Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010), would be remembered above all for his humanity and warmth, were it not for the crystal clarity of his insight. In ‘A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress,’ he wrote:
‘There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.’ (Zinn, A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress, City Lights, 2007, p.267)
Until very recently, no system of power seemed more invincible than the corporate media. One hundred years ago, industrialisation handed a near-total monopoly of the means of mass communication to a tiny elite with the money to buy and run the printing presses and, later, TV studios. The tendency to see the future in the present generated dystopic visions of ever more sophisticated technology empowering ever tighter control: thus George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
And yet, through a further twist of technological fate, the digital revolution has broken the elite monopoly and scattered it to the four winds – to be captured by a mobile phone camera here, a Twitter Tweeter there, by bloggers, vloggers, citizen journalists and Facebook posters.
Mainstream media moguls and journalists are as dumb struck by these developments as the generals overlooking Tahrir and Pearl Squares. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote recently:
‘Popular opinion in the Arab Middle East only really emerged 50 or so years ago, through radios in cafes and village squares that were often tuned to highly partisan broadcasts from Cairo.
‘Leaders concluded they could manipulate the way people thought.
‘Not any more. Pan-Arab satellite TV has been tearing away at taboos about what can be discussed since the mid 1990s. And now social media [using web-based and mobile technologies] mean that everybody can join in.’
The revolutions in the Middle East suggest that the world may be witnessing a new phenomenon in human relations. In the age of the internet – when, for the first time in history, large numbers of people are able to use social media to instantly discover and communicate what is really happening – tanks and guns appear to be far less effective in stopping determined mass protests. How can this be? Zinn wrote:
‘There is a basic weakness in governments, however massive their armies, however vast their wealth, however they control images and information, because their power rests on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When the citizens begin to suspect they have been deceived and withdraw their support, government loses its legitimacy and its power.’ (Zinn, op.cit., p.13)
Previously, this did not amount to much of a weakness. The problem was that citizens could not begin to suspect they had been deceived unless a small cadre of ‘journalists of attachment’ told them so. When dissidents protested in Indonesia or Colombia or Chile, they could be stopped by application of sheer brute force. They could be labelled ‘communists’, ‘terrorists’, as threats to stability, and they could be blamed for initiating violence. Other citizens not directly involved did not know enough to become aware, outraged and organised.
But social media now mean that huge numbers of people are able to find out exactly what is happening, who is involved and why. Peter Beaumont writes in the Guardian:
‘The instantaneous nature of how social media communicate self-broadcast ideas, unlimited by publication deadlines and broadcast news slots, explains in part the speed at which these revolutions have unravelled, their almost viral spread across a region. It explains, too, the often loose and non-hierarchical organisation of the protest movements unconsciously modelled on the networks of the web.’
Khaled Koubaa, president of the Internet Society in Tunisia, comments:
‘Social media was absolutely crucial. Three months before Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Sidi Bouzid we had a similar case in Monastir. But no one knew about it because it was not filmed. What made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook and everybody saw it.’
For the same reason, the resort to massacre by tanks and guns now generates a level of national outrage that causes ordinary people to flood the streets. Military-based regimes are then faced with a grim choice: either to massacre truly enormous numbers of people – which is hard to do, and hard to persuade the army to do – or to collapse. Recently, they have been collapsing.
Horror – Direct Contact With The Public
On the BBC website, outgoing world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds writes:
‘I found that I was in direct contact with the public. Horror. This had not happened to me before.
‘For several decades, I had been broadcasting from a studio or on location at home and abroad, but always insulated from the listeners. Letters, then the only means of communication to a correspondent, were quite rare.
‘Someone would occasionally write in and the BBC postal system would catch up with me some days, or even weeks, later. It was, perhaps, a word of praise or a hint of complaint. Sometimes I replied. Sometimes I did not.
‘But writing online proved to be a different experience. I suddenly felt like a government minister at parliamentary question time.’
Reynolds reinforces our faith in the power of polite, rational communication:
‘Insults had little effect after a time. After all, they are simply emotions. They contain no arguments. Arguments have more impact, much more. They force you to reconsider your stance. Is the BBC, are you, really taking an impartial, balanced position? What always hurt was when someone pointed out an error of fact.’
‘I engaged in quite long e-mail correspondences with various critics. Of these, I remember an American living in London who thought the BBC very overrated and very leftist. On the other side was MediaLens, whose editors and contributors believe that the BBC is a corporatist supporter of the establishment.
‘Both, in fact, had corrections to offer and lessons to teach. But the BBC could not survive if it took advice solely from either of them.’
As Reynolds notes, the time when the world waited for news crews to reach a crisis zone has passed – people now take their own pictures:
‘The internet has become not only a resource for journalists, it is becoming part of the news itself.’
The Not-For-Profit Guardian?
Like the BBC, liberal newspapers are torn between defeating this popular, not-for-profit challenge to their dominance and rebranding themselves as part of it. The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently voiced his business concerns:
‘It’s totally understandable that those of us with at least one leg in traditional media should be impatient to understand the business model that will enable us magically to transform ourselves into digital businesses and continue to earn the revenues we enjoyed before the invention of the web, never mind the bewildering disruption of web 2.0 [social media].
‘But first we have to understand what we’re up against.’
Namely: ‘It’s about the fact that other people like doing what we journalists do. We like creating things – words, pictures, films, graphics – and publishing them. So, it turns out, does everyone else… We’re now competing with a medium that can do many things incomparably faster than we can.’
‘Companies are already learning to respect, even fear, the power of collaborative media. Increasingly, social media will challenge conventional politics and, for instance, the laws relating to expression and speech.’
Rusbridger’s very standard concern, then, is to ‘continue to earn the revenues we enjoyed before the invention of the web’. And yet in an article published last week, he wrote:
‘The Guardian has never been run for profit, which is just as well, given that it has not inevitably – or even often – made one.’
Is the Guardian, then, just another form of citizen journalism? Is it part of the social media revolution? Surely commercial considerations play some small part in the newspaper’s thinking. Rusbridger notes that the Guardian is fortunate to be owned by the non-profit Scott Trust, which could never be bought out by a media tycoon:
‘The Guardian is similarly grateful to be in the same ownership as GMG [Guardian Media Group, created by the Scott Trust], an explicitly for-profit company which is run on conventional commercial lines in order to generate the revenues which can be channeled back into sustaining the Guardian’s journalism and to enable it to compete with some very big media beasts indeed. This co-existence of a profit-making wing being used to replenish the funds of a (quite often) loss-making quality newspaper via the “hinge” of a trust is a rare, sometimes envied and often misunderstood, beast.’
GMG, we learn, has, ‘over the years, made some shrewd decisions and investments, not least the purchase of Auto Trader – a magazine (and now highly successful website) for selling cars’. Indeed, the people who have graced the GMG Board and/or the Scott Trust link the corporate media, the Labour Party, Cadbury Schweppes, Tesco, KPMG Corporate Finance, the chemicals company Hickson International Plc, Fenner Plc, the investment management company Rathbone Brothers Plc, erstwhile global investment company Lehman Brothers, global financial services firm Morgan Stanley and the Bank of England.
Nevertheless, we are to believe the Guardian ‘has never been run for profit’, it’s just ‘in the same ownership as GMG, an explicitly for-profit company’.
Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist who previously worked at the Guardian. We asked him for his take on these claims. He responded:
‘I remember from my years at the Guardian that the editorial management, and many ordinary journalists, took a keen interest in the paper’s profitability. More than a decade ago, from my recollection, the paper was very profitable but the management pushed through major cuts, most obviously by downgrading the pension system. It did so on the grounds that the paper needed to prepare for the loss of classified ad revenue with the growing use of new media. The management therefore created a very large “war-chest” to see it through the coming media upheavals, and refused to accept journalists’ claims for pay rises etc at time of significant profitability. I recall attending NUJ meetings where we seriously considered going on strike, but were threatened with job losses too if we did not adjust to the new media environment.
‘I also remember that all the senior editorial staff were obsessed about the circulation figures: whether we were selling more papers than our rivals and whether sales were up on the same time last year. That interest partly reflected the pride we as journalists took in creating a “good product” that attracted new readers. But it was also always discussed in terms of the impact on profitability. Inevitably Rusbridger and his team felt the pressure to make the paper perform as well as possible financially, not least because their jobs ultimately depended on it.
‘Rusbridger, of course, would say his job depends on the Scott Trust, not GMG, and that the trust is not concerned with lowly questions of profitability. But in reality, he knows that, if the paper’s circulation dropped disproportionately compared to its rivals, he would be sacked. Yes, officially his dismissal would be justified based on the paper’s poor editorial performance, but in practice “performance” is inseparable from questions of revenue generation.
‘So the implication by Rusbridger that the Guardian management are oblivious to the paper’s financial position is patent nonsense. They are as keenly conscious of the need to maximise ad revenue and profit as other media.
‘There are also wider issues about how not-very-profitable papers like the Guardian fit into more profit-driven media groups like GMG. It is not simply a question of whether the Guardian makes a profit in any particular year. I am no accountant but I am aware that GMG, like most corporations, can off-set profits from one part of its operation to another, loss-making one like the Guardian. It can also use the Guardian for cross-promotion: advertising, for example, Auto Trader in the Guardian. And finally, like “ordinary” media proprietors, the GMG believes it benefits from having a prestige product within its stable. It is effectively buying itself a corporate brand image.’ (Email to Media Lens, February 23, 2011)
Julian Assange recently said of the Guardian, formerly one of WikiLeaks’ media partners:
‘There’s a point I want to make about perceived moral institutions such as the Guardian and the New York Times. The Guardian has good people in it. It also has a coterie of people at the top who have other interests…
‘What drives a paper like the Guardian or the New York Times is not their inner moral values; it is simply that they have a market. In the United Kingdom, there is a market called “educated liberals”. “Educated liberals” want to buy a newspaper, they buy the Guardian, and therefore an institution arises to fulfil that market, and that institution needs to be managed. And those people at the top of that institution simply manage the institution that fulfils that market.
‘What is in the newspaper is not a reflection of the values of the people in that institution. It is a reflection of the market demand for particular material. Not a reflection of good values.’
The world really does need to take the golden opportunity offered by the internet to break from corporate media driven by market demands. Just as Obama and Cameron are selling themselves as passionate supporters of revolution in the Middle East, so the liberal media are selling themselves as enthusiastic partners in the social media revolution.
But we need an authentic people’s media rooted, not in profit, not even in revenue, not in power, status or phoney establishment respectability. We need media driven by an uncompromised commitment to investigating the true causes of the problems afflicting our world. Many of these problems are rooted precisely in corporate greed.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
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