The author is a Calcutta-based senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics
Is the irksome growth of conservatism and uncivilised attack on the Fourth Estate metaphorically correlated? The question is no more hypothetical. For nearly two decades, the murky phenomenon of subordination of media to neo-liberal finance capital was confined to the USA. Now the tentacles of what California-based writer-activist, senior editor of Random Lengths News, Paul Rosenberg suggestively termed as some kind of a combine of hybrids of corporate hierarchies, or a binary that divides “productive members of society” and the “undeserving poor,” imposing loss of privilege, recast as victimhood, has crossed the Atlantic.
This apparently strange but practically inevitable eventuality is manifest in Europe with Trumpism in an imposing mood. One of its reflexes is the appointment of George Osborne, former UK chancellor and until the Brexit referendum David Cameron’s heir apparent, as the new editor of the afternoon tabloid Evening Standard. But the Conservative MP is also to continue to advise the giant US asset management firm BlackRock four days a month and chair the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which is committed to lobby for more devolution to Manchester.
A plutocrat, Osborne’s basic annual income is close to £ 10 million. Osborne was never a full-time journalist, not even a stringer. His takeover as editor is like a bull in a China shop. He encapsulates the messy overlap in Britain between politics, the media and finance. A spokesman of Jeremy Corbyn described Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard as “another example of the establishment revolving door, a closely knit clique which is holding back the British people.
The appointment makes a mockery of the independence of the media. It takes multitasking to a new level and is an insult to the electors he is supposed to serve. Osborne has ties to the Evening Standard’s Evgeny Lebedev, a wealthy Russian whose father was a KGB spy. He was the key person to have persuaded the Russian proprietor to secure the support of The Independent (another of the newspapers in his stable) for the Conservative Party at the last general election. A joyful and conceited Lebedev quipped: “I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces the Evening Standard’s standing and influence in London and whose political viewpoint — liberal on social issues and pragmatic on economic ones — closely matches those of many of our readers.”
In direct contrast to dubious Osborne, ex-Scottish minister Alex Salmond returned to the media with his new chat show on Kremlin-backed channel RT, stating: “Can I just say to the media, thanks for all the publicity.” Salmond, once a frontline leader of the Scottish National Party, called the US President Donald Trump an “utter nincompoop”. He shot back at the bumptious boss of White House for the latter’s comments on the prospect of a second independence referendum. Breaking canons of political and diplomatic etiquette, Trump said a second referendum on Scottish independence, claiming it would be “terrible” for the country, while commenting on the prospect of a UK-US deal. Salmond embarked on an aggressive mode: “The Grand Canyon is a minor crevice compared to the vast chasm of ignorance of Trump,” says the ex-SNP leader.
The indication is out in the open, as what has kicked off in Europe is offshoring of societal inequalities that is subjugated to the unholy combination finance capital, political power and media. Osborne chipping in to set in policing of journalists and media is not an isolated example. Things happening in Catalonia are worse for the democratic polity in west Europe. An audio clip played by Spain’s national broadcaster Televisión Española (TVE) showed the defiant Carles Puigdemont, the elected President of Catalonia, autocratically ousted by the Spanish rulers in Madrid, saying darkly that if he and his followers returned home from Belgium they could “end up in jail,” and that he vowed to “fight to the end”.
TVE played the news with the theme music from the supernatural horror film The Exorcist. Protests arose within seconds from viewers of accusing the broadcaster’s anti-independence bias. Complaint came from even TVE’s internal audit committee.
The same day in Barcelona, pro-independence daily El Punt Avui front-paged a picture of Puigdemont, beneath the masthead, a banner carrying the hashtag CatalunyaLlibertad (“Freedom for Catalonia”). The split in media in the land of Republican struggle against pro-Fascist Franco regime is no secret. José Fernandez-Albertos, an analyst with Spain’s largest research institution, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, (CSIC) states ingenuously: “The media have been responding to increasingly polarised political views among voters and parties. But the media themselves have also contributed to that polarisation.” There is a subheading in a multi-lingual west European daily, a ‘circus of hatred’ alongside manipulation and censorship, particularly after installation of the Mariano Rajoy’s government.
Sadly true, Spain’s best-selling newspaper, El País, founded in 1976, shortly after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, clings to legalistic unionism of Rajoy, perhaps due to its struggle for existence when alike most of its domestic rivals, its sales and advertising revenue are on a decline. It fired Anglo-Spanish journalist John Carlin in October for writing an article in the Times of London, criticising Madrid’s political class and King Felipe for mishandling of the crisis.
But the media is virtually split down the middle on the sovereignty issue. Salvador García, CEO of Ara, a Catalan-language newspaper, advocates the region’s right to decide on its future, while agreeing that some newspapers in the region adopt a stridently nationalist editorial line. “It’s one thing to be against independence, or Puigdemont, or Catalan self-determination, but it’s quite another to hide the fact that police have been violent, or that hundreds of thousands of people took part in a demonstration in Barcelona,” he put it bluntly.
The offensive of mega-corps and financial giants in the USA took a different route and adopted an aggressive design to belittle the media. In 1991, James Davison Hunter, an academic at the University of Virginia, wrote a book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” He spoke of America’s history of religious pluralism that devolved into two antagonistic movements, one progressive and the other orthodox or fundamental. “In truth, most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarising impulses of American culture,” he stated.
Stanford University political scientist and Wendt Family Professor in the Department of Political Science in his “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarised America” (2005) expanded and recast this theme with a pliant media. He divided the nation into Democratic-voting ‘blue’ states and Republican-backing ‘red’ ones and found voters engaged in mutually warring camps.
The ruling elite in the USA and their politics, especially Republicanism, very aggressively keep frontal attack using religious, democratic and social divisions. The ruling class thrives on polarisations based on contentious issues like abortion, immigration and gun control. Media has miserably failed to insulate itself from all this.
The offensive of mega-corps and financial giants in the USA took a different route and adopted an aggressive design to belittle the media. In 1991, James Davison Hunter, an academic at the University of Virginia, wrote a book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America”. He held that America’s history of religious pluralism that devolved into two antagonistic movements, one progressive and the other orthodox or fundamental. “In truth, most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarizing impulses of American culture,” he stated. Morris P Florina, Wendt Family Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in his “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” (2005) expanded and recast this theme, fitting in to a pliant media. He divided the nation into Democratic-voting ‘blue’ states and Republican-backing ‘red’ ones and found voters engaged in mutually warring camps
Florina puts succinctly with a hidden sarcasm “Conflict, of course, is high in news value… disagreement, division, polarisation, battles and war make good copy. Agreement, consensus, moderation, compromise and peace do not.” He adds: “A polarised political class makes the citizenry appear polarised, but it is only that an appearance.” At the end of the lecture, Fiorina asserted that the nonexistent “culture war” is perpetuated by journalists who have to cover the extremist political elites. “It seems to them that’s the norm; they don’t talk to people at Wal-Mart,” he said. “The elites are polarised and this political class is imposing its will on America. This dysfunctional political system is not serving the electorate.”
The media interacts in the US primarily with the political class, and thus puts up a skewed perspective. Stories they file often use examples rather than statistics and factual reports, making to fit into the theory rather than the other way round. Polarisation of people’s choices is not the same as polarisation of their positions. This pattern is set to be replicated in Europe, going by new trends and indications in keeping with the changing nebula of heterogeneous political moorings that suit the far-right.
America’s democracy and media have been tested, and has proved resilient, braving rough patches — the Civil War, the McCarthy Hearings, Jim Crow laws to wit. But this tradition began crumbling, with the apparent adherence to those past values by newspapers such as New York Times, Washington Post and New Yorker notwithstanding. In an engaging lecture with statistics and graphics in an oration, Florina argued that although the American electorate is not divided, the political elites are split and that the positions of this polarised minority get exaggerated into generalisations by journalists in search of a good news story.
Freedom of press is thus bypassed by the chase for socially elusive ‘breaking news’. In the 2000 presidential poll, Florina lamented, the media reinforced this imaginary divide, thus submitting to tendentious demarcation into “red” Republican states and “blue” Democratic states. The Economist wrote: “Such political divisions cannot easily be shifted by any president, let alone in two years, because they reflect deep demographic divisions. … The 50-50 nation appears to be made up of two big, separate voting blocks, with only a small number of swing voters in the middle.”
And the advantage is for mega-advertisers who aggressively dictate the media. Take Proctor & Gamble, one of the world’s highest-spending advertisers. It has advised the media buying and selling industry to become transparent in the face of “crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences”. P&G has put on trial agencies, giving them breathing space for one year to get to “a transparent, clean and productive media supply chain”, failing which will mean their exposure to the risk of losing its business.
The message was conveyed across by P&G’s chief marketing officer Marc Pritchard, while speaking at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, a digital advertising industry conference in Hollywood, Florida, sometime back. “Better advertising and media transparency are closely related. Why? Because better advertising requires time and money, yet we’re all wasting way too much time and money on a media supply chain with poor standards adoption, too many players grading their own homework, too many hidden touches, and too many holes to allow criminals to rip us off,” Pritchard quipped. “We have a media supply chain that is murky at best and fraudulent at worst. We need to clean it up, and invest the time and money we save into better advertising to drive growth,” he hastened to add.
The danger is Yankee-isation of the media. The USA banks on militarism and that’s worrisome. The US Army gave arms and equipment worth $1 billion to the ISIS in Iraq during President Obama’s last year in office, alleged the Amnesty International (AI) with unassailable documents. “It makes for especially sobering reading given the long history of leakage of US arms to multiple armed groups committing atrocities in Iraq, including the armed group calling itself the Islamic State,” the AI report stated. That was in 2015. The new allegation from the civil rights watchdog is abuse and harassment on social media, targeting women who have been facing stress, anxiety, or panic attacks as a result of these harmful online experiences.
The AI commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll on women between the ages of 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA. Twenty-three per cent of the surveyed women across those eight countries disclosed that they had experienced online abuse or harassment at least once, ranging from 16 per cent in Italy to 33 per cent in the US. Forty-one per cent of women who had experienced online abuse or harassment stated that on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened. But for AI, this startling disclosure would not have been possible.
But it is impractical to blame the media owners for restrictions on freedom of press. After all, media is a business. There has to be grand mean between freedom of the press and the freedom of media moguls to prevent their investment from sinking into the red.
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