe environments’, advertisers exert a conservative influence over what the public is able to see and hear.
What about the ‘Public Service’ Media?
So much, then, for the commercial media. But in Britain and elsewhere, of course, there exists a broadly non-commercial or ‘public service’ model of media ownership, represented by the license-fee funded BBC. The public service model offers certain advantages to viewers and listeners. In exchange for the license fee, the BBC provides welcome relief from interruption by commercial breaks. And it must be admitted that today’s BBC, followed closely by the commercially-funded public service broadcaster Channel 4, is responsible for some of the UK’s most sophisticated and stimulating television and radio programmes.
The politics of the BBC, however, are another matter. ‘Auntie Beeb’ claims to be objective and independent, stating in its editorial guidelines that it “will never promote a particular view on controversial matters”. But throughout its history, the Beeb has been a bastion of ruling class opinion. In 1926, one of the very first actions of the newly established BBC was to support the government against the workers during the General Strike; as the organisation’s first Director General John Reith candidly remarked at the time, “the government knows it can trust us not to be really impartial”. In fact, the BBC has a long history of backing the establishment – most obviously in its patriotic role as the ‘Voice of Britain’ during the Second World War and its unwavering support for the British monarchy. Like ‘state broadcasters’ the world over, the BBC advances the interests of the domestic ruling class and its international allies.
Given all of this, it is hardly necessary to point out that the BBC, like most major media organizations, has long-standing connections with the intelligence services. Of course, the BBC is hardly unique in this respect. The investigative journalist David Rose has spoken about his own interactions with British and US intelligence sources, criticizing the often misleading information he was given (including cast-iron reassurances about the existence of Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’) and the unaccountable influence of anonymous ‘Whitehall sources’ over British journalism ('Spies and their lies', New Statesman, 27 September, 2007). Nevertheless, the BBC’s connections to state power are particularly deep. The organization sees one of its roles as the projection of British ‘soft power’ on the global stage and its journalists and senior managers meet and communicate regularly with the Ministry of Defence, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. For fifty years, BBC staff were vetted by MI5 and today, many prominent BBC figures, such as Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, a former Territorial Army captain and investment banker, have links with the secret state (for more on these kinds of connections, see Tom Mills's 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service).
The Internet: A Brave New World?
In the parts of the world where it is accessible (at the time of writing, only a little over half of the planet has access), the Internet is transforming public communication. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, so-called Web 2.0, with its potential for multimedia collaboration and networking, has opened up new possibilities for instantaneous ‘many-to-many’ political communication. A dramatic example of this is provided by the Arab Spring of 2011, when demonstrators in countries such as Egypt and Libya organized protests using social media. These activists became ‘citizen journalists’, bypassing highly restrictive broadcast media systems to expose state oppression and social unrest. Nevertheless, such examples do seem marginal when one considers that the main uses of the Internet are pornography and shopping.
Moreover, the liberatory potential of the Internet is highly circumscribed by state and corporate power. In his book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin details how the theoretically 'open' architecture of the Internet was captured by libertarians like Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Larry Page, who built up massive media empires on the basis of sharp practice, piracy and the trampling of individual privacy. As in traditional media, content online is shaped by advertisers and other powerful interests, who have shifted much their spending from traditional to online media. The results obtained from a simple Google search, for example, are largely determined by the companies and political parties who pay for the keywords. In fact, despite its cutesy (and recently abandoned) motto ‘don’t be evil’, Google has been fined for abusing its dominant market position in the search domain by favouring its own products in search results pages and Google algorithms increasingly serve to remove oppositional and critical websites from search results. The social media giant Facebook, to take another example, filters the content that can be accessed by users (see the controversy over the ‘Napalm Girl' photograph) and has been accused of deleting individuals and political groups, such as Palestinian activists, from its site on political grounds.
We are dealing here with good old-fashioned monopoly power. Like the press barons of old, today’s big tech companies cultivate close relationships with politicians in order to maintain their market positions. In the US, Google, for example, spends millions of dollars each year on political lobbying. The company has even secretly funded academic research to ward off regulatory challenges to its market dominance.
And what about us, the users of Internet platforms? Like readers and audiences in traditional media, Internet users become commodities to be sold to advertisers and as the recent fuss over the activities of Cambridge Analytica has highlighted, their personal data is traded by corporations. Yet those same users also produce this data with little or no payment. Google and Facebook, in other words, make their profits by exploiting our unpaid digital labour. They have also, as sources told the New York Times in 2013, passed data to the National Security Agency. Indeed, we should not forget the role of the state in monitoring and policing online communication. Across the world, capitalist states access emails and social media messages, block websites and even, when necessary, shut down the Internet, as happened in several countries during the Arab Spring. Online, covert intelligence operations are also used in order to sow confusion and undermine critics of the system. In Britain, for example, JTRIG, a branch of GCHQ, uses ‘dirty tricks’ to “influence and disrupt” the online communications of its ‘targets’, generating fake emails and videos, blogs and forum memberships. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are most likely the most surveilled and manipulated society in human history.
In light of all this, it is useful to take a dialectical perspective on the Internet. The World Wide Web provides many opportunities for socialist education and organization; but it also allows private companies and the state to surveil and even deceive the public. It is not, and never will be a panacea. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean argues that under conditions of what she calls 'communicative capitalism', messages on the Internet tend to lose their symbolic efficacy and critical edge to become merely so many circulating 'contributions'; it is their exchange value rather than their use value that comes to matter. Meanwhile, the digital giants that 'capture' and exploit our communications continue to accrue more and more power and wealth. Within academic Media Studies in general, there is a growing appreciation that rather than representing a radical counterbalance to mainstream, established media - a perspective that was always too simplistic - Facebook, Google and Amazon are very much part of that mainstream.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the ways in which state and commercial interests influence our media than can be addressed in this short overview. In fact, a properly materialist account of the media would consider not just the media industries’ manipulation of ideas and information, but also the material conditions of media production. All across the planet, the entire media infrastructure of transmitters, cables, studios, offices, cameras, computers, and so on, is produced and operated by exploited workers, often in appalling conditions. Our digital devices – phones, tablets, and so on – are made from minerals mined in life-threatening conditions by workers in African countries (cassiterite, cobalt and coltan mines in Congo), assembled by suicidal factory workers in China (Foxconn) and distributed by hyper-surveilled, overworked workers in the West (Amazon's warehouse drudges). This is to say nothing of the damaging environmental effects of producing so much soon-to-be-obsolescent hardware.
But what is to be done about the problem of the media? Proposals for reforming the media industries are advocated and implemented constantly. In Britain, many liberals and leftists welcomed the Leveson Enquiry set up under Prime Minister David Cameron as a means of challenging unaccountable media power following revelations about phone hacking at Murdoch’s sleazy News of the World newspaper. Although it was billed as an investigation into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British media, it might better be seen as an effort to humble the pro-American Murdoch by more independently-minded factions of British state. In any event, Leveson has not led to any significant changes in the quality of British journalism and did not even mention the hacking of the Internet by the intelligence services. If anything, the enquiry may have served to shore up belief in the fundamental decency of the state.
Reforms to Internet ownership and control are also regularly proposed, such as Nick Srnicek’s suggestion, in a 2017 Guardian article, that platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are ‘natural monopolies’ that should be nationalized in order to curtail the power of private corporations. Such suggestions are widely shared by liberal left-wing commentators. But as with many such social democratic reforms, it is not at all clear how Srnicek’s proposal to fund such a move by wealth taxes could actually be implemented, or how nationalization would protect Internet users from state surveillance. And, of course, such reforms do not abolish the exploitative social relations that underpin all media production; in fact, they depend upon them. But we are now at a point in the development of our productive capacity where we both can and must destroy capitalism. The very survival of Earth as a place fit for human habitation depends upon it. Given the enormity of our planetary predicament, it is not going to be enough to nationalize some industries.
One thing we that we can do, as socialists, is use what purchase we have in traditional and ‘new’ media to put forward the case for socialism as an urgent necessity and to organize class struggle activity. We can also expose mainstream media bias and misinformation, providing a critical framework for making sense of what we see, read and hear. This is not a hopeless task. After all, people don’t believe everything they are told. Even many media workers are highly skeptical about the system they work within. Take journalists, for instance. Highly paid, elite journalists like Andrew Marr or Jeremy Paxman are predictably conservative in their political views. Most ordinary journalists, however, are workers who, while having to go along with management demands in order to keep their jobs, are all too aware of the media’s role in producing capitalist propaganda and have often opposed it. You can't fool all the people all the time. But we will only see the end of the lies and the exploitation involved in media production with the end of the capitalist system itself.