Traditionally, general elections in Britain are a time for much quasi-religious talk of the blessed gift of democracy – so recently won at such high cost, we are told – and the importance of paying due homage to that great principle at the business-owned ballot box. The media will stop at nothing in trying to persuade the public – abused as "apathetic", "cynical" and "complacent" – to vote. Media neutrality consists in taking the views of the three leading political parties seriously, while heaping scorn on those who point out the futility of choosing from different political products in the same corporate supermarket. The total media consensus on this version of neutrality might suggest it is an example of Absolute Truth, but in fact it is based merely on the fact that the media are themselves tucked away in one corner of the supermarket selling their wares.
John Pilger accurately predicted what would happen:
"What a lot of people are going to do on Thursday [8 June, 2001] is go on strike. It’s the best thing… millions of people will be going on strike – the idea that they’re ‘abstaining’ or ‘apathetic’ is nonsense."
In the event, a mere 52 percent of the electorate bothered to vote, with just 25 percent voting for New Labour – a result described by the media as a "landslide". By contrast, journalists sneered at contemporaneous elections in Iran. Unaware of the irony, Channel 4 declared:
"The people of Iran are going to the polls today, but as every candidate has had to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic state, there isn’t much choice."
Nevertheless, of the thirty five million Iranians eligible to vote, 83 percent did vote, with 77 percent voting for president Muhammad Khatami.
There is a serious side to the election farce. The ramshackle, comic nature of the contest serves to hide the very serious consequences of corporate control of politics for British people and the outside world. This after all is a bumbling, jokey business that will elect leaders who later, you can be sure, will drop high explosive ordinance on the latest Third World (or indeed European) targets of Western ire.
This is not the kind of issue to be discussed in the mainstream, of course. Research conducted by Loughborough University confirms that "there has been little sign of real issues" in media election coverage, where "few issues make the news". In the first three weeks of campaigning the environment comprised 0.8 percent of election themes covered. Defence comprised 0.6 percent, employment 0.8 percent, and medical and health (excluding the NHS – BSE and foot and mouth, for example) 0.4 percent – vital issues of massive concern to the public, all ignored. There has been no mention of New Labour’ s "ethical foreign policy" deception, no review of the non-existent "genocide" used as a pretext for Blair’s bombing of Serbia, of his silence as East Timor burned, or of the suffering inflicted on Iraq. When all political parties take an equally cynical, business-friendly view of moral issues, the media’s role is to pretend there is nothing to discuss – an extraordinary betrayal of even the pretence of democratic debate.
I asked Peter Golding, author of the Loughborough University report, if this silence was a new phenomenon in British politics:
"The pattern in 2001, of very few issues dominating and many areas being largely absent is exactly as it was in 1997 and 1992… Issues like social security, housing, the environment and so on are [usually] all but invisible. To explain it you might have to look at news coverage outside election periods, which is also remarkably devoid of regular coverage of many of the issues you list."
I also asked what this restriction of meaningful debate meant for the notion that British elections are democratic:
"Democracy assumes and requires an informed citizenry and I have repeatedly gone on record as saying that in present circumstances the media in the UK fall far short of this."
Because deceptions seek safety in numbers, taking the election seriously requires that the media also explain how it is that we citizens can be so sure that our elections are free and fair. Enter the myth of the watchdog press: stage left! (And exeunt the reality of corporate power: stage right!) Writing in the Guardian, AC Grayling notes that the two all-important constraints on political corruption are "freedom of the press and the final sanction of the ballot… The press indeed justifies its eagle-eyed watch for fissures, frictions and faults in both government and opposition by appeal to its performance of this democratic service."
Chanting the self-serving mantra beloved of journalists everywhere, Grayling reports that there are problems with the eagle-eyed media: "It often enough goes too far, conjuring mountains from molehills (or from nothing), but excess is better than deficit in this instance, because unless the press were absolutely vigilant, the politicians would use their time-honoured methods… to get away with things."
Grayling’s words certainly hold true for media performance in reporting the crimes of official enemies – Serbia, Iraq and Iran, for example – but become merely laughable when discussing media coverage of domestic politics, the cancer of the body politic that is big business power, and other media ‘friends’.
Unfortunately, Grayling’s lofty pronouncements on the vital role of an independent media were published on the same day as news of a memo sent by Sunday Express editor, Michael Pilgrim, to the paper’s proprietor, Richard Desmond, also a publisher of soft-porn magazines. In the memo, Pilgrim complained of constant management pressure from Desmond to do things outside the "legitimate and ethical remit" of a newspaper. "I have been asked on several occasions", Pilgrim declared, "to suppress evidence of wrongdoing. I have been asked to suppress stories for ‘commercial reasons’ which have not in the slightest benefited the newspaper. I have been under ridiculous pressure to run unjustified stories to settle scores."
The pressure highlighted by Pilgrim includes: the suppression of a story about public relations guru, Matthew Freud, because Freud had a contractual veto over the use of an interview with Geri Halliwell which Desmond had bought for his OK! magazine and the Daily Express. The suppression of a story about complaints over the construction of a new home by the builders, Alfred McAlpine, because it would supposedly cost the paper £160,000 in advertising. Management orders to journalists to seek out and run damaging stories about Conrad Black, owner of the Daily Telegraph – who is locked in a printing dispute with Desmond – and about the magazine group EMAP. The suppression of a story detailing consumer complaints about Sky television’s Open digital subsidiary and its replacement by a story praising Sky and criticising its competitor, OnDigital. The Sunday Express’s City editor has since resigned, blaming management interference.
The result of Pilgrim’s attempt to give meaning to Grayling’s words?
"The editor of the Sunday Express was locked out of his office and appeared on the verge of being dismissed yesterday after claiming that his title’s proprietor, Richard Desmond, had interfered in editorial decisions and suppressed legitimate stories… It remains to be seen whether he will resign or be sacked."
To be sure, this primitive management interference is not popular with journalists because it threatens to expose the true extent of media compromise and corruption. Thus Roy Greenslade of the Guardian writes:
"Most owners interfere, but they generally do so with a measure of subtlety and usually over major matters of policy. But Desmond is not in the same league as his rivals and the notorious owners of the past, even including Robert Maxwell. He is a small businessman with a small business mentality."
What the ‘free press’ really needs, then, are big businessmen with a big business mentality. How interfering in "major matters of policy" – beginning with the hiring and firing of editors and senior journalists – constitutes "subtle" interference is, I suspect, destined to remain a mystery.
Although journalists will continue to rail against Desmond – as they do against that other ‘bad apple’, Rupert Murdoch – no lessons will be drawn regarding the "absolutely vigilant" "eagle-eyed watchers" of the press. If the same chain of events had happened in Soviet Russia, it would have provided an obvious opportunity to review the wide range of threats to press freedom under Communism. Nothing like that will happen here; it never has. That this kind of pressure is being exerted more and less subtly throughout the corporate press by owners, advertisers, shareholders, business-friendly state power, corporate think tanks and corporate flak machines, is simply not allowed to be discussed.
As we move away from political journalism to less power-sensitive media, however, we find that honesty is progressively allowed to intrude. Thus journalist Danny Leigh is comparatively free to expose the pernicious effects of business power on movie journalism. Commenting on allegations in a magazine article that Arnold Schwarzenegger had taken steroids, Leigh writes: "There is another remarkable aspect to the story: that, amid the bloodless hype of movie journalism, it was even commissioned in the first place. After all, within the film press breaking ranks like this simply isn’ t done – and not just out of deference to publicists and lawyers. Rather, the flaws and foibles of movie stars stay out of the papers because their fame provides a livelihood for the studio system’s ranks of worker bees, journalists included."
Imagine the Guardian carrying a report of how "it simply isn’t done" for senior journalists and commentators to tell the truth and so "break ranks" with ministers and big business, on which they depend for their livelihood.
Likewise, the influence of big business on sports journalism is thinkable in a way that its influence on political journalism is not. Michael Hann, one-time editor of FourFourTwo football magazine writes:
"Nowadays, if a football magazine wants an interview with any reasonably big name footballer, the journalist does not phone the club. He will not even bother with the agent. He goes straight for whoever makes that player’s boots. You want to interview [Manchester United star] Ryan Giggs? You phone up Reebok and ask if it can set up an interview… And when you turn up a representative of Reebok will be there, bearing armfuls of ostentatiously branded clothes for Ryan to wear."
The quid pro quo, of course, is "that the maker’s logos must be visible." The implications for editorial freedom, are dramatic: Diadora, for example, had a phase of "demanding layout approval, in order to ensure their logos were given due prominence", with ostensible sports journalism becoming, in effect, "a free primetime TV ad for Nike on BBC." If rules have to be broken, so be it: "One source at BBC Sport told me he and his colleagues were well aware they were breaking all sorts of BBC rules every time they broadcast interviews set up by a kit maker, but what could they do? It was break the rules or miss the interview…"
In political journalism, rules of reason and morality are similarly broken all the time, and for similar reasons. Football journalists have very good reason to quake before the transnational giants wielding the vast advertising revenue and influence on which they depend. But so do political journalists. In their Fear & Favour Report 2000, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) describe how Time magazine’s Spring 2000 issue was the culmination of the magazine’s "Heroes for the Planet" series which, Time declared, "profiled individuals around the globe who are working to protect the natural world". But not all environmental issues merit equal coverage, it seems. The "Heroes for the Planet" series has an exclusive sponsor: Ford Motor Co. Asked about the conflict of interest of an automobile company sponsoring an environmental series, Time’s international editor admitted that the series was not likely to profile environmentalists battling the polluting auto industry because, after all, "we don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes." Or, as Greg Palast has noted of George W. Bush: "You dance with them what brung ya!"
As with its ‘neutral’ reporting of elections, so ‘neutral’ media reporting on the issue of press freedom involves ignoring everything that matters: it is fine for ‘bad apple’ proprietors to be denounced as ugly aberrations, but mainstream media commentators flatly deny that the corporate nature of the press and its dependence on corporate advertising and support influences content.
In one of life’s witty synchronicities, prior to my reading the FAIR report, I asked Roger Alton, editor of the Observer, if fear of losing advertisers affected his tendency to favour some stories over others. In replying, Alton picked a company at random: "No, if you had a story about ghastly goings on at Ford you wouldn’t +dream+ of not running it."