An independent media? Can we believe what we read?

Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinions and reflects the diversity of citizens, promoting public accountability of the government and the powerful elite. Edward Herman highlighted vital characteristics of a democratic media;

“A democratic media would be organized and controlled by ordinary citizens or their grass roots organisations….As regards function, a democratic media will aim first and foremost at serving the informational, cultural and other communications needs of members of the public which the media institutions comprise or represent[1]

The media is vital for democracy as it is the core source of political information and essential for our citizenry to be self-governing and well informed. The media provides transparency in the political sphere, as journalists prevent any potential abuse of power of those in authority by fulfilling their watchdog role.  Nonetheless, critics argue that our media and news organisations are undemocratic. They do not provide people with a large range of opinions, as they only reflect the views of their owners and advertisers. Contrary to a democratic media, our current system is run by commercial operations and has profit seeking interests.

In the past, journalism has served a democratic function, by acting as a watchdog rooting out corruption in government. The most notable case being Watergate, when Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post investigated a burglary at the Democratic Party’s Headquarters. They discovered the break-in had been sanctioned by President Richard Nixon, who was subsequently impeached and resigned in 1974.

In the UK, journalism has also successfully defended democracy through its role as a watchdog on government. For example, in 2009, The Daily Telegraph exposed a major political scandal concerning the expenses of British MP’s. The revelation of the misuse of expenditure permitted to Members of Parliament caused uproar among British taxpayers. The Daily Telegraph newspaper received leaked documents of MP’s expenses records, which they published in daily instalments in May 2009. This was a triumph for journalists as it rooted out corruption in government and led to changes in the law which were in the interests of the taxpayer.

In addition, the media served democracy and the interests of the public in the exposure of the cash for questions affair. In 1994, reporters from The Guardian revealed that Ian Greer, a successful parliamentary lobbyist had bribed two Conservative Members of Parliament to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of Mohamed Al-Fayed, an Egyptian businessman and owner of Harrods department store. Until this point, the public believed that when MP’s asked questions in government, they were acting selflessly, in the interests of their constituents. The climate of the political ‘sleaze’ period which followed the affair led to the downfall of John Major’s conservative government in 1997.

However, critics argue that journalism does not aid democracy because of the overbearing influence of its owners in shaping news content. The news which reaches the public has been filtered and controlled so that it is in accordance with the interests of those who own it. This is a threat to democracy because journalists do not have real editorial independence. Agenda setting theory determines what news or information the public should be concerned with. This means that the press has an overwhelming ability to influence public opinion by deciding what the public consume and can rank its importance by the frequency of its coverage in the news. Critics argue that this filtering of information is how the powerful elite who control the press are able to force their views on the public. A journalist’s ability to give objective information to serve the public is shaped by the political agenda of the newspapers owners and advertisers, therefore they give their readers information which suits their agenda.

Two former employees of Rupert Murdock owned newspapers, Harold Evans from the Sunday Times and David Yelland from the Sun, revealed the overbearing extent of Rupert Murdock’s interference in the content of the papers. Evans stated that he was rebuked by Murdock when he allowed an economist to publish an article with views that contradicted the owners, while Yelland admitted that all Murdock’s editors are forced to “look at the world through Rupert’s eyes”[2].

One of the most interesting critiques of the media is provided by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 Propaganda Model theory[3]. They believe the press manufactures consent among the public, by acting as a propaganda machine, reproducing the views and interests of the right wing corporations who own the press. They believe that consent is manufactured because the media pass on the messages that those in power need us to hear in order to stay in line and conform.

They claim that the media works as a propaganda machine, operating through five filters. The first filter is ownership, the mass media are owned by big corporations who are interested in making profit. In their quest for guaranteed profit, critical journalism takes second place to the needs and interests of the corporation. Chomsky and Herman evaluate how corporations control the media. Control is exerted through the threat of receiving ‘flack’. If a journalist wants to challenge power or the interests of their owners and advertisers then they will be marginalised and discredited. When journalists stray away from the consensus, or if the story is inconvenient for those in power, their name will be discredited and the conversation will be diverted. Therefore they claim that journalism cannot perform its watchdog role because the very system encourages complicity. In order to manufacture consent society requires an enemy or target, whether it be terrorists or immigrants, Chomsky and Herman state that a universal fear is essential for corralling public opinion. The propaganda model states that democracy is staged and the core function of the media is to act as a propaganda machine, reproducing the views of those in powerful positions.

I am also curious about the future of our democratic media as it shifts to its digital form with the rise of social media. There is the possibility of a ‘citizen media’[4] a term coined by Clemencia Rodriguez, whereby the public become contributors to the media by using various social media platforms, a positively democratic proposal. An optimistic perspective might suggest that social media possesses democratic values as everyone has the capacity to share their views by a click of a button and the inclusivity of the internet allows for a variety of independent views.

 However, some say that social media is the largest threat facing democratic society as it is a breeding ground for misinformation and a powerful tool for propaganda. Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a propaganda factory associated with the Kremlin, created social media accounts under fake names on every available platform and posted disinformation intending to foment polarisation, distrust and confusion in British and American media environments. Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, one hundred and forty six million users may have seen Russian disinformation on its platform[5].

Furthermore, the presence of advertisers is stronger than ever on social media. They profit by putting photos, personal posts, news stories and ads in front of you. Then collecting data about you from how you react to their traps, in order to produce algorithms to determine what will catch your attention, in an “attention economy”. Ads are an easy and manipulative way that anyone on the internet can use to shape public opinion.

As an aspiring journalist I continue to hope that the media and British journalism act in the interests of the public, promoting democracy, and able to exercise absolute freedom of speech to scrutinise those in power.

Other articles of interest:

Chadwick Paul, ‘Journalism has a vital role in a constitutional democracy’, Sun 6 Oct 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/06/journalism-media-boris-johnson-uk-government-supreme-court-brexitcourt

Leetaru Kalev, ‘A Reminder Than Social Media Platforms Are Now The Greatest Threat To Democracy’, Apr 25, 2019 https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2019/04/25/a-reminder-than-social-media-platforms-are-now-the-greatest-threat-to-democracy/#8600eff7c7d3


[1] Herman, Edward S. (1997) Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics and the Media.

[2] Jones, E. ‘Five reasons why we don’t have a free or independent press in the Uk and what we can do about it.’ https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/five-reasons-why-we-don-t-have-free-and-independent-press-in-uk-and-what-we-can-do-about/

[3] Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman – ‘A Propaganda Model’ https://chomsky.info/consent01/

[4] ‘Citizen Media’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_media

[5] The Economist – ‘Do social media threaten democracy?’ https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/11/04/do-social-media-threaten-democracy

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