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Ties that bind

by William Bowles • Thursday, 22 February, 2007

If nothing else, groups like Medialens perform an invaluable service to an otherwise woefully misinformed public pointing out the blatant and not-so-blatant bias in the corporate and state-run media’s coverage of events. Back in the mid-eighties I was involved in Extra!, a publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a New York-based media analysis outfit which like Medialens also performs an invaluable service in unpacking the inbuilt bias in media coverage of important events.

The question arises however, whether getting the public to write to outfits like the BBC has much effect on their news coverage and analysis? Judging by the events of the past few years, it’s doubtful whether it has had any effect whatsoever, aside from the odd and essentially meaningless retraction, which in any case disappears into the bit bucket, with every acknowledgement of an ‘error’ so hedged in provisos as to undermine any gain achieved.

This is not to say that we should not continue to target the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media, in analysing how the media operates and in whose interests it operates and who it represents.

And indeed, on occasion, for example the furore raised over the use of the ‘statistics’ produced by Iraq Body Count by the BBC revealed that absolutely nothing has changed, with the BBC mounting a vicious red-baiting witch-hunt against Medialens for exposing the spurious nature of the claims made by the IBC and how in turn, they were used to reinforce the prevailing justification for the invasion and occupation.

And we need look no further than the current propaganda campaign being waged by the BBC over the un-substantiated claims that Iran is behind the attacks on the occupation forces in Iraq, claims which have been refuted by the facts but search in vain for an acknowledgement of this in the news coverage except for the odd mention that is all but invisible when measured against the bulk of the coverage.

So important is the media to the maintenance of the status quo, that no amount of bitching and whining will make any fundamental change, this is a fact that has to be acknowledged for fear of over-estimating our impact or the importance of challenging their hegemonic control over the manufacture of news.

FAIR’s stated aim, at least when I was involved in it was to target media professionals in an effort to get them to recognise the role they played, for without their active or passive cooperation in the process, it would be virtually impossible for the MSM to operate as it does.

Easier said than done, journalists perform a vital role in the maintenance of the ruling order and for which the key players, editors, sub-editors and leading writers get rewarded handsomely and not only in material terms for their participation.

By elevating the journalist to the level of a de facto ‘celebrity’ and over-inflating the importance of the ‘news’, for example 24-hour ‘news’ channels that say the same thing over and over again, our understanding of the world is reduced to nothing more than a series of one-dimensional clichés.

It should be apparent that the problem is far more complex and deep-seated than merely exposing the lies and disinformation peddled by the dominant media. The root causes lie in the ‘education’ system that produces the ideological raison-d’etre and in an economic system which binds the ‘professional’ journalist tighter than any chains can to the system.

Thus any analysis of the role of the mainstream media has to be set in the context of a wider and deeper analysis of capitalism, for although the sophistication and extent of the media’s role in maintaining the status quo is unquestionably a burning issue, it’s not a new phenomenon, it extends back as far as the existence of the printed word can be traced, some five hundred years.

The emergence of Web-based independent media, an event whose effect has, in my opinion, been over-estimated, is obviously still welcome but unless it becomes an integral component of an analysis of how capitalism maintains its control and most important, part of a viable alternative to the prevailing order, we will continue to remain marginalised and fragmented.

This is not say that the MSM is not aware our potential to put a cat amongst the pidgeons, just look at how the corporate media was finally forced to recognise the power of the ‘Blog’ and once recognised how it sought to produce a ‘citizen-based’ journalism, but observe how it has been coopted and in fact absorbed into the plethora of mainstream media outlets.

Virtually every major ‘news’ channel now has its ‘have your say’ outlet but each and every one is ‘moderated’ by the parent, that is to say, controlled by a central editorial department and in any case, it is once more, a drop in the ocean by comparison. What it does do and most effectively, is create the illusion of ‘citizen participation’.

There is no way we can compete, head-on with the likes of hegemonic structures like the BBC or corporate news organisations like Murdoch’s News Corp, and there is no way on earth that they are going to change in spite of all our efforts, it’s simply not in the nature of the beast. Therefore I contend that the best route is to call for a boycott of the mainstream media. Stop watching the BBC news or buying newspapers, for the one thing the Web has created is a wealth of independent news coverage and analysis, sources that are increasingly sophisticated and reliable whilst offering a wide range of interpretations of events without compromising fundamental principles of honesty and integrity.

Underpinning this approach is the importance of critical thinking which relies on being fully informed about events. Without the ability to think critically about events, we remain passive consumers, unable to assess events and their causes. Thus the emergence of an independent, web-based media should in theory at least, aim to encourage and develop critical thinking. Ranting at the enemy is all well and good but in order to have confidence in our ability to develop an alternative depends entirely on having a real understanding of what’s going on in the world and why.

In this regard it would be useful to know to what extent people are actually turning to the independent media. Empirical observations inform us that increasingly people are turning away from relying on the MSM and getting their news and information from the Web but how many are they and what kind of news and information and in turn how is it affecting their view of the world and the decisions they make about for example, the political process?

As far as I know, studies of this kind have not been done. My own, totally unscientific survey reveals that the global readership of independent media sources runs into many millions, perhaps even tens of millions. My own Website for example, has almost one million pages a month viewed but this doesn’t tell me much, if anything about how many people this represents nor does it tell me anything about the impact it has on their opinions or more importantly, their actions.

In the UK, recent surveys indicate that distrust of the government has people turning back to the Tory Party. My suspicion is that this is not based on support for the Tories but rather a rejection of the Labour government and its policies, in other words a negative reaction rather than choosing a positive alternative simply because one doesn’t exist. This was echoed in the recent US elections and it’s reinforced by the low level of voter participation in both countries.

What this also reveals is the rejection of the political process itself, and paradoxically, this is also reflected in the nature of the way the independent media itself is organised; fragmented and unconnected, with no overall theme or approach revealing that the left itself is fragmented and disorganised reflecting that it is still thinking and acting as it did in the previous century.

The pressing question for us is how to overcome this state of affairs whilst maintaining a diversity of views and opinions. The last thing I would want to see is a return to the old, dogmatic methods where there was only one, correct way of doing things.

Hopefully the current situation is a formative period during which these questions are being addressed and out of which a new way forward will develop and there are signs if not in the so-called developed world of this happening. I refer specifically to events in Latin and Central America, the question for us is whether these developments are relevant to our situation? They certainly give us hope that the struggle continues and in novel and so far very effective forms.

Can we learn from them? Are we willing to? My eternal optimism would like to think so especially the emergence of what I call self-organisation, itself an expression of an increasing political sophistication that promises the creation of entirely new kinds of political formations but ones which are firmly rooted in our traditions and what we have hopefully learned from past mistakes.

This view is reinforced by the increasingly vitriolic attacks being made in the capitalist media on these developments, for even if we are not being moved by these events, the capitalists surely are! They also contradict the oft-repeated myth that socialism is dead and buried. I prefer to view the period since the early 1990s as one of licking our wounds and regrouping for the struggles to come.

Is this merely wishful thinking on my part? I think not as history shows that struggle never stops. It may suffer defeats and reversals and even periods of deathly quiet but over historical time, revives and gains in strength.

The current period is especially critical for we are confronted with a unique situation, climate change, that is itself directly the result of the capitalist economic order and there are signs that the connection between the two is being made by increasing numbers of people and even some countries.

The capitalist class is of course trying to pass the responsibility to us but in so doing it is revealing the fundamental contradiction of personal ‘belt-tightening’ whilst maintaining an economic system of continual economic growth based on useless consumption. Sooner or later the futility of trying to maintain capitalism and the construction of a sustainable and just economic system will be revealed and indeed there are already signs indicating just this.

Media talk of ‘resource wars’ is one expression of the connections being created by the capitalist class as is all the talk of ‘peak oil’, ‘energy security’ and ‘over-population’. But no matter how sophisticated the propaganda is it cannot hide the devastating effects of climate change, especially its impact on the poor of the planet and sooner rather than later, the climate change chicken will come home to roost.

Rather than be taken in by these myths as some on left have been, we have to articulate a vision of an alternate economy based on a rational and sustainable utilisation of resources, made all the more critical by the realisation that the major effect of climate change is going to be on the production of food and the impact rising sea levels is already having the millions people who live in low lying areas of the planet.

Will we in the developed world continue to stand by and allow billions to be spent on wars of aggression whilst millions are uprooted and forced to relocate to who knows where? The results don’t bear thinking about so disastrous will the result be unless we develop a global response to these catastrophic events. Be assured that the capitalist world will not lift a finger, rather it views such developments as beneficial to maintaining its grip on the planet and its resources. Its only concern is the degree to which climate change will impact on its ability to survive.

Thus in the UK for example, reducing energy consumption is not accompanied by any attempt at altering our transport policies or indeed the production and consumption of consumer products, all of which consume vast amounts of energy and resources, if not here then somewhere in the global circuit of capitalist production and distribution. The real effects of capitalist production is therefore hidden under the guise of ‘energy efficiency’ and guaranteeing our ‘energy security’.

The left desperately needs to connect the crisis of climate change to the crisis of capitalism and indeed its assault on the planet, by revealing the connections between all these events and proposing an alternative. We surely have no other choice unless we want to side with the ruling elites and maintain our position of privilege at the expense of the great majority of the planet’s people.


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