The Limits of Acceptable Controversy

The News of the World scandal is finally taking on its proper dimensions in the minds of the British people.

It has long been obvious to insiders that elements in the media were systematically flouting the rule of law. They made illegal payments for information and engaged in phone hacking on an industrial scale. They bugged the phones of senior politicians, celebrities and, now it seems, the victims of crime. Those on the outside have had little, if any, opportunity to learn about the significance of what was going on. Despite a campaign by the Guardian that began in the summer of 2009, broadcasters and journalists on other papers have largely taken cover behind the notion that it had all been blown out of proportion by a handful of single issue fanatics.

Let’s be clear about what this means. The British media in their current form can neither regulate themselves or report adequately on their own activities. These failures must be added to their demonstrable inability to describe the broad outlines of the economic system in the run-up to the crisis of 2007-8, and their failure to expose the government’s manipulations and deceits in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The media’s collective failure to describe themselves accurately is of a piece with their failure to describe the wider world of power to which they belong.

The BBC in particular stands revealed as an institution without an investigative function. Though it receives more than £3 billion annually and claims its mission is ‘to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’, it has consistently been unable to provide an accurate account of reality when powerful forces are arrayed against it. It left the Murdoch press free to pursue its ruinous criminality. It gave the Blair government every assistance in its efforts to persuade us that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. And it stood idly by while the City of London and the political establishment concocted a fantasy of endless economic growth through reckless credit expansion. The result of this last dereliction sits on the balance sheet of the Bank of England – £1400 billion of public debt, conjured up to rescue the private banking corporations. Far from enriching people’s lives, the BBC has colluded in a media-political system that has degraded and impoverished us.

The current structure of power and decision-making in the media cannot now be allowed to remain unchanged. The employees of large media organizations have monopoly control of decisions about what is investigated and what prominence is given to the results of investigations. They have been unable or unwilling to use this monopoly power in the public interest. Accordingly it is time to assert our democratic right to communicate freely amongst ourselves. Each of us must take some some fraction of the commissioning power, the power to initiate and publish inquiries. If we do not our public life will remain a mess of officially sanctioned fairy tales, crocodilian excuses, and grotesque abuses of the innocent, in which market forces and elite prerogatives set the limits of our understanding and hence of our capacity for self-government.

I have set out how we might address the problem of unaccountable media power in various places, most notably here.

By all means campaign against News International. It is important that the full scale of the criminality is revealed. But there is something incomparably greater at stake here. Our media as a whole have failed, and their failure both reflects and contributes to the ongoing social, environmental and economic crisis in which we find ourselves. The operations of the media are the major obstacle to meaningful democracy at the current time. Until we democratize the media we will not discover ourselves as citizens and as human beings.

There has been too much crass intrusion in the pursuit of saleable copy, too much collusion in the interests of power. The former has served to obscure the other. It is time for both to stop.

12 thoughts on “The Limits of Acceptable Controversy”

  1. To the failures of the media to expose economic and war-mongering falsehoods I would add a third, of even greater importance. That third lie is that we know how our actions will affect the climate, we can control those changes and as long as we don’t warm the world by more than two degrees centigrade everything will be fine.

    1. In terms of the structure of a reformed system, the long answer is in my book. It is summarised on the blog in various places – in essence, we need to take public money currently used to subsidise the media and make it available to researchers and journalists who can gather the considered support of fractions of the public. We further need to secure a broadcast outlet for the products of this democratically backed research.

      How we do that is part and parcel of a wider movement towards accountable government and sane economic and social management. Media reform is at the centre of moves to creat an effectual democracy.

  2. Good post – especially regarding wider issues. The poverty of current political debate is testament to the disaster of our media.

    However, I think this particular scandal will be important due to a key factor that media discourse has itself encouraged for a long time: foregrounding individual empathy at the expense of analysis. News Corp’s actions towards a family in the most tragic of situations has really hit home – on a ‘human scale’ – their wider abuses and exploitations. Our news media has discouraged assessing the ‘big picture’ for so long, that this very emotional story is likely to generate widespread outrage at the actions of NOW, and the miserable failure of other news outlets to address it.

    I’m far more cynical than most when it comes to the media, but I must admit I found this particularly upsetting. It’s hard to care much for celebs or politicians, but this ruthless exploitation of a normal family’s agony has hit home the cynical use of ’emotional angles’ favoured by journalists and their owners. It’s grimly ironic how this modus operandi has become the crux of their own unraveling. Even the most apolitical members of the audience will be appalled.

    The collusion of the police – and possibly the ruling party – will be widely noted, and difficult to forget. They can’t gloss over this one, as it’s impossible to personalise this story further to their advantage. Their disgrace has been laid bare for all to see. Even if they do – rightly – throw Rebekah Brooks to the wolves, the reputations of News Corp, the Met and the government will be deeply damaged by this scandal. As will the authority of the British media in general. It’s just sad that it required a tragedy like this to make it happen.

    1. “However, I think this particular scandal will be important due to a key factor that media discourse has itself encouraged for a long time: foregrounding individual empathy at the expense of analysis.”

      I entirely agree with you, W. The failure by the media to discuss structural issues has left the public space almost empty of anything other than ‘human interest’ stories of one kind or another.

      C. Wright Mills is a very useful person to look at in this context –

  3. Again, your words are devastatingly sharp.

    There are so so many issues we have to face as a nation. This is an important one.

    I love my BBC – because it was where I watched Blue Peter, and got to know David Attenborough. I should love it for the news, the documentaries…. but I don’t. Slowly over the years, I’ve realised the voice on the BBC box is not telling it as it is.

    Thank you for your work, Dan.

    1. The BBC still produces great media. Although Dan Hind points out some important things about ignorance or withholding of information, the BBC is still one of the most respected news organisations worldwide. There are often articles on the BBC website about scandals within the BBC itself, so it still deserves credit for it’s relative transparency.
      And like you say, we still get amazing stuff from the BBC like all those great wildlife documentaries and so many other things.

  4. Great Post Dan – as Anthony Barnett points out (and you have too), it is not a question of false consciousness: most people don’t believe what they read in the newspapers.

    The media acts to shore up compliance with the corporate agenda by suggesting that you may feel this way about newspapers and TV but you are in a weird minority and that very few really feels like you. That way indifference is encouraged and dissent marginalised.

    38 degrees has a petition against the BSB takeover . Sign it now!

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