Monday, October 06, 2008

More News, Less Views


Written by Greg Philo, Glasgow Media Group, via the boys at Media Lens:

News is a procession of the powerful. Watch it on TV, listen to the Today programme and marvel at the orthodoxy of views and the lack of critical voices. When the credit crunch hit, we were given a succession of bankers, stockbrokers and even hedge-fund managers to explain and say what should be done. But these were the people who had caused the problem, thinking nothing of taking £20 billion a year in city bonuses. The solution these free market wizards agreed to, was that tax payers should stump up £50 billion (and rising) to fill up the black holes in the banking system. Where were the critical voices to say it would be a better idea to take the bonuses back? Mainstream news has sometimes a social-democratic edge. There are complaints aired about fuel poverty and the state of inner cities. But there are precious few voices making the point that the reason why there are so many poor people is because the rich have taken the bulk of the disposable wealth. The notion that the people should own the nation’s resources is close to derided on orthodox news.

When Northern Rock was nationalised, TV news showed us pictures of British Leyland and the old problem ridden car industry. Never mind that it was actually privately owned when most of the problems occurred and that company policy had been to distribute 95% of profits as dividends to shareholders, rather than to invest in new plant and machinery. This is all lost in the mists of history and what is conveyed is the vague sense that nationalisation is a “bad thing”.

We showed how this affects public understanding by asking a sample of 244 young people in higher education (aged 18 –23) about the great spate of privatizations which had taken place in the 1980s. We asked whether the industries involved had in general been profitable or unprofitable. Actually, the major ones of gas, electricity, oil and telecommunications were both profitable and major sources of revenue to the state, but nearly 60% of the sample thought that the industries had been losing money.

This is especially poignant now that energy prices are being jacked up and the foreign owners of many of these companies are not interested in passing on their windfall profits to the British people. Countries such as China, Venezuala and even Russia keep key industries very firmly in state hands, but where are the critical voices in broadcasting here, who are given space to raise these arguments? They can be heard in the outer reaches, occasionally on Question Time, Channel 4 News or Newsnight.

But is this what the population want? At the start of the Iraq war we had the normal parade of generals and military experts, but in fact, a consistent body of opinion then and since has been completely opposed to it. We asked our sample whether people such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore should be featured routinely on the news as part of a normal range of opinion. Seventy three per cent opted for this rather than wanting them on just occasionally, as at present.

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is another area of great imbalance in the views that are heard. Our study of the main TV news output showed that pro-Israeli speakers were featured about twice as much as Palestinians. This year BBC News covered Israel’s ‘birthday’ of 60 years since the setting up of the state. This was of course also the anniversary of what, from the Palestinian perspective, was the great disaster when they were forced from their homes and land. Israel’s superior public relations machine meant that they set the agenda on broadcast news. The Palestinians were featured, but rather less and as a sort of afterthought. As a presenter on BBC’s Today programme put it, “Today Israel is 60 years old, and all this week we have been hearing from Israelis about what it means to them”. Quite so.

We commissioned YouGov to ask a sample of 2086 UK adults whether they thought that more coverage should be given to the Israeli point of view, or more to the Palestinians, or equal for both. Nearly twice as many people thought that the Palestinians should have the most as compared with the Israelis, but the bulk of the replies (72%) were that both should have the same. Only 5% of the population supported what the broadcasters have actually been doing in the main news output.

Politicians and broadcasters say they are worried about a growing lack of interest in politics especially amongst the young. Our work shows there is no lack of interest in lively critical debate. The problem is that a news which largely features the views of two political parties with very similar free market policies at home, and an international agenda which follows America, does not provide this.

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