Media Sickness

Newspapers have long seen themselves as agents of justice, but not even the broadsheets know the meaning of the word, says Matt Henry.

By Matt Henry

In the UK the News of the World campaign to ‘name and shame’ sex offenders and the threats of The Sun and The Mirror to expose the identities of the Bulger [child] killers, are part of a long tabloid tradition of witch-hunt justice. But if the track ’em down and burn ’em out approach doesn’t float your boat, you don’t have to suffer distaste alone. The columns of the more liberal broadsheet papers are chocker with the eager words of fluffy journos ready to share their shock at such barbarism with anyone willing to listen. “Like the mob,” says Times columnist Simon Jenkins, “It feels no shame in deploying hysteria, hypocrisy and humbug until someone in authority is brave enough to call it to order.”

A noble assertion but don’t kid yourself that the ‘qualities’ do any more for the ‘public interest.’  To get some kind of real social, economic, environmental and racial justice, the public need knowledge of who is doing what and why. Who, meaning the movers and the shakers, those men and women wielding power enough to shape our lives, be it through politics, pressure groups, the police force or big business. Wrongs can only be righted when exposed and the media should be geared towards maximum exposure of those best equipped to wrong others.

Both the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ sides of the mainstream media fall way short of this goal. At least when the tabloids talk of ‘monsters’, ‘psychos’ and ‘perverts,’ it’s clear they’re living only in the realm of the video-nasty. With even the most right-on of broadsheet papers, it’s more difficult to know what you’re missing. With that heavy text, those giant pages and not a single advert for crotchless panties, it’s easy to think your getting a taste of ‘the truth.’ Yet, almost 40% of broadsheet stories now originate from the bowels of public relations companies. And the other 60%: mostly from government leaks, civil service reports, parliamentary debates, police briefings and poll results. Talk to any national reporter and they’ll tell you they hardly seem to get out and about any more. Reporting is now a case of rehashing information provided by the very institutions and organisations we should be keeping an eye on – albeit with some sort of spin to make for catchy reading. 

Real investigative journalism seems to be something now shown only late at night on UK Channel 4. The sort of stuff dug out by Mark Thomas is the sort of stuff newspaper reporters should be out getting 24-7. Where were the broadsheets before BP Amoco’s connections with the Columbian military were finally exposed? Where were they when Unilever tried to overturn a human rights law refusing to award public contracts to those doing business with Burma? Where were they when Vodaphone backed road building at the Newbury Bypass and then got permission to build a massive new HQ on greenbelt land beside it? Time after time, it is left to political activists to expose the injustices of the police, politicians and organisations/corporations like the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Nike, Gap, Microsoft and Monsanto. Just as the tabloid focus on crime and celebrity gossip diverts the attention of readers from real issues of justice, so broadsheet failures to pursue real investigative journalism stop readers from thinking anything is possible much beyond the status quo.

Measuring the success of the government institutions that are supposed to serve us is an important function of the media but, in an age where the power of multinational corporations has begun to exceed the power of many national governments, the national press must begin directing its gaze elsewhere. And this means not sitting on arses waiting for the latest report on the failures of the National Health Service, but getting out and digging some serious corporate dirt.

However, there must also be a change in the way news is reported. Stories are so often placed in a political vacuum as if the chain of events were unrelated. The forced eviction of tribal peoples by oil companies, rising oil prices, donations by oil companies to Congressman and the American air strikes in Iraq are presented as separate incidents as if there were no connection. Newsroom culture that lauds the objective and the impartial must take its share of the blame. To draw such conclusions is (shock, horror) to make some sort of judgement, as if the choice of stories or the choice of phrases were not. Objectivity is little but a pipe dream – in failing to make the connection writers are in effect defending the status quo and the sooner editors start to realise this and take some responsibility the better. Until that day, it seems to be up to underground press publications such as Schnews, Squall and the Independent Media Centre, or marginal political magazines like the New Internationalist and Red Pepper, to explore issues thoroughly within their social, economic, environmental and racial contexts.

But is the idea of the mainstream media delivering real justice little but a hollow and unworkable fantasy? You only have to look at the barriers to realise this is not the case. The mainstream media is governed ultimately by the free-market. Aside from the extra-journalistic pressures exerted by the vested interests of media barons like Murdoch, journalists also face the depressing fact that increased competition and de-regulation mean an increase in circulation wars. If you don’t get the readers, you don’t get your pay cheque. As the ante ups, so do the time pressures and the need to bow to the whims of advertisers – who is really going to go out and dig dirt when copy is coming in from all angles. Add to this British libel law that strongly favours big business and you can see why investigative journalism has become just another genre of journalism rather than the very modus operandi of newsrooms that it once was.
A press complaints commission with teeth, reformation of libel laws and a willingness of journalists to listen to media academics are perhaps the only ways we can stop the so-called ‘qualities’ slipping further into the quagmire of entertainment.  The sad fact is that should this happen, its effects will go largely unreported – people without voices cannot cry for help.
Dave Marcia posted 28 March 2007 (17:38:03)
There's a very interesting website called which is very useful for highlighting this sort of thing. They send reports to their mailing list every few days about shonky reporting. They brought out a book recently too, called Guardians Of Power which is a good read.
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