By James Crossley, University of Sheffield

On the BBC website, Paul Mason, the regularly insightful Newsnight reporter, has attempted to understand the recent phone hacking scandal, and the broader political crises surrounding it, through a critique of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s famous Propaganda Model and their ideas concerning the manufacture of consent in the mainstream media. Mason’s summary of manufacturing consent and the media is as follows:

…the theory states that essentially the mass media is a propaganda machine; that the advertising model makes large corporate advertisers into “unofficial regulators”; that the media live in fear of politicians; that truly objective journalism is impossible because it is unprofitable (and plagued by “flak” generated within the legal system by resistant corporate power).

According to Mason, the public uncovering of the murky influence of News International, particularly the ways in which police officers and politicians have been firmly in the sphere of Murdoch’s influence, vindicates Herman and Chomsky’s analysis. But on the other hand, Mason suggests, the role of social media, especially the pressure put on corporate advertising, is bringing down ‘the old system’. The closure of News of the World was, after all, partly due to what we regularly hear called ‘the toxic nature’ of the brand (though not a phrase used by Mason). In what Mason believes is a further weakening of Herman and Chomsky’s argument, ‘the Facebook generation’, he argues, tend to read newspapers ‘ironically, much as it watches Big Brother’, and so gossipy stories of the rich and famous sell but at a price: newspapers can no longer manufacture consent.

Mason is actually one of those relatively rare figures in British journalism who uncovers some of the more disastrous consequences of power (though perhaps true to the logic of manufacturing consent, he does tend to be active later at night rather than on headline news). Whether we agree with Herman and Chomsky on manufacturing consent, Mason makes a crucial mistake regularly found in receptions of the Propaganda Model and it is a mistake which removes a central aspect of its explanatory power. One of the crucial features of the Propaganda Model is not necessarily that journalists cannot or do not tell the truth about the events which they report but the rather the media tends towards omission or downgrading of, for instance, damaging stories which might seriously discredit dominant and interrelated interests of the capitalist and national system, notably atrocities involved in foreign policy, the main area of interest in Herman and Chomsky’s work).

Herman and Chomsky regularly point out that there is hardly a neat match between dominant elite positions and the range of opinions of the audience (indeed, they both believe the attempt at manufacturing consent in the mainstream media is often ineffective and inefficient). The Propaganda Model is hardly a grand Big Brother-style machine which a duped populace passively accepts uncritically. The mainstream media, they argue, also reflects numerous positions among big business with major disagreements reflecting disagreements among the elites.

To give a dramatic and relevant example, the Watergate scandal could be used by Herman and Chomsky of how such disagreement can function: Nixon had plenty of powerful opponents at the time and clearly antagonised one set of powerful opponents, the Democrats. In the phone hacking scandal, it is notable that the debate has tended to be focused on the reactions of an assortment of different media groups all taking shots at the Murdoch empire, even to the extent of joining forces in what is turning out to be elite-on-elite action.  In fact this is explained (presumably unintentionally) by Mason: ‘a combination of the Guardian, Twitter and the public-service broadcasters, including Sky News, proved stronger than the power and influence of Rupert Murdoch, and for now the rest of Fleet Street has joined in the kicking.’

And does this not endorse Mason’s reading of the Propaganda Model, which he sees as ‘the advertising model [which] makes large corporate advertisers into “unofficial regulators”’, albeit in a slightly different way to that implied by Mason? It was major brands that were targeted not because an overt and widespread anti-capitalist movement was attempting to bring down the system but rather, among other things, a combination of long term hostility towards Murdoch (from Left and Right on the political spectrum) and investigative journalism but also a classic case of the sorcerer’s apprentice coming back to haunt. After all, any brand associated with the phone hacking of a murdered child or dead soldiers – the very sorts of people the Murdoch tabloids have emotively focused on – cannot gamble on coming out from all of this unscathed. On one level, it is tacit acceptance of the perceived power of the market which could virtually bring down a perceived corporate ‘bad apple’.

What should be clear from this is that, for all the undoubted fun of watching the mighty fall, the longer term effects of recent events may not be quite as profound as Mason perhaps suggests. It is certainly possible that some of the more shocking journalistic practices may have seen their last days (but remember the promises concerning the paparazzi following Diana’s death…), that the influence of media tycoons at the highest level of government may no longer turn out to be what it was and that there will be less chance of someone gaining the degree of dominance Murdoch would have enjoyed with the acquisition of BSkyB. However, the mainstream political parties remain dedicated to neoliberal policies of differing varieties, and it is not likely that the political and media establishment will be defending Britain as a site of anarcho-syndicalist collectives or that Morning Star vote will be courted in any serious way.

In one sense, the News International debacle may only serve to justify the dominant ideological positions which will remain in place, now potentially purged of the toxic influence and the threat of near-monopoly. A useful analogy might be with the response sometimes given to political satire from the political establishment: it keeps us honest! (In fact, this was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s very argument in favour of the British press given on Newsnight last week). Indeed, there is talk, coming most vocally from Rupert Murdoch’s ubiquitous biographer, Michael Wolff, that the Murdochs will have to go in order to detoxify News Corp or, more politically, opposition forces within News Corp will now see this as an opportunity to weaken the Murdoch influence.

What we might be seeing here is a changing of the guard rather than a fundamental political shift in the significance of media control. Printed newspapers were in decline before the events of recent weeks and are hardly the force they were within the Murdoch empire and News Corp more generally. The shift to a digital age and the increasing prominence of social media has helped push seemingly non-traditional journalistic voices to the fore. Yet, as Will Self recently warned about what he called this ‘epiphenomenal imbroglio’,

We will remain in this interregnum only for as long as media organisations remain unable to make web-based content – whether editorial, entertainment or social media – generate genuinely self-sustaining revenue. When it does begin to do so new hierarchies will be erected very speedily to exploit it, and my suspicion is that these new hierarchies will look very much like the old.

Yet let us not forget that mainstream journalists and media outlets already have blogs, rolling blogs and twitter accounts where numerous latest developments are broken (including rumours and breaking news throughout the phone hacking scandal), while many of the more independent bloggers who have made names for themselves (e.g. Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Liberal Conspiracy) reflect conventional positions across the mainstream media and interact regularly with and in the mainstream media. The patterns of manufacturing consent are, therefore, already in place even if the presentation appears new and different. And the influence of dominant tendencies of the mainstream media can be even more subtle. Even bloggers in seemingly obscure areas, such as the study of, for instance, religion and the Bible still replicate and mimic dominant positions on key areas of foreign and domestic policy found in the mainstream media. We may not be able to predict the future of the chaos of the internet but the signs are that scenario presented by Will Self already has solid online foundations.

Posted: 2 August 2011