Corporate media and the intellectual cleansing of journalists

It’s all about money

Free newspapers in the mid-1980s were a new and rapidly growing form of print media. Cheap production had been made possible by the new technologies about to revolutionise the working practices of all papers, including those in Fleet Street. I was using a small Macintosh computer, writing stories and designing the pages, at a time when the nationals were still laboriously typesetting. At the Southampton Advertiser, we produced a weekly newspaper with just four editorial staff: an editor, two reporters and a photographer. The advertising staff team was more than twice that size.

By definition, free newspapers are advertising platforms, since they have no other way of raising revenue. But when they first emerged, some of the independently owned ones were not as dire as they uniformly are today. The Southampton Advertiser was one of a small chain of free newspapers on the south coast owned by a local businessman. He made no effort to conceal the fact that he saw his newspapers simply as vehicles for making money.

Most ambitious journalists start out on a daily local newspaper (I would soon end up on one), owned by one of a handful of large media groups. There, as I would learn, one quickly feels all sorts of institutional constraints on one’s reporting. As a young journalist, if you know no better, you simply come to accept that journalism is done in a certain kind of way; that certain stories are suitable and others unsuitable, and that arbitrary rules have to be followed. These seem like laws of nature, unquestionable and self-evident to your more experienced colleagues. Being a better journalist requires that these work practices become second nature.

The Advertiser, however, offered a far more enlightening and free-wheeling environment for a young journalist. Larger newspapers structure their offices in such a way as to ensure that editorial and advertising staff keep an ostentatious distance from each other, usually on separate floors – as if underscoring to everyone that editorial judgements are free of commercial concerns. At the Advertiser we dispensed with such niceties. The advertising staff were next door and we freely mingled and socialised.

An important concern for the Advertiser’s owner was getting his paper better read than the local evening paper, the Evening Echo, as it was then called, so that he could attract advertising away from it and charge more per page to the advertisers. It was a form of genuine, and short-lived, competition between local newspapers. Independently owned free sheets like the Advertiser created a real battle for readers with the paid-for evening papers, a situation that had been unknown for many decades in almost all British cities. Today, free newspapers are derided, and for good reason.

The Advertiser became a genuine threat to the commercial interests of the Evening Echo. Even with a tiny staff, the Advertiser had far more interesting stories than the evening paper. Humiliatingly, the Echo was forced to run follow-ups of our stories when our exclusive reports raised questions in the city council chamber. Readers started abandoning the evening paper: why pay for your news when you can get it better written and delivered through your door for free?

Shortly after I had been poached by the Echo, the Advertiser was bought out by the evening paper’s owners. The staff of the free sheet were relocated to the Echo’s building and my former paper was eviscerated. Within a short time, a new editor was appointed and the paper’s hard-hitting reports were ditched. Life-style features and syndicated material dominated instead. One of my former colleagues would confide in the pub that his job was now to rewrite press releases. The Advertiser stopped being a rival to the Echo; it became simply an advertising supplement to it. Its rapid fate has been shared by all the other free sheets that tried to compete with a local established daily paper.

Forget about Woodward and Bernstein

It is, of course, no surprise that a large newspaper would want to devour a threatening smaller one. That is the nature of the free market. But, given journalists’ assumptions about the workings of a free press, should the Echo not have had every interest, after destroying the Advertiser, in learning from the latter’s success? Even with the restoration of its monopoly, would it not have a commercial interest in seeking to win back the loyalty of local readers?

Unlike most media owners, the Advertiser’s original proprietor was not a corporate player; he was a local businessman who had spotted an opening in the media market created by new technology. This created a conflict of interest for him that, for a time, favoured the readers of his newspapers. It may also be that this was a short-term strategy by the proprietor. He knew that if he could take away readers from the Echo, the evening paper would be forced to buy him out. Interestingly, the Echo set up a rival free sheet to try to kill the Advertiser but it never made a dent in its rival’s popularity. Also, the Advertiser’s ability to cause harm to powerful interests in the city was limited. We published maybe half a dozen high-profile news stories each week in the paper. We easily found enough material of community interest to fill the rest. We concentrated on corrupt council officials, bad planning decisions, conmen, and shoplifting local celebrities.

The Echo was a very different kind of operation. It published a hundred or so stories each day on all aspects of local life. If it had allowed its journalists the freedom to use their critical faculties about stories that were of no concern to the city’s powerful elites, how would it have been able to stop them using the same skills when handling stories that did concern such elites? And just as importantly, how would the newspaper have been able to maintain the pretence of demanding “balanced” and “objective” reporting from its journalists if it so conspicuously applied double standards, depending on whether a story concerned powerful interest groups or not? It would have been clear to even the most blinkered editorial staff member that the paper’s professional standards – the freedom to write without interference – had been compromised.

Instead, the Echo’s reporters learnt to write in a bland and deadening style that made most stories seem either of little or no importance or left the reader terminally confused with a ping-pong of he said-she said. Official sources of information and confirmation were always preferred because they were more “reliable” and “trustworthy”. Council officials were always ready and glad to speak to an Echo journalist. In other words, success at the newspaper was gauged in terms of obedience to figures of authority, and the ability not to alienate powerful groups within the community. Ambitious journalists learnt to whom they must turn for a comment or a quote, and where “suitable” stories could be found. It was a skill that presumably stayed with them for the rest of their careers. Those who struggled to cope with these strictures were soon found out. They either failed their probationary periods and were forced to move on, or stayed on in the lowliest positions where they could do little harm.

Most young journalists, myself included, were raised on the idea that we had joined a profession that aspired to Woodward and Bernstein-type exposés. We understood, and our profession’s own mythologising encouraged such an understanding, that investigative reporting was the purest form of the journalist’s craft. In many ways it was the ideal. The investigative reporter is the exception in journalism rather than the model. He or she is the loose cannon whose reports can bring the paper great acclaim but only if the reporter is kept on a tight leash. The honour they bring the paper can equally turn disastrous if the wrong subjects are pursued or the story leads in unpredictable directions that threaten powerful interests. This is why investigative reporters have always been a small and threatened breed and have always been closely scrutinised. Investigative journalism has all but died out nowadays and is largely confined to the Internet.

Professional means servile

Most journalists learn their trade by working on local media with periods of study spent at one of dozens of journalism colleges around the country. Typically, the young journalist is taken on by a newspaper for up to two years on probation (indentures) at very low pay, and the study periods are paid for by the newspaper. During this period, when they are both financially and professionally vulnerable, journalists are taught the main skills: how to structure and write news stories, master shorthand, navigate through the system of local government, and abide by the laws of libel. The newcomer is offered proper employment if he or she passes the exams, shows competency and is considered to have absorbed satisfactorily the constraints described above.

That is actually a departure from the historic view of journalists, which was that they belonged to a trade and that they learnt their craft on the job through what were effectively apprenticeships. Journalists in the nineteenth century understood that they were little different from cabinet-makers: you learnt the rules of the craft from your elders and then applied them. A journalist worked for a proprietor with a clear political agenda and produced copy in keeping with that agenda. Such journalists were sometimes derogatively referred to as “hacks”. According to Wikipedia, “hack” in this context derives from “hackney”, “a horse that was easy to ride and available for hire.” The proprietor was, of course, the rider.

The press earned its reputation as the Fourth Estate largely because the interests of these newspapers, representing different elite groups, sometimes clashed. In such circumstances, a journalist was briefly able to shine a light on corruption or intrigues in the corridors of power. The most urgent battleground for the press barons, and the financial interests that lay behind them, was the winning of a popular mandate for the corporations to accrete even greater power. The chief tool for sanctioning this agenda would be the media. As part of this concentration of power, the proprietors waged a relentless war against the radical and socialist presses, gradually starving them of advertising until their demise was inevitable. The free sheets of the 1980s would pose a similar threat and be dealt with in much the same way by the established local newspapers.

But there was a catch: once only a few rich individuals exclusively owned the country’s media, the propagandistic nature of their papers’ journalism would be even more evident. After all, the public understood only too well that newspapers were there to serve the interests of their proprietors. This impression needed to be changed if the public were to be successfully pacified in the face of the corporations’ agenda. And so dawned the era of the “professional” media. Journalists were no longer to be seen as tradesmen; they were professionals. Their Hippocratic oath was balance, objectivity, neutrality. Unlike their predecessors, they would be trained in academic institutions and could then be trusted to offer only facts in news reports. Opinion would be restricted to the comment pages to give a newspaper “character”. That conveniently explained why there was so little differentiation in the various papers’ coverage or in their selection of news stories.

The campaign of “professionalising” the media was so successful that, after their training, even the journalists believed they were disinterested parties in reporting the news. The selection of certain stories as newsworthy and the further selection of certain facts as relevant to the story had once been understood to be dependent on the biases of the organisation a journalist worked for. Now reporters were made to believe that these arbitrary criteria were inherent in a category of information called ”news”, and that only through their training could journalists recognise these criteria.

No home of the brave

Working on a national is seen as the pinnacle of a professional journalist’s career. Very few make it that far. The competition is fierce and acceptance is slow. As we have seen, there are many stages in the early career of journalists designed to handicap and weed out those who do not conform or who question the framework within which they work. Noam Chomsky refers to this as part of a “filtering” process. Are the nationals different?

For a journalist like myself, who was well trained and had spent several years in the local media, getting a foot in the door of the nationals was relatively easy. Keeping my feet under the desk was far harder. Few recruits are given a job or allowed to write for a paper until they have completed yet another lengthy probationary period.

On national newspapers, this usually means spending considerable time as a sub-editor, a role in which the journalist is slowly acclimatised to the newspaper's “values”. The sub sits at the bottom of the newspaper's editorial hierarchy, editing and styling reports as they come in for publication. Above him or her are the section editors (home, foreign etc.), a chief sub-editor (usually an old hand) and a revise sub to check their work. Subs invariably spend years as freelancers or on short-term contracts.

The subs’ primary task is to stop errors of fact and judgement getting into the newspaper. But their own judgement is constantly under scrutiny from editors higher up the hierarchy. If they fail to understand the paper's “values”, their career is likely to stall on this bottom rung or their contract will not be renewed. If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are "not suitable". But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again.

The media's lengthy filtering system means that it is many years before the great majority of journalists get the chance to write with any degree of freedom for a national newspaper, and they must first have proved their "good judgement" many times over to a variety of senior editors. Most have been let go long before they would ever be in a position to influence the paper’s coverage. And that is why high-profile sackings are a great rarity.

Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for “quality” rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values.

Success comes with the herd

The mirroring by newspapers of each other’s news agendas is often attributed to human nature, in the form of the herd instinct or the tendency to follow the pack. In truth, this is the way most reporters work out in the field. They attend press conferences, they chase after celebrities together, they speak to the same official spokespeople.

For instance, more than 95 per cent of the reports filed by Britain’s distinguished correspondents in Jerusalem originate in stories they have seen published either by the world’s two main news agencies, Reuters and Associated Press, or in the local Israeli media. Exclusives are almost unheard of. The correspondent’s main job is to rewrite the agency copy by adding his or her own “angle” – usually a minor matter of emphasis in the first paragraphs or an addition of a few quotes from an official contact.

This reliance on the wires is in itself a very effective way of filtering out news that challenges dominant interests. The agencies, dependent for survival on funding from the large media groups, are extremely deferential to the main Western power elites and their allies. This is for two chief reasons: first, large media owners like the Murdoch empire might pull out of the arrangement, or even set up their own rival agency, were Reuters or AP regularly to run stories damaging to their business interests; and second, the agencies, needing to provide reams of copy each day, rely primarily on official sources for their information.

It’s not really about readers

How is it then, if this thesis is right, that there are dissenting voices like John Pilger, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne who write in the British media while refusing to toe the line?

Note that the above list pretty much exhausts the examples of writers who genuinely and consistently oppose the normal frameworks of journalistic thinking and refuse to join the herd. That means that, in Britain’s supposedly left-wing media, we can find one writer working for the Independent (Fisk), one for the New Statesman (Pilger) and two for the Guardian (Milne and Monbiot). Only Fisk, we should further note, writes regular news reports. The rest are given at best weekly columns in which to express their opinions.

However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the margins of the commentary pages of Britain’s “left-wing” media serves a useful purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the “character” of the British media as provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking – when, in truth, they are anything but. It is a vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.

It is also probable that the other writers cited above are among the chief reasons readers choose the publications that host them. It is at least possible that, were more such writers allowed on their pages, these papers would grow in popularity. We are never likely to see the hypothesis tested because the so-called left-wing media appear to be in no hurry to take on more dissenting voices.

Finally, it should also be noted that none of these admirable writers, with the exception of Pilger, choose, or are allowed, to write seriously about the dire state of the mainstream media they serve. Sadly, it seems self-evident that were they to do so, they would quickly find their employment terminated.

How, then, do I dare write as I have done here? Simply because I have little to lose. The mainstream media spat me out some time ago. Were it otherwise, I would probably be keeping my silence too.
* Jonathan Cook is a British journalist living in Nazareth, Israel. His books include Blood and Religion (2006), Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (2008) and Disappearing Palestine (2008). His website is at www.jkcook.net.

 

** A longer version of this article can be found at

 

www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2860.

Issue(s):