The Power Inquiry And Fear Of Public Opinion
Front-page headlines greeted the publication last week of the Power Report into the ‘meltdown’ of British democracy. Plummeting participation in elections and a growing chasm between the public and party politics had prompted the study by an independent panel led by Labour peer and QC Helena Kennedy. The report – naively titled ‘Power to the People’ – was based on a year of surveys and hearings, including online public consultation which generated 1,500 responses.
The Independent rode on the report’s coat tails, proudly proclaiming its own supposed enthusiasm for real democracy. The newspaper’s coverage included references to previous Independent cover pages supporting electoral reform under its Campaign for Democracy.
The Independent noted on the Power Report’s publication:
“Democracy faces meltdown in Britain as the public rejects an outdated political system which has centralised more authority than ever in a tiny ruling elite, the Power inquiry warns today.”
The article continued:
“The inquiry says that there is a ‘very widespread sense that citizens feel their views and interests are not taken sufficiently into account’.” (Nigel Morris, ‘Bleak view of the gulf between people and government’, The Independent, February 27, 2006)
An Independent editorial the same day was titled, ‘The urgent need to return politics to the people.’
The Guardian’s editors announced, ‘A cause whose time has come.’ (Editorial, The Guardian, February 28, 2006). Star Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland warned: “Short of revolution and war, how does anyone ever get power to shift in this country?” but then suggested that a “reforming [Gordon] Brown”, Chancellor of the Exchequer, might prove “to be the solution”. (Freedland, ‘Without power of our own, we wait on the whims of politicians’, The Guardian, March 1, 2006)
The Daily Telegraph greeted the Power Report with somewhat flippant headlines, ’16-year-olds should be allowed to stand for Parliament’ and ‘Red Baroness on mission to save democracy’ (February 27, 2006). A Telegraph comment piece by one of its political reporters assured readers that Brown, reputedly the prime minister-in-waiting, “believes [the Power Report] should be the catalyst for a wide-ranging debate on the future of the political system.” (Rachel Sylvester, ‘Will the iPod generation see off party politics as we know it?’, Daily Telegraph, February 27, 2006)
Meanwhile, BBC News Online reported in its usual ‘objective’ manner, namely as a mouthpiece for power:
“Tony Blair’s official spokesman said these were issues which were debated inside and outside parliament and the Power Inquiry ‘will contribute to the debate’.” (‘Political system faces “meltdown”‘, February 27, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4753876.stm)
The Guardian gave comment space to Gordon Brown to ally himself opportunistically with the progressive credentials of the Report. In a breathless piece of political blather, Brown – or his speechwriter – waxed lyrical about a “renewal of Britain” that “springs from a welcome new culture of rising aspirations, is shaped by a reinvigorated sense of community and is being led by courageous local reformers – from environmentally responsible companies to path-breaking charities and committed councillors. It is a 21st-century expression of the enduring ideas that Britain gave the world – a commitment to liberty, a strong sense of civic duty, a belief in fairness.” (Brown, ‘We have renewed Britain; now we must champion it’, The Guardian, February 27, 2006)
One can almost picture the angels in the firmament blowing trumpets to proclaim the glory of all that New Labour has achieved.
However, in common with other commentators and news reports, Brown did not dwell on the Report’s awkward finding that: “The main political parties are widely held in contempt. They are seen as offering no real choice to citizens.” (‘Power to the People’, The Report of Power: An independent inquiry into Britain’s Democracy, February 27, 2006, www.powerinquiry.org, p.29)
The Mystery of the Report’s Invisible Paragraphs
For anyone who cared to examine the Power Report directly there were several obvious and significant omissions in the media coverage. No doubt the journalistic excuse would be the old standby: ‘restricted space’ means that ‘we can’t cover everything’. This would explain why the Report’s emphasis on public concerns about the huge impact of corporate lobbying, and business shaping of government policies, was missing from mainstream news coverage.
The Guardian did briefly note one relevant recommendation of the Power Inquiry:
“Ministerial meetings with lobbyists and representatives of business to be logged and listed monthly.” (Tania Brannigan, ‘Inquiry proposes radical overhaul of party funding’, The Guardian, February 27, 2006)
But the crucial context behind this tantalising glimpse of destructive corporate and state power is missing. As one public submission to the Inquiry noted:
“It is not just perception that corporate lobbying influences government policy – it is actuality. Until the actuality changes, the perception will not.” (Power Report, p.163)
Independent research has determined the extent of this public perception of illegitimate power:
“79 per cent of respondents to the State of the Nation poll in 2004 stated that they felt large corporations had influence over government policies, while only 34 per cent felt they ought to enjoy such influence.” (Ibid., p.164)
The Power Report noted “the extraordinary power afforded to corporations and their lobbying groups, often disguised as public-interest NGOs [non-governmental organisations].” (Ibid., p.165)
Again, the media displayed its standard ‘balance’ by remaining silent on these matters. As we have regularly reported in our Media Alerts, uncomfortable facts about the extent of business lobbying, and the relentless greenwashing of harmful corporate practices, are hardly ever mentioned. The same applies to public concerns over the democracy-killing power of media corporations. One submission put it this way:
“Commercial considerations influence too greatly how newspapers and other media gather, edit and represent news stories about politics.” (Ibid., p.244)
Other public statements in the Power Report rightly pointed out that:
“The media largely serves its own (financial) interests and barely serves the interests of the public.” (Ibid., p.245)
“I think it is a disgrace that so much of the media is concentrated in so few private hands. I think it is a disgrace that it is allowed to ‘self-regulate’.” There should be “legislation to prevent ownership of controlling stakes by individuals or corporations. There should be no room for Murdochs or Berlusconis.” (Ibid., p.245)
“The media’s agenda is largely directed by the vested interests of political parties and capital.”
As a result:
“The media routinely and systematically ignores the serious problems of our times, such as climate change, global poverty, massive political unrest social instability and dispossession all over the world and spends much of its time analysing party political rhetoric, the behaviour of the Windsor family and the wranglings of religious establishments.” (Ibid., pp.244-5)
This is precisely the kind of vital comment, voiced widely in the public domain, that is rarely, if ever, permitted to break through the media’s limits of acceptable debate. Instead, recent news coverage included no more than the briefest and most anodyne statements on the Power Inquiry’s recommendation to ‘reform the rules on media ownership.’ The systemic nature of the media’s role as guardians of power remained hidden. The media were thus once again content to overlook their own complicity in the undermining of democracy.
A History of Contempt for the Public Interest
The members of the Power commission found an unsurprising “resistance, even a tetchiness” when interviewing politicians, particularly when confronting them with ideas for political reform raised by the public. The Report noted:
“Suddenly, change became a matter for the people rather than the politicians. The Vice Chair of our Commission, Ferdinand Mount, quoted Bertolt Brecht to characterise what he had heard: ‘Would it not be easier in that case to dissolve the people and elect another?'” (‘Power’ Report, p.258)
Media analyst Robert McChesney observes:
“In many respects we now live in a society that is only formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral arena.” (McChesney, ‘Rich Media, Poor Democracy’, The New Press, 2000, p.260)
McChesney is referring explicitly to the United States, but the same is demonstrably true of all the western ‘democracies’, including the UK.
As the Washington Post once noted, modern democracy works best when the political “parties essentially agree on most of the major issues”. The Financial Times put it more bluntly: capitalist democracy can best succeed when it focuses on “the process of depoliticizing the economy.” (Quoted, ibid., p.112).
Notwithstanding the Report’s well-intentioned warning about the imminent ‘meltdown’ of democracy, this calamity is actually nothing new – although perhaps more severe now than ever. Examination of the historical record reveals that it has always suited the interests of powerful institutions for the public hand to be kept well away from the helm of policy; the fear of public opinion is ever-present in the minds of the ruling classes.
In 1661, historian Clement Walker complained of English revolutionaries:
“They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.”(Quoted, Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar, ‘Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media’, Black Rose Books, 1994, p.38)
Closer to the present day, the Australian social scientist Alex Carey summed up the evolution of political power over the last hundred years:
“The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” (Carey, ‘Taking the Risk out of Democracy’, University of Illinois Press, 1995, p.18)
We should mention that the power of the state has also grown, in order to further the growth of corporate power.
Carey reflected that in the United States: “from 1900 to 1910 Upton Sinclair [the prolific author and ‘muckraker’] and others so effectively exposed the exploitation and brutality of American industry that, as Fortune magazine wrote later, ‘business did not discover – until its reputation had been all but destroyed – that in a democracy nothing is more important than [public opinion]’.” (Ibid., p.80)
Over the years, endless business propaganda attempted to rein in and shape public opinion for corporate ends. Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the modern public relations industry in the 1920s, warned that “the masses promised to become king”. This danger could be averted, argued Bernays, by new methods of propaganda: the “engineering of consent”. These methods would enable the “intelligent minorities to mold the mind of the masses” thus “regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Rogue States’, Pluto Press, 2000, p.120)
American historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf wrote of business’s attack on the public in the 1940s and 1950s:
“Manufacturers orchestrated multi-million dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system… This involved convincing workers to identify their social, economic, and political well-being with that of their specific employer and more broadly with the free enterprise system.” (Fones-Wolf, ‘Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60,’ University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.6)
“Beginning in 1945, the postwar conservative assault on public opinion revived the two dominant themes of the 1930s campaigns: identification of the traditional American free-enterprise system with social harmony, freedom, democracy, the family, the church, and patriotism; and identification of all government regulation of the affairs of business, and all liberals who supported such ‘interference’, with communism and subversion.” (Carey, op. cit., p.27)
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) explicitly warned its members that:
“Public policies in our democracy are eventually a reflection of public opinion,” so public opinion must be reshaped “if we are to avoid disaster.” (Ibid., p.24)
The NAM, representing a large swath of US, and thus global, corporate power, is today implicated in blocking substantive action to combat climate chaos (see many of our earlier Media Alerts).
Similar pressures have been brought to bear on the public in other western democracies which have imported the capitalistic values and ‘public relations’ that remain so prevalent in the United States.
Here in the UK, the hijacking of government policies by powerful groups such as the Confederation of British Industry receives minimal media coverage (‘Burning the Planet for Profit‘, December 6, 2005). But then, why expect corporate media to expose the dubious activities of itself and its allies in the business world, or its corporate sources of vital advertising revenue?
British historian Mark Curtis has noted that the primary function of the British state, “virtually its raison d’etre for several centuries – is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’ resources.”
As for the British security services:
“As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor, revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ by keeping ‘a particular eye on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals [and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business interests’.” (Curtis, ‘Web of Deceit’, Vintage, 2003, pp.210-211)
The above observations, then, hint at the true, unreported nature of ‘democracy’ in a country like the UK where state power and business power operate in tandem, systematically fighting tooth and nail against the public interest. This is the hidden history and the missing context from recent news reporting on the Power Inquiry.
Noam Chomsky has expressed succinctly the underlying problem for genuine democracy:
“Remember, any state, +any+ state, has a primary enemy: its own population.” (Chomsky, ‘Understanding Power’, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p.70)
No wonder the shocking depth and historic extent of the systemic corruption of democracy by big business and its political allies remains off the agenda of our corporate ‘free’ press.
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