Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Why the media in UK and US has moved beyond manufacturing consent, and why that has led to a war about reporting COVID-19

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (hereafter MC) was a book published by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in 1988. From my point of view the key idea behind MC was that media organisations select the news and opinion that they show to viewers in a way that supports the existing economic, social and political system. This could be summed up as saying the mainstream media (MSM) is not subversive.

The book talks about the “propaganda model for manufacturing consent” as involving various elements: the ownership structure and for profit goal, the importance of advertising, the importance of particular news sources, sensitivity to organised criticism, and organising filters like the cold war or terrorism. So, for example, in my idea of mediamacro you see the importance of City economists as a ready source of instant comment on market events, which in turn influences how macroeconomics is interpreted.

As Chomsky famously said to Andrew Marr in a well known 1996 interview, Marr does not himself filter news in the way described above. He is chosen so he does it without thinking. Chomsky said “... what I'm saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.” I think from today’s perspective their use of the term propaganda to describe this and other mechanisms is unfortunate. With pure propaganda people report not what they see but what those in charge want them to write.

You can see manufacturing consent operating when particular politicians attempt to challenge the current system in some way, like Sanders and Corbyn for example. In the UK the broadcasters tended to see Corbyn as a (perhaps dangerous) outsider, and treated him a bit like you would treat any interloper. When the US MSM turned against Sanders, particularly when it looked like he was going to win, their reasoning may have been genuine (a classic ‘success comes from being in the middle’ model) but it was overwhelming.

I used to call the UK broadcasters, alongside papers like the Financial Times or Guardian, non-partisan but I now think that term is misleading. After all in both the US and UK papers and TV channels are often slanted to one side of the political divide. A better term to use, following the discussion above, is the manufacturing consent media (MC-media). 

The point I want to make here is that in the UK and US we have moved well beyond manufacturing consent. What is new is that they are now joined by what I will call the directed propaganda (DP) media, which includes Fox News in the US and most of the right wing press in the UK. DP-media provides biased and misleading information, or sometimes straight lies, that support a political viewpoint. 

Thus the MSM is made up of the MC-media and the DP-media. A directed propaganda (DP) organisation will choose to distort news such that it becomes pure propaganda for one particular party or viewpoint. A MC-news outlet will report what it sees as the truth, but with an emphasis that comes from its political position. A DP outlet will splash a story about a scientist's love life to avoid a front page about the UK having worst death toll from COVID-19 in Europe. These DP-media outlets started off as very slanted MC-media, but have in recent years shifted to contain a large proportion of propaganda.  

The distinction is not clear cut, but it is obvious from various examples. Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump at one point decided that reporting of it in the MC-media was fake news, a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. This was obviously complete nonsense and no reputable member of the MC-media pretended otherwise. Fox News (or strictly most of it) took up Trump’s theme. We have preliminary evidence that it influenced listeners at their own peril.

In the UK the Sun, Mail and Telegraph have treated Johnson’s illness with COVID and subsequent recovery, together with the birth of yet another Johnson child, in a manner that would not be out of place in North Korea. When the health minister fiddles the figures to achieve a target, the DP-media asks no questions. (As Alastair Campbell writes, it was very different for a Labour government, but he is wrong that this is down to luck.)

Perhaps I can put the distinction as follows. MC media is about filtering out news or opinion that challenges the system. DP outlets filter news that challenges a particular party or viewpoint within that system, and is happy to report lies that support its position.

Why do I call it directed-propaganda? Why not (when the favoured party is in power) state-media, or right wing media (there are no left wing DP outlets in the MSM)? The reason is that DP-media is a reliable supporter of the government of the right nearly all of the time, but not in all circumstances. It has a mind of its own, or rather the mind of the owner who directs it (hence directed propaganda). The most obvious example was Brexit, where the DP media in the UK effectively replaced one right wing administration with another that shared its own view on Brexit. For the Sun and Telegraph in particular, the current UK government is its government.

If that seems quite an achievement, it required help from the MC-media. In the UK the broadcast media had strict codes of balance, even if it meant balancing knowledge with lies. In the US during the election where Trump became president the MC-media had more stories about the mistakes of Clinton rather than Trump.

Both Brexit and the election of Trump were pivotal moments for both countries, because it showed us in no uncertain terms the power of the DP-media. It was, after all, a moment where anyone with a will to see understood that we were embarking on a path that would harm everyone except for a minuscule minority who would benefit. I think too many on the left miss this, partly because of internal divisions over Brexit on the left, but also because it is hard for those who have been blinded by the light to pick out shades of grey. (I’m writing this after arguing with a few on the left who cannot see why they should vote for Biden against Trump.)

Which brings us to a recent battle in the UK between these two media. Journalists who work for the DP-media are attacking some in the MC-media for not 'joining in the national effort to defeat COVID-19', by which they mean providing utterly uncritical support for actions that are in reality a national scandal. Their main target at one point was the Financial Times, which was subject to the ultimate insult in certain quarters as being as bad as the Guardian. 

In the middle of this is the BBC, which at times of crisis has often become the de-facto state broadcaster. More recently there are some signs of it being more independent. When Emily Maitlis attacked the idea that COVID-19 was a great leveler, she received some criticism, but not too much because Newsnight does not appear on the BBC's most popular channel. In contrast the Panorama programme does, and when it did a very good investigation into the failure to provide doctors, nurses and care home workers with sufficient protective equipment, this received extensive criticisism by the DP-media and the government.

The BBC is an important check on DP-media in the UK, because most people who read the right wing press also watch the BBC. This is why the current government, in place because of the efforts of the DP-media, initially proposed to attack the way the BBC was financed as a way of diminishing the organisation. Although many on the left are deeply unhappy about the BBC because of its MC-media type bias against Corbyn, it remains an important bulwark against the power of the DP-media.  

Amartya Sen notes that a free press meant less deaths during a famine, and as I argue here a critical media helps governments reverse obvious errors. The failure of the UK media to criticise the government’s initial herd immunity strategy indicates the limitations of a free press in the UK. However at least the MC-type media in the UK have begun to acknowledge the government's error in retrospect, which is the reason for the recent attacks against it by those in the DP-media. The foundation of this attack is that the public were losing trust in journalism because it was being critical. 

This was a classic DP-media made up story. Real fake news if you like. In this Reuters Institute study, broadcasters top a poll for the institutions that have done the best job during the pandemic, closely followed by the Guardian. In contrast the organisations that have been most uncritical towards the government, the Telegraph and Sun, get negative ratings. And even more interesting is this study, which suggests viewers want more critical coverage, not less.

There is a good reason for this attempt to make publishing data or criticism appear unhelpful or even unpatriotic. While the Financial Times maintains constant coverage of the number of deaths in major countries, the BBC does not. There is some evidence that most people think deaths have been higher in China and France than the UK. If knowledge about the UK’s relative death rate became widespread, coupled with the government’s failure to adequately protect NHS and care staff, the damage to this government - the DP-media’s government - would be for a time at least very large.

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