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Linking the riots to the media scandal

August 12, 2011

‘The technical sense of medium, as something with its own specific and determining properties (in one version taking absolute priority over anything actually said or written or shown), has in practice been compatible with a social sense of media in which the practices and institutions are seen as agencies for quite other than their primary purposes.’

– Raymond Williams, Keywords

I’d better start by explaining the above quote and its relation to what I want to talk about, namely the connection between the riots and the recent media scandal, which is being pushed out of public short-term memory. To clarify the use of the word media within our society and the history of this society, Williams distinguishes three specific senses. The first is that of an intermediary, as in mediation, so we could say that the media is something we use as an intermediary between us and the events going on in the world. I assume this is the case because we feel that the world moves too fast and is too big for us to have any synthesizing grasp on it. The second sense is that of media as a thing, a sense that is clearer now after buying CDs, Cassettes, Floppy Disks, etc, as “blank media”. The third sense is similar to the first sense, but has a sharper historical determination, in that media is a platform for capitalism to sell its products, through advertising.

So capitalism has exploited our general acceptance of reality as mediated. Now this could get very postmodern and wordy at this point, and we could get into discussions of whether the world exists or not, and so on. But I just wanted to talk about how much we rely on the media for our individual and socialised (I mean something like when we share opinions automatically with our immediate social groupings; family, friends, work) worldviews.

I have been conducting some “social research” in various pubs and social clubs in the Midlands area. On the night of the Hackney riots, I found myself watching the BBC News channel with some locals in a social club in Coventry. I won’t repeat some of the more extreme opinions, but one guy was telling me about how (on a tangent) we are all affected by the cuts equally, both rich and poor have to make sacrifices, and furthermore we all have the opportunity to make money and be successful if we would just work hard. You may be surprised, but I couldn’t articulate anything better than ‘That’s fucking BOLLOCKS’, and that was the end of the discussion. I mean, I don’t want to get into this now, but it seems pretty obvious to me and anyone who has thought carefully about the cuts that this statement is simply false. There is a fundamental qualitative difference between one family not being able to go on holiday this year, and another family having to move to another area because their housing benefit won’t cover the rent anymore. And there are a million more examples. The other point about equality of opportunity is a much harder argument, but come on, for fuck’s sake. Who believes this explicit neo-liberal ideology? And this is the worrying part: this guy who regurgitated this ideology is what you would at one point in history have called a member of the “working-class”. To emphatically agree with my colleague in the last post, this is not a classless society, there has never been such a thing in all (social) history, anyone who believes this really needs to look more closely at reality.

And back to the idea of the media as mediating reality. Not only is the media a vehicle for advertising, it is now the properly integrated ideological vehicle for the government, whoever that happens to be. This has been proved by the media scandal, and has already been forgotten by the huge percentage of people who have taken the media coverage of the riots at face value, and have regurgitated their far-right reaction/explanations. In fact, the BBC effectively prepared the public for David Cameron’s speech, the latter being only a summary of the former’s 24hour coverage. Now it is difficult to say who influences who more, the media or the government. The media scandal has shown us that the Conservative/New Labour/New Conservative procession of governments courted the media to ensure their respective victories, but then once the media have been “bought out” this in turn makes the media a propaganda vehicle for the government. I think the real point is that we have seen a growing consensus between Labour and the Tories, and this consensus is in turn shared by the media as a whole, and so there isn’t really any problem anymore. It’s just a matter of sharing the wealth and power and maintaining some kind of equilibrium (and hoping no one, as in the public, finds out). What I’m talking about is the old “capitalist realism” again; we have no ideologies except the ideology of neo-liberalism, and as history marches on and our memories get worse (left to rust by bad education and the diminishing need to be interested in history) an increasing majority subscribe to this ideology.

As we can see from our previous two posts, we are dealing with an almost overwhelming negative reaction to the riots. It makes sense, and again, in many ways rioting is obviously “bad”. But the give away with this negative reaction having its roots in ideology for me is the inability to distinguish between disagreeing and understanding. I mean, I wouldn’t burn anything down. I’m really not a violent person. Perhaps when the revolution comes I might get stuck in, but at the moment I’m pretty much a pacifist. But it is possible for me to think that the acts of rioting that took place are something I wouldn’t do, and in many cases went too far, but also I am able to rationally examine why they happened. It is even possible to both strongly disagree and empathize with a single act of violence (even when it directly affects me). In no way does understanding how the rioting is somehow fundamentally determined by its socio-economic conditions undermine my own personal reaction or final opinion. David Cameron, and initially the media, although they are now trying to neutralise the socio-economic position by reification, really didn’t want us to be able to perform this critical distinction. Boris Johnson  insisted four times within a single hour in separate parts of London that we mustn’t talk about the socio-economic factors, because it only justifies criminality.

There is no alternative within the mainstream media to this right-neo-liberal ideology. The BBC is the worst, and if you are watching “live” on TV, you can choose between the BBC or Sky. I think Sky is actually better, in terms of it having more resources to cover more of the actual “live” action. During the riots, the actual live footage was very sparse, and the BBC didn’t seem to be willing or able to get its cameras anywhere near what was actually happening (I realize that cameras were a target for aggression and theft). From talking to people, friends, family, it seems that not only is there only really a source of ideologically compromised information, but also that this source of information is taken at face value, so much so that its opinions can be regurgitated unmediated in heated conversation as if facts.

My first personal real experience with all this was in connection to the student protests beginning last year. I was at Millbank, and although I didn’t smash anything or go in the building or throw fire extinguishers at anyone, I was there in solidarity and also shouting obscenities at Nick Clegg and co. and demanding they vacate their positions of power immediately. And then I went home and watched BBC News, and was appalled. I’ve never been so inaccurately represented in my life. I felt betrayed and violated, specifically because it was the BBC who I thought would at least be impartial. But again, what we got was some knee-jerk preparatory propaganda for the coming official statements by the Condem government. Never again will I trust the media, but when reality is mediated in such a fundamental way by BBC News, Sky News and the papers, its difficult to lose this common sense trust without a similar experience of betrayal. You can have arguments in pubs which get to the point of real aggression when you are saying ‘I was there, it wasn’t invaded by Anarchist thugs, we all wanted Millbank to be occupied and it only turned nasty when the police appeared!’, and the other guy is just telling you what the media said. Yes, we could get into that postmodern argument about the reality itself being mediated by my experience of the News, and TV and films, etc, but I insist that being there should have some kind of argumentative weight against the regurgitated media ideology.

Anyway, the government and the media are in this neo-liberal ideology together. This means that so are a scary majority of the public. The combined influence of the media, the government and the almost unchallenged economic foundation of capitalism, which fuels and determines this consensus, is just too powerful. Like Sofia said, it is dangerous to use the word “fascist” flippantly, but we should have learnt how dangerous it is to have this kind of power and influence in combination.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Brendan permalink
    August 12, 2011 1:56 pm

    “Anyway, the government and the media are in this neo-liberal ideology together. This means that so are a scary majority of the public. The combined influence of the media, the government and the almost unchallenged economic foundation of capitalism, which fuels and determines this consensus, is just too powerful. Like Sofia said, it is dangerous to use the word “fascist” flippantly, but we should have learnt how dangerous it is to have this kind of power and influence in combination.”

    But, somehow, you have escaped this brainwashing? How did that happen? Let me guess… Was it because you’ve read a bit of critical theory?

    Your comments on the bloke in the pub are revealing. Your account suggests that you were unable or unwilling to debate with him. Why? Because he was part of the poor benighted lumpen mass, and beneath contempt? Or were you scared that he might get, er, a bit angry with you?

  2. August 13, 2011 12:04 am

    I strongly disagree with the idea that these media (BBC and Sky) have the power assumed. Whilst it’s true that they offer non-stop propaganda to anyone who cares to watch it, the practical outcome is that they are either preaching to the converted or trying to rub the noses of the rest of us into our own political ineffectiveness – a kind of class taunting of the ruled by the rulers, and the more shrill the propaganda, the more desperate the rulers.

    I do not watch television at home – I can’t afford the headache tablets. But I was watching the BBC News for a while on Monday in a hotel, and I found it increasingly laughable the way any interview shown had to tick the box condemning the rioters. There came a point where this editorial requirement became so clumsy that the whole news programme actually started to look very amateurish. On realising that I still pay for this rubbish I started to feel slightly nauseous, hence my occasional need for headache tablets. Fortunately I had none, and hit the off button instead.

    But amateurism does not win over a BBC audience. The propaganda effort soon drifts an incompetent malaise which is strikingly obvious to anyone other than the most tiresome pub bore. On that theme, bad luck in Coventry and I’m sorry your family and friends are such airheads they regurgitate anything they hear on the telly as truth. Such a repressive environment had to spawn at least one person capable of thinking for themselves eventually.

    But I don’t agree that just because “the government and the media are in this neo-liberal ideology together” it follows that “this means that so are a scary majority of the public.” A sizeable section of the public are, as I mentioned earlier, already converted to the whole right wing mindset, but the reasons are complex and not hugely determined by the editorial content of the TV news. A comparably sizeable section of the public are sceptical to the point of ridicule of what they think the media are trying to spoon-feed them. The future of the resistance to neo-liberalism won’t be played out in the mass media or alternatives to the mass media, it’s more likely to develop at root level. The riots themselves (much as I condemn them – tick) weren’t the result of BBC or Sky propaganda, were they?

  3. August 13, 2011 12:12 am

    You’re right that the riots made very clear the ideological naure of the BBC’s reporting, and I liked very much the observation that:

    “In fact, the BBC effectively prepared the public for David Cameron’s speech, the latter being only a summary of the former’s 24hour coverage.”

    However, I think you know that there is some confusion in your argument about the exact nature of the relation between the BBC, the ConDem government and the Labour party.

    I read something earlier that might help us get there: a discussion by Antonomi Gramsci (an enormous influence on Williams, btw., if you didn’t already know) of the relation between intellectuals and the State. For Gramsci, ‘intellectuals’ are not simply an autonomous or semi-autonomous caste of intelligent people. Instead he expands the term to mean the organising and directive deputies of the class to which they “organically” belong. For example, politicans, bureaucrats, journalists, etc., are the deputies of the bourgeois entrepreneur – the specialised employees to whom is entrusted the activity of organising the general system of relationships (social, political, legal, etc.) external to the business itself.

    Gramsci points out, however, that this intellectual strata, as it develops over time, comes to understand itself as independent of the bourgeoisie – the class to which it is organically related. For, this relation is not direct, but mediated (there you go). Thus, “it happens that many intellectuals think that they are the State”, Gramsci says, “a belief which, given the magnitude of the category, occasionally has important consequences and leads to unpleasant complications for the fundamental economic group which really is the State” (i.e. the bourgeoisie; those who own the means of production). That is to say, that this ideological “appearance” of independence does have some substance in a society governed chiefly, not by direct domination, but by “spontaneous consent”. E.g. the businesses must appear to act within the law (even though equality before the law is a shallow illusion, and legal and political loopholes can often be found).

    The important point here is to place the emphasis on the mediated relation between the press, politicians and the bourgeoisie (big business and finance), rather than drawing a crude and more direct relation between the government and the bourgeoisie.

    We should also mention the judiciary and the way its function has been compromised/revealled by recent events:​011/aug/11/uk-riots-courtrooms​-country


  4. August 13, 2011 12:04 pm

    Thanks Wit and here’s a hopefully unbroken short link to the Guardian article, this comments page seems to add spaces to

    Wit’s link to the Guardian article raises another urgent necessity in this barely-embryonic democracy of ours: we need a judiciary that is separately elected from the legislature and the executive. Indeed, the BBC board of governors or trust should be separately elected from all of them. At least this would bring accountability into some of the more bizarre broadcasting and sentencing habits we see. At the moment the whole judicial system and BBC management are formed on the basis of a hierarchy of appointment that leads directly to 10 Downing Street. This is not even a liberal democracy, though admittedly it is a neo-liberal one.

  5. Rab permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:18 pm

    This is a great post. Throughout the riots the BBC News has been predictably poor. One other thing has struck me over the past week (actually it’s something that’s been creeping up on me for a while). But aren’t some of the BBC news anchor men and women really, really stupid. No political nous and a complete absence of historical knowledge, not even the semblance of memory.

  6. rik permalink
    August 15, 2011 6:55 am

    Nice article; strikingly similar to Orwell’s ‘Freedom of the Press’ essay. Orwell of course who despite conventional wisdom, was a lifelong socialist, discusses how the media is quite often bound by self-regulation in that the conventional wisdom of the time is never questioned. The BBC for example, Orwell notes, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the red army without mentioning trotsky…how little do things change.

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