SINCE the atrocities in Paris three weeks ago, the British press has been on overdrive to give us every twist, turn and snippet on who is to blame and what we “must do” to “protect our freedoms”.
Freedoms, which the same press tell us must be supported by restrictions, MI5 eavesdropping, tightened border controls and censorship once only dreamed of by George Orwell.
As a newspaper journalist for almost 30 years I have grieved deeply at the unbridled spin, sensationalism and political propaganda of the news reporting since Friday 13 November.
The ink is barely dry on the reports of Wednesday’s 10 hour debate in the House of Commons and the decision to bomb Syria, but already the pencils are being sharpened and the keyboards warmed to lead us to the next pre-ordained national conclusions.
I believe we are slowly witnessing a bankruptcy of freedom within our Fourth Estate.
For the uninitiated, the Fourth Estate commonly refers to the news media, especially print journalism or “the press”.
Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. In 1841 Carlyle wrote: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
He described the journalists’ role in representing the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our names.
The intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries who gave us the conception of the Fourth Estate as a civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power, also provided the philosophical argument for defining the public citizenry and the nation-state as two separate entities with differing interests.
But my belief is that position has been hi-jacked by corrupt big business ownership of our media.
If we accept the premise of the Fourth Estate, we also have to ask ourselves if the “national” and the “public” interest are the same thing. It might be easy to think that they are, but it would be a mistake.
They exist as ideas, but in reality the nation and the public are not homogeneous.
In a capitalist world both are divided along class lines. In this context, the national interest is about state secrecy and keeping things from us. On the other hand, the public interest is about disclosure and our right to know.
But if we look at who trained and funded the ISIS terrorists and which countries now sustain them to carry out attacks, such as those on Paris and Beirut, the press has not been forthcoming in its reporting. Instead it focuses on Muslims, refugees, border controls, divisions within the Labour Party and the “need” to bomb Syria.
Governments that claim to act in the public interest must face closer scrutiny of their actions. They must be called to account when overstepping the bounds of what citizens will support, or when taking actions that are clearly not in our interests. According to national polls, most British citizens were against bombing Syria, yet that fact was overtaken by another politically led agenda.
The news media – as the tribune of “the people” – must be constantly on guard and alert to actions of the state, particularly when those actions may harm the interests of citizens.
Have they really done that in their reporting about Middle East terrorism, ISIS and the need to bomb Syria? I don’t believe they have.
This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society.
But today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class and its big business paymasters.
Almost 78 per cent of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.
Our newspapers like to paint their own role as heroic – they are the brave defenders of democracy who hold our elected representatives to account.
Watergate is the archetype of this kind of journalism and it does occur now and again in the UK, but it is rare – perhaps the Telegraph’s revelations over MPs’ expenses in 2009 is one of those rare examples.
But too often, far from protecting our democracy, our papers subvert it.
In his Inquiry, Lord Leveson quoted some lines from Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day – Milne: “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” Ruth: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”
In a free press, the nature of the newspapers matter very much.
The nature of a paper is set by its owner. Press barons wield far more power and influence than all but a very few MPs and have, unsurprisingly, used it to further their own interests.
Since 2010, the barons have pushed the highly contentious argument that there is no alternative to Austerity and have largely ignored the stories of the widening social divisions and the swelling numbers at food banks – the 21st century’s soup kitchens.
Newspapers exercise power and influence in many ways. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the home and the pub.
Newspapers put great store by the concept of editorial independence. Sometimes, it is a reality. The Lebedevs, for example, own papers – the Independent and the Evening Standard – which take markedly different political stances.
Too often, however, editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views.
In my own experience I witnessed this at first hand when Margaret Thatcher’s close friends the Barclay Brothers bought The Scotsman in 1997. Within a few months, the new owners had their own right wing editors, the odious Andrew Neil and his Fleet Street bulldog Martin Clarke installed in the editors’ chairs. It took this vile pair less than a year to transform a newspaper, once the bastion of Scottish broadsheet journalism, into a pale imitation of the Daily Mail.
Rupert Murdoch’s candour at the Leveson Inquiry was revealing. He said that if someone wanted to know his opinion on a subject they should just read the leader in the Sun.
That most newspaper owners should seek to define the political stance taken by their publications is not especially surprising. Newspapers are rarely profitable and it is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘the press barons are in newspapers for power, influence and easy access to the establishment’.
Likewise, the mechanisms through which owners can, and do, interfere with or shape content to promote particular viewpoints are not difficult to identify; they range from directly dictating the line a newspaper should follow on particular issues, to appointing senior staff with a shared political outlook, as well as forms of indirect influence over the ethos of the organisation which may prompt journalists to engage in ‘self-censorship’.
The Sun’s infamous claim following the 1992 general election that ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won it’ is widely known. Yet, in almost half of all general elections since 1918 ‘one newspaper or another has claimed to have swung the result’.
The Fourth Estate is now more powerful than ever, but it is no longer the once heralded “civil watchdog to keep an eye on those in power”.
It is shaped by two dominating principles – sensationalism and simplification, the consequence of “hyper commercialisation”.
It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leads to what is called “dumbing down”. To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.
Of course it is one thing to pander to lower instincts. But they have to be there in the first place, and so has the willingness to be pandered to. In the end, people have a choice.
One has to face an unpalatable reality: Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets are giving the people what they want – fun, games and entertainment – which in some ways is more “democratic” than the cultural elites, who tried imposing their values and standards on the masses.
In the “democratic age” news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically.
Papers don’t report news, they present it according to their preferences and prejudices.
The growth of columnists has led to the birth of a Commentariat. It contains a few excellent and analytical minds, but all too often reasonable, balanced voices are drowned out by journalists who seem untainted by facts or deeper knowledge but replace this with gleefully presented prejudices. Look no further than Katie Hopkins or Jan Moir for examples of this type.
A lot of modern political journalism ignores context and complexity, presenting everything in black and white, while the nature of politics most of the time is a balancing act between contradictory interests and demands.
News has thus become more superficial and sensational. The need for images and pictures is greater than ever. Note how the single photograph of a dead Syrian child on a Mediterranean beach in September this year shaped the Western view. For a short time our newspapers referred to the hapless refugees by the correct terms rather than the “swarms of migrants” favoured by David Cameron and Nigel Farage.
But that didn’t last and following the Paris attacks these self-same Syrian refugees were being labelled migrants and potential terrorists by our press.
Sensationalism and oversimplification are affecting the output of all media. There is less room for a balanced approach, for analysis instead of going for the crass headline or extraordinary story. The merciless hunt for weaknesses and inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures has become prevalent.
All this has contributed to change democratic politics for the worse. The electorate has become hostile and distrustful of the media and politicians alike.
Trust has broken down threefold, between people and politicians, media and people, journalists and politicians, with the latter now observing each other with deep distrust and mutual antipathy. A vicious circle has established itself.
The chances of the public receiving the information they need to participate in democracy is declining even more.
Democracy and civil society need informed citizens, otherwise they will have difficulties in surviving. Without a free Fourth Estate, aware of its own power and responsibility, an informed citizenship cannot be sustained.
What our democracies have got today is an electorate which is highly informed about entertainment, consumer goods and celebrities, while being uninterested in and deeply cynical about politics, equipped with short attention spans and a growing tendency to demand instant gratification.
If this trend cannot be reversed the political arena might become even emptier than it is now.