The Worst of the Modern Mass MediaThe Mass Media and DemocracyMass Media: Sensationalism, Panics and ExaggerationWhich are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?Rupert Murdoch and News Corp's Involvements in Politics
The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people1,2. News media and journalism outlets influence public opinion and therefore democracy itself so their reach and power is not to be taken lightly3. Good journalism is good for democracy4,5, but, unfortunately the most popular news feeds in most Western countries have degraded into poor-quality sensationalism, which is effecting democracy and degrading society6. "Three-quarters of people identify television as the most important single source of information about politics"7 and yet in the UK 'media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed'8 and coverage is almost entirely negative and pessimistic.
The worst culprit of the last few decades has been the Murdoch empire's outputs, complete with secret political deals that have made and broken entire governments9. Already by 1985 historians warned that these "powerful engines [of] misinformation [have] "political implications [and] fears that an irresponsible trouble-making press, given enough rope, might become a danger to political stability and public order, seemed fully justified"10. One of the UK government's former chief scientific advisers, Sir David King, pointed out that 'the threat of terrorism is likely to be far less significant than climate change' but that climate change is too complicated and doesn't sell well, whereas terrorism 'fits the requirements of our news culture perfectly'2. The result is a populace that don't understand the risks facing them, and who vote accordingly on the issues that the press bother to report. Sensationalism, drama, shallow argumentation and a concentration on frivolity make it hard to appreciate the complexities of the world. The effect "is not merely to mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process"11.
The press has long served as an important part of democracy. Its role is to investigate the truth when politicians try to hide it, and to uncover government's failings. It is a protector of the people against those with power. Without effective mass media the populace cannot cast informed votes. Good journalism is good for democracy4 - when journalism operates "properly and in the public interest [it] is one of the true safeguards of our democracy"5. 'Research shows that the information that news provides becomes the building blocks for our political attitudes'2. The Economist looked at the decline in sales of newspapers and worried about the collapse of the newspaper industry:
“News is not just a product: the press is the fourth estate, a pillar of the polity. Journalists investigate and criticize governments, thus helping voters decide whether to keep them or sack them. Autocracies can function perfectly well without news, but democracies cannot. Will the death of the daily newspaper [...] damage democracy?”
That all depends on how well the press is performing now. When the Fourth Estate is broken, the issue of its worth becomes somewhat complicated. Given its importance, the push for improved quality in news reporting and journalism is still a high priority endeavour, but one which governments find it very difficult to pursue.
“[John Dewey (1859-1952)] believed that the emergence of a modern mass media had the potential to improve the conditions and operations of American democracy, if structured with those ends in mind, but he worried that the particular shape of the American media system, governed primarily by commercial interests, would have a much more negative influence.”
Julian McDougall (2012)12
It was the year 1836 that saw the first cheap newspaper appear (La Presse) that depended upon a readership that was not an intellectual or class élite of some kind. Mass media had arrived. Politicians worried about the destabilizing effects of the misinformation and sensationalism that newspapers frequently contained.
“The growth of such powerful engines of information or misinformation inevitably had large political implications. [...] Conservative fears that an irresponsible trouble-making press, given enough rope, might become a danger to political stability and public order, seemed fully justified. [...] Opposition papers were more often than not factious, irresponsible and sometimes dangerously violent.”
Nearly three centuries after La Press and not much has changed: the effect of inaccurate and hyped mass media on the workings of democracy have been damaging. Professor of Law M. Loughlin points out that the founders of modern political theory believed that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy13. The lack of intelligence in the content of poor quality media has an effect on the quality of democracy; leaders are forced to circumvent the wills of the masses simply because the masses are misinformed and have been prompted to care about shallow issues by the press and TV.
“The media thereby set the agenda in shaping our concerns. When the MPs' expenses story dominated the news in the summer of 2009, public concern and anger about the issue followed, with ramifications across Westminster. [...] At its best, this allows us to hold our representatives to account. The danger is that our political priorities are shaped less by an informed analysis of the threats that face us than by a news agenda that favours some stories over others. [...]
The gradual nature of climate change fits awkwardly with the requirements of a 24-hour news cycle. Its impact may be potentially profound, but the time lag between cause and effect is difficult to communicate in news terms. [...] Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, pointed out that the threat of terrorism is likely to be far less significant than climate change. And yet terrorism, which combines politics with drama and violence, 'fits' the requirements of our news culture perfectly.”
Professor Justin Lewis
Head of School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University2
Rather than reporting on politics many papers and news outlets become easily malleable as their busy workers release easy stories rather than accurate ones - busy journalists become easy tools to wield for those who want to spread lies, rather than an investigative force exposing those who spread lies. The effect "is not merely to mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process"11.
“[Nick Davies in 2008] painted a damning picture of journalistic practices that seemed to be alarmingly borne out by the phone-hacking scandal of 2011.”
When the Irish voted against an EU initiative, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, blamed British newspapers for spreading 'wild stories' about Europe15. It is not only individual politicians who have their careers unfairly damaged, it can be entire political entities. It seems that British journalists consider the truth to be worthwhile only to the extent that people buy it. The more people who buy it, the more factual it becomes.
In the wake of the media frenzy against John Prescott, early 2006, David Aaronovitch wrote about the role of the media in precipitating crises where there should have been none, and rightly labels it "story inflation", as was also the case with the media's attack on the Home Secretary, Mr Clarke:
“The voters' problem is how well they are being served by the present self-perpetuating media fire-storm. I'll give an example from the Clarke imbroglio. Several newspapers have featured the call for Mr Clarke to resign, from a woman who was raped by a man who had been released from prison after serving a previous sentence - but who had not been considered for deportation. The details of the case were shocking, but somehow the fact that Mr Clarke was not Home Secretary at the time either of man's release, nor of the subsequent rape, passed the papers by. Readers were left with the clear impression that all this had happened on Charlie's watch. It hadn't. [...]
He's doomed, say the media, if we go on about it. He will look too ridiculous to carry on. So let's go on about it. I thought it was wrong and hypocritical then and I think so now. [...] Prezza [Mr Prescott], whose adultery is no one's business, becomes by degrees Prezza the serial predator (the Daily Mail) and then Prezza the Unprofessional. It's the way David Mellor - a good minister if an occasionally unlovely man - was forced from office a decade ago.”
If a group of citizens got together and conspired to cause the downfall of a politician in such a way, they would surely be committing a crime. The press enjoys more freedom to indulge in harder tactics, because one function of the press in a democracy is to expose things that need to be exposed for the public interest. But now news outlets are largely commercial, 'public interest' has been replaced by interest in profits. And political scandals sell, so, they are churned out without regard for their underlying truth.
Most mass media outlets have ceased to cover political current events fairly, accurately, adequately or in some cases, at all. Coverage focuses on side-issues of politics: politician's sex lives are covered way out of proportion to their intellectual accomplishments. In addition to the almost absolute dumbing-down of political coverage is a reduction in the amount of coverage at all aside from scandals. In other words, coverage is almost entirely negative and pessimistic. Parliament is hardly covered at all - the vast majority of debates, motions and questions go completely unreported. Nick Davies, the media analyst and critic, points out that this is largely due to the staff-cuts and commercialisation of news. In place of journalism, many outlets now recycle government material and PR.
“Media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed. As a Labour shadow minister in 1993, Jack Straw published an analysis of the coverage of parliamentary debates which showed that the major dailies had been running up to eight hundred lines of copy a day, more or less steadily from 1933 until 1988 when there was a 'sudden decline' to less than one hundred lines by 1992. This is, in part, because the grocers shifted their focus to stories which were more likely to sell their papers. But it was also the result of the now familiar destruction of reporting staff.
The number of specialist journalists based in Parliament has been slashed to ribbons. Until the 1980s, all the major dailies had teams of reporters covering the chamber; The Times alone had sixteen gallery reporters. Now [...] only twenty-three of the 1,200 local newspapers still have their own staff there (although some file to more than one title). [...]
Chris Moncrieff, who has covered Parliament for PA since 1962, told us: 'We have so much monitoring of radio and TV, far more now than ten years ago, that we have less time to get stories ourselves." He added that PA now covers far fewer political meetings and speeches than it used to and relies far more on government press releases. 'They've won,' he said. 'If they put out in advance a copy of the speech, then we will not go. We now print what they want us to print. We go to far fewer meetings or not at all.'”
Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp have gained a reputation for being powerful political players. The desire to win the favour of his news publications have allowed him to stand up and knock down entire governments. In 1968 he done a secret deal with the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia ('Black Jack' McEwen) to destroy the political career of Billy McMahon, a rival17. The Secret Service were told to investigate fake claims, and Murdoch ran the story, causing an outcry against Billy McMahon. He also played with the careers of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. In 1969 Murdoch swapped favours to get the law changed so he could export business assets, and began his global career17. He engaged in the same political chess in the UK, dealing with Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Woodrow Wyatt and then Tony Blair. A deal with Thatcher exchanged positive reporting in the news for the securing of Murdoch's purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times18,19. A Government investigation in 2011 and 2012 saw Murdoch reveal that when he switched his paper's support from Labour to the Conservatives the Prime Minister (a close personal friend) called him with bitter threats. The true story is that these politically corrupt relationships with Murdoch shouldn't have developed in the first place. Murdoch's staff also frequently developed close personal relationships with key senior police officials, skewing and preventing some police investigations into journalistic misbehaviour20.
Murdoch's papers were caught in an epic series of scandals for using large-scale criminal and hacking techniques to invade people's privacy in order to get stories. It resulted in the closure of News of the World in 201121. The police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said that The Sun had a "culture of illegal payments"22. In 2011 the UK Prime Minister said "all party leaders had turned a blind eye to warning signs, because they were so keen to win the support of newspapers"23. The result was a 2-year government investigation, The Leveson Inquiry24. It noted that the Leaders of all three main UK political parties spoke for politicians in general in sounding the alarms and declaring that the relationship between senior press staff and politicians had become dangerously close. The evidence "clearly demonstrates" that this has been true over the last 30-35 years, and that this has worked against the public interest25.
The warnings of academics about the institutional biases of Murdoch's news outlets are longstanding and the bias is so great that it has a statistically detectable effect. In the USA, a University study from 2011 found that those who watched Murdoch's Fox News channel were less knowledgeable about current events even than those who watched no news at all - in other words, Fox News spreads misinformation26.”
“Democracy is rule for the people27. The democratic process is designed to avoid dictatorships and totalitarianism by making government accountable for its actions through voting and legal sanctions. There are different ways to implement democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis.
The separation of powers means that no particular government organ has unfettered control. The rule of law applies to all: politicians from the ruling party and from other parties, rich businessmen, and poor citizens, are all subject to the same equalities and restrictions. Human rights are protected by allowing reporters, watchdogs and civilian concern groups to scrutinize government. Government must not come to represent a sole ethnic or religious group (i.e., it should be secular and unbiased), and there should be no laws that grant particular freedoms to particular ethnic or religious groups, and likewise, no laws that specifically prohibit them. People are judged by actions, not beliefs. In today's international world, all efforts should be made to prevent citizens and organisations from conducting illegal enterprises in ways that evade national or international law, and as such, regional and international agreements are an essential part of facilitating the rule of law. Good national governance is not a simple affair, and those in power should be dedicated to their job, highly educated and capable.”
The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?.
The Times. UK newspaper, was once a quality newspaper but over the last two decades has fallen below several other papers. Part of Murdoch's News International empire since 1981. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. Second edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
(2005) Democracy: A Beginner's Guide. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK.
(2008) Flat Earth News. Hardback. Published by Chatto & Windus, Random House, London, UK.
ESRC. The Economic and Social Research Council
(2009) Britain in 2010. Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council.
(2003) Political Ideologies. 3rd edition. First edition 1992. Published by Palgrave MacMillan.
(2004, Ed.) Politics UK. 5th edition. With Dennish Kavanagh, Michael Moran and Phillip Norton. First published 1991. Pearson Education Ltd.
Leveson, Lord Justice
(2012) The Leveson Inquiry. Subtitled "An Inquiry Into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press". Dated 2012 Nov. Published by The Stationary Office as an official UK government document. Available for download from www.official-documents.gov.uk . The full report is spreadh across 4 volumes, totalling 2000 pages. I've used the 48-page Executive Summary which contains numbered paragraphs and these as referenced directly. Accessed 2016 Nov 09.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.