By Pete Hunt
The neoliberal project has suffered a serious blow in the form of the Great Recession. Birthed from the Chicago School of Economics with its trust in rational individual choice and the tendency of markets to self-regulate, led by Alan Greenspan and championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, free-market dogma has had a pretty good go at the wheel. Quite a lot of the passengers however, would now like to get off. The other side of the Atlantic, the Occupy movement, inspired by the Spanish Indignatos (1), mobilised huge amounts of public support against the excesses of free-market ideology. Across the Eurozone huge protest movements continue to articulate opposition to the privatisation forced upon their populations. Greece especially suffers, with reports of medical shortages, poverty (2), government corruption (3), and once again, a spectre is haunting Europe. But it is the spectre of fascism, from Athens (4) to London (5) to Budapest (6) that cries “Seig Heil” and calls for the expulsion of the Muslim immigrant folk devil.
In the UK, the Government has responded to the financial crash with one of the most expansive and brutal attacks on public services that the country has ever witnessed. The NHS, the judicial system, the police, the welfare state and education are all under attack as never before. Understandably, some people are a little miffed at this. The UK Uncut movement has dragged the issue of tax avoidance kicking and screaming into the public discourse and Occupy have set up camps and occupations in cities across the country. The student movement burst back into life to oppose the selling off of our knowledge and trade unions have mobilised hundreds of thousands of members in opposition to public sector cuts. All of these movements include elements that are more or less radical. They articulate messages from the very conservative, such as calls to simply enforce tax law properly, to the very radical, that call for a complete overhaul of how we structure society and distribute wealth, goods and services. In all of this, the news media has a key role. In any properly functioning democracy, the media is responsible for the free-flow of ideas, so that citizens may make informed political choices and decide what sort of society they want to live in. The British news media in its current form has not only failed to do this, it is incapable of doing so.
Precisely why this is the case requires some background information concerning the formation of the current shape of the media. A long term trend, not only in news media but across global business is that of convergence. Simply speaking, companies become larger and larger, corporate buyouts, takeovers and mergers have served to reduce the total number of individual news media outlets, which in turn reduces the range of editorial opinion and political viewpoints within the media. This leads to a convergence of not only economic might and interest but editorial opinion (7). Now this might not be such a problem if these few editorial opinions were wide-ranging and challenged dominant ways of thinking. This however, is not the case. The internet has also gutted the revenue streams of many news media outlets. This not only encourages further convergence but also affects the working conditions of journalists. Proper investigative journalism is expensive, and less journalists are being asked to produce greater amounts of content, which leads to much cross-pollination of stories and little interrogation of the stories presented (8).
Given that there is now, and has been for some decades, consensus on the triumph of capitalism, a certain flavor of journalism has emerged which necessarily dominates the media landscape. As in all other areas of life that capitalism takes as its own, the media is, with very few exceptions, profit orientated. Those that aren’t profit orientated (The BBC for example) are still beholden to a commercial worldview as they must “compete” with commercial entities for viewing figures and other markers of market success.
What this leads to in the majority of media outlets, is editorial decision making limited by the interests of its corporate owners. Those corporate owners are likely very happy with the current paradigm of Neoliberalism and thus unlikely to sanction content that gives oxygen to a message contrary to its interests. So if one accepts that the vast majority of news media necessarily, due to the shape of the commercial interests they serve, and the commercial environment must reflect commercial interests. These interests that are one and the same as those being pursued by the architects of austerity that currently inhabit the executive and legislative arms of our government, which are the same aims of large capital interests. Controlling interests in major media corporations also tend to be from the upper classes and thus tied into the dominant hierarchies it is their job to take to task.
So what happens when commercial-orientated news media has to cover large scale protest events that articulate messages in opposition to the status quo? Well several quite interesting things. One is a tendency to conceptualise protest as being a public nuisance (9). Protests are framed not by the issue they are trying to raise, but by the disruption that is caused to business and everyday life (10) (11). This serves to delegitmise the protest, as print space/pixels are given over to business profits lost and disruption caused, not WHY these people felt such disruption was necessary for their voice to be heard. It also illustrates rather well the commercial stance and acceptance of neoliberalism discussed earlier. Profit is more important than democratic rights.
The second is demonization of protesters who take part in more radical political action and violence and the use of this to delegitimise the protest as a whole. One example is the coverage of the first student protest. Whilst the protest itself was described as having legitimate aims, and most media outlets gave quotes from their supporters, as well as space to explain the issues raised to readers, those present at the violence outside Millbank Towers are again and again described as being in the “minority”, or not part of the movement at all. The Daily Mail in particular describes those who took part in the occupation as “Anarchists” (12) and makes mention of various far left groups, such as Class War and animal liberation groups as being the driving force behind the violence. As someone who was present at this event, this does not tally with my own personal experience as the vast majority of those gathered outside Millbank Tower were without doubt students who had been involved in the march previously in the day and not members of anarchist collectives or violent animal rights groups. Pictures from the day also illustrate this point, as one is more likely to spot a protester clad head to toe in Jack Will’s attire than the monochrome uniform favoured by anarchists using black bloc tactics.
But does the use of such tactics delegitimise the message of the protestors? If their message was perfectly legitimate during the earlier stages of the day, then surely the facts of that argument and opposition do not change because a few windows get smashed? Looking at the coverage of 2011’s March for the Alternative this occurs again as the Independent (13) declared “Violence flared when a group of hundreds of activists, not connected with the union protest, clashed with police” and later quoting civil rights group Liberty “…however the demonstration appeared to have been infiltrated by violent element…”, whilst the Daily Mail quotes Jim Murphy, deputy major who describes the group as a “tiny minority of violent, parasitic, unrepresentative hooligans” followed by a quote from Scotland Yard’s Bob Broadhurst who says “I wouldn’t call them protesters. They are engaging in criminal activities for their own ends.” (14) The ends however of all those attending on the day of the protest were the same, that of opposing austerity, specifically its manifestation in the education sector. The Daily Mail’s coverage of that day is especially significant as these quotes are used to characterise the actions of UK Uncut, who peacefully occupied the Fortnum & Mason store, doing no damage and with a fairly conservative political aim. They were deceived into leaving the store and arrested before having the vast majority of charges dropped some time later (15).
A separate key question emerges from this. What counts as legitimate political expression, and what as criminality? Surely the deciding factor is motive. If during a particularly heated protest, some property damage occurs, and in the excitement, someone throws a rock through a bank window. Now the key distinction is why a bank? If the protester was simply angry and wanted to break something, which itself should not delegitimise the issue they are protesting about, then this could be framed as an act of criminality. However if the protestor knows what the bank represents, and also what the act of destroying it represents, this “vandalism” is transformed into a highly political act. Should this still be viewed as legitimate political activity in what we still claim is a liberal democracy? The cost of the window is minimal, especially when compared to the global profit streams of international banks. If the brick had come through the window of a small local business owner, or residential property then obviously this is much harder to construe as an act of political rebellion or expression. One could argue that only that allowed within the law is acceptable protest action, but then what say they of historical social movements who very definitely broke the law, but are hailed as champions of progressiveness today? The civil rights movement, suffragettes etc would not have succeeded if all their members did was march peacefully about whilst hemmed in by thousands of police in militarised riot gear. The question of what constitutes legitimate protest however, is a whole separate kettle of fish perhaps better pondered elsewhere.
What is clear though, is that unless a protest conforms to very tight authoritarian definitions and practices, then its message is lost in sensational headlines and accusations of criminality. Even if a protest behaves, then it is likely to be sidelined and the disruption caused to the status quo emphasised over any message given. Whilst this does not just occur when looking at coverage of anti-austerity protest, it is necessary to point out that this process serves the interests of those who stand to gain from the continued imposition of market values and processes into public institutions.
So then, the news media in the United Kingdom, is unlikely to cover angles contrary to its commercial interest, which necessarily dovetail with the interests of the austerity fixated Government and big business. Anti-austerity protest does not dovetail with these interests. When it is covered, little to no coverage is given of radical alternatives to austerity, and only grudging acceptance of arguments for reforming the current system. The protesters themselves are framed at best as a nuisance, at worst as criminals. That no solutions are articulated beyond those available within the dominant paradigm of environmentally blind neoliberalism when the most highly visible opposition to this paradigm are covered by the mainstream news media outlets of the United Kingdom raises serious questions regarding the proper functioning of democratic society. A liberal democracy requires an informed and aware citizen able to make rational decisions in an open public domain and this relies upon a free flow of ideas and information. The news media of the United Kingdom demonstrably do not seem to be capable of fulfilling this function. If this is the case then we must ask ourselves if our liberal democracy still deserves that name.
(7) Herman, S, McChesney, R, 1997. The Global Media: the new missionaries of corporate capitalism. London. Cassel and Continuum
(8) Curran, J, 2012. Misunderstanding the Internet. Luntlidge. Chp. 1.
(9) Di Cicco, D, T. (2010) The Public Nuisance Paradigm: Changes in Mass Media Coverage of Political Protest since the 1960s. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 2010 87: 135