Modern News: setting an agenda and having the people follow it

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It’s hard to deny the media can be used to influence people. The rise of Public Relations and the prominence of advertising in modern times shows this. These areas have been ways for groups and individuals to garner the power of the media to persuade people to make a choice or hold an opinion favourable to those groups.

But what if the media itself is not simply a vehicle to allow a range of views and opinions to be broadcast, but a propaganda tool for a set agenda, that deviates very little from that agenda and influences people along those lines?

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman believe that the media is a powerful propaganda tool, and have devised a model with five key elements, or filters, that interact and reinforce one another: “(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of discipling the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.” (Chomsky, N. & Herman E. S., 1988, p 2.)

Chomsky and Herman’s insight into the workings of the media was written in 1988 predominantly about the USA, but there are clear parallels with the UK media that can be seen today.

Michael Schudson argues that Chomsky and Herman’s model is rigid and “entirely inconsistent with what most journalists in democratic societies believe they are doing.” Quoting Susan Pharr, Schudson believes that modern media has taken on a more complex role, that of the trickster:

The trickster is by no means simply a megaphone for ruling elites, but neither is it an unbridled critic of power. The trickster is ‘as likely to tweak as to condemn’ and often does both at once. While the media tricksters do not simply reproduce existing power, their overall effect as critics ‘is to disperse, dissipate, or fragment any effort on the part of the audience to agree on a systematic critique of the established order or to forge an alternative construction of reality that calls for profound political and social change’.” (Schudson, M., 2005, p 176-177)

This view of the media as the trickster still serves to reinforce current power structures, by failing to allow the public as a whole to collectively construct narratives to combat those structures. It’s a technique of divide and conquer.

In his analysis of modern media studies, Curran looks at Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci believed that “social order is maintained not just through coercion, but through active consent. In hegemonic societies, this consent is secured through the cultural leadership of the dominant social grouping.” (Curran J., 2006, p 132.)

Curran also writes about Jurgen Habermas in this analysis, a German philosopher and media theorist who believed that “modern media fell under the influence of public relations, advertising, and big business, and offered shallow consumerism, empty political spectacle and pre-packaged convenience thought.” (Curran J., 2006, p 133)

Curran identifies four key areas that have influenced media and cultural studies since the 1980s in Britain: the political ascendancy of market liberalism, the social dynamic of increasing individualism, the rise of women, and intensified globalisation. He argues that Gramsci and Habermas had their theories used and reinterpreted by others throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin wall. This reinterpretation meant that their original work was almost non-existent in media and cultural studies, “a way of settling past debts” to Marxism, and a way to intellectually align the study of media with globalisation and neo-liberalism, a political concept of submitting everything to market forces through deregulation.

Curran does believe that there have been some positive effects of globalisation, for example new generations have an increased awareness and better technology to connect around environmental, human rights, peace and world poverty issues, but that globalisation has reduced the democratic power of the people and meant less accountability on governments, military and financial institutions. Global society, he believes, is currently underdeveloped. He also argues that the perception that market liberalism, multiple societal identities and the breaking down of class boundaries has increased social mobility is untrue:

This reorientation ignored a large accumulation of empirical evidence showing that class still strongly influences the distribution of life chances, experience and rewards in contemporary advanced societies.” (Curran J., 2006, p 129-142)

Media Ownership

A study carried out by the Media Reform Coalition in 2014 showed that media ownership in the UK is incredibly concentrated, with three companies controlling nearly 70% of national newspaper circulation and five companies controlling almost 70% of regional newspaper circulation. For radio, a single provider (Sky) provides virtually all of national and regional radio news and the BBC accounts for a majority of television news consumption, while ITV accounts for the majority of non-BBC news consumption, at 75% AND 13% respectively in 2012. (Media Reform Coalition, 2014)

Sources of television news used ‘nowadays’:

Sources of television news used nowadays

With this consideration of the BBC’s dominance of broadcast news in mind, it is worth noting James Curran and Jean Seaton’s view of public service broadcasting: “It is controlled by an unrepresentative elite who foist their cultural values on the public. It is vulnerable to government pressure because it is dependent on state sponsored privileges. It is run by bureaucracies prone to waste and profligacy.” (Curran, J. & Seaton, J., 2010, p 371)

Curran and Seaton go on to discuss the 2003 Communications Act and how the deregulation of the media is seen, particularly by neo-liberals, as a democratisation of the media; the idea that the market controls what media is broadcast and thus consumed is the choice of the individuals consuming that media, not a public institution. Curran and Seaton highlight some arguments written by Keynesian economists Andrew Graham and Gavyn Davies, who argue that in this model “extensive intervention is needed… to cope with a built in tendency for a small number of companies to dominate the broadcasting market.” (Curran & Seaton, 2010, p 372-378)

This is ultimately true when looking at the Media Reform Coalition’s analysis of how the 2003 Communications Act affected the internet. The government at the time suggested that “technological developments had opened the way for new market entrants.” However, as the analysis shows, the only new entrant to have made an impact in the internet news market over the last ten years is the Huffington Post, with the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Guardian showing clear market dominance in that area. (Media Reform Coalition, 2014)

The bottom line of media is advertising…. Everything in media except advertising costs money, whereas advertising brings in the money. This simple fact explains much of the content of the media. Ultimately it is the advertiser, not the audience, who must be pleased.” (Harris & Sanborn, 2014, p122-123.)

Ultimately the reason these structures exist is to reinforce a market driven system. Media organisations will bend to the needs and wills of their advertisers or financiers. Media organisations are quite often large companies, which have no social responsibilities, but instead are legally bound to increase profits for their shareholders. An evident example in the UK was when The Telegraph’s former political editor Peter Oborne resigned earlier this year. Writing for the website OpenDemocracy, Oborne explains in great detail his growing concern with the paper downsizing its team of dedicated journalists, favouring instead a “click culture” in which driving traffic to its website was favoured over its traditions and reputation. The final straw for him was when the Telegraph refused to publish stories that were critical of Telegraph advertiser HSBC. Oborne left the newspaper, but continued to investigate the Telegraph’s suppression of stories which were negative to HSBC and other advertisers. Among the numerous examples, he writes:

From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”. HSBC today refused to comment when I asked whether the bank’s decision to stop advertising with the Telegraph was connected in any way with the paper’s investigation into the Jersey accounts.

Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately 12 months. Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. “He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,” says one former Telegraph journalist. “Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.”” (Oborne, 2015)

The Telegraph, and other commercial news outlets, are not the only model of media ownership that can have pressure applied to it. Public service broadcasters are just as open to manipulation and coercion.


David Cromwell and David Edwards, founders and co-editors of media analysis website MediaLens, are highly critical of the BBC, claiming that it is riddled with corruption and establishment bias. They claim it is vulnerable from pressure from senior management appointed by government and constant threats at the removal of the BBC licence fee. They go in to extensive detail as to how the BBC enforce a pro-business agenda and have aided in various cover ups and agenda setting surrounding the Iraq war (
Cromwell & Edwards 2006 and Cromwell & Edwards 2009)

On the appointments of Gavyn Davies, who was mentioned above and who was also chief economist at Goldman Sachs with a personal fortune estimated at £150 million, as BBC chairman (2001-04) and Greg Dyke as BBC director general (2000-04), Cromwell and Edwards write:

Both Davies and his director-general Greg Dyke were not just supporters of, but donors to, the Labour Party. Personal links also abounded – Davies’ wife ran Gordon Brown’s office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair had stayed at Davies’ holiday home. ‘In other words,’ columnist Richard Ingrams noted, ‘it would be harder to find a better example of a Tony crony.’” (Cromwell & Edwards, 2009, p 25)

Cromwell & Edwards are also critical of BBC Trust members, whose members in 2009 consisted mostly of ex-civil servants, business men and women and ex media personnel. “There are no members from trade unions, green pressure groups, development charities, child poverty groups, or other grass root organisation.” (Cromwell & Edwards, 2009: 27)

One of the most important myths that is debunked in their book is that of impartiality across media organisations:

Psychologist Daniel Goleman examined the mechanics of self-deception. According to Goleman, we build our version of reality around key frameworks of understanding, or ‘schemas’, which we then protect from conflicting facts or ideas. The more important a schema is for our sense of identity and security, the less likely we are to accept evidence contradicting it…. [Quoting Goleman:] ‘The ease with which we deny and dissemble- and deny and dissemble to ourselves that we have denied and dissembled – is remarkable.’ Psychologist Donald Spence noted the sophistication of this process: ‘We are tempted to conclude that the avoidance is not random but highly efficient – the person knows just where not to look.’ This tendency to self deception appears to be greatly enhanced when we join as part of a group. This creates a sense of belonging, a ‘we-feeling’, that provides an even greater incentive to reject conflicting truths.”

Concentrated media ownership, the demands of advertisers and the need and ability for power structures to grow, reinforce and protect themselves all provide the motivation and the ability for something so huge to influence the public. The most powerful way to do this is to set an agenda, to set a view of the world that we as media consumers perceive to be reality.

Schudson accepts that there are forces that try to garner the abilities of journalism for propagandistic purpose, but also believes that journalists possess more free thought than Chomsky and Herman give credit for. He writes: “Social, cultural, economic and political forces do in fact structure news production. But they do not produce news out of nothing. They act on ‘something’ in the world. The ‘something’ they work on are events, happenings, occurrences in the world that impress journalists and their audiences with their importance or interest. The forces of journalism does produce some noteworthy events – in press conferences, interviews and so forth. These are directly created by journalists or by other people acting with journalists in mind. Corporations, non-profit organisations, governments and social movements often act with the intention of making news, and so one might say that journalism indirectly manufactures events originating in these groups.” (Schudson, 2005, p 172-173)

Chomsky and Herman argue that “propaganda campaigns,” ie agenda setting, “may be instituted either by the government or by one or more of the top media firms…. The secret of the unidirectionality of the politics of media propaganda campaigns is the multiple filter system: the mass media will allow any stories that are hurtful to large interests to peter out quickly, if they surface at all.” (Chomsky & Herman, 1988: 33)

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