And they’d rather you believe
In coronation street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers
Could it be an infringement
Of the freedom of the press
To print pictures of women in states of undress”
–Billy Bragg, It Says Here
The media plays a huge part in all of our lives. The news we get shapes the way we perceive the world around us. That news is shaped by the writers, editors, management, owners and, to a large extent, the advertising departments of the companies that give us the news.
What gets on the air, and what doesn’t make it, is decided by a very few people who have the ability to shape the way we see the world. While there are more sources available through the internet and access to information has never been as easy as it is today, most people still get their news from traditional media...television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Many do not care to search out alternate news sources and many do not have access to the internet for economic reasons.
Controlling the media, what stories get told and how they get told, is a major political strategy. All political parties have their spin doctors. Teams of speech writers and back-room policy makers who decide what gets said and how it is presented. All governments try to time the release of news in ways most favourable to them. Press releases that will reflect unfavourably on the government tend to come on Friday afternoons before long weekends.
Increasingly the media is being used as an imperialistic tool and that affects the overall freedom of the press. In 2002 Reporters Without Borders published its first world press freedom ranking. The rankings were based on a questionnaire given to “people who have a deep knowledge of the state of press freedom in a country or a number of countries : local journalists or foreign reporters based in a country, researchers, jurists, regional specialists and the researchers working for Reporters Without Borders' International Secretariat,” according to the Reporters Without Borders web-site. The questionnaire was based on, “53 criteria for assessing the state of press freedom in each country. It includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment). It registers the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations. It takes account of the legal and judicial situation affecting the news media (such as the penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly in certain areas and the existence of a regulatory body) and the behaviour of the authorities towards the state-owned news media and international press. It also takes account of the main obstacles to the free flow of information on the Internet. Reporters Without Borders has taken account not only of abuses attributable to the state, but also those by armed militia, clandestine organisations or pressure groups that can pose a real threat to press freedom”
In the October 2002 rankings Finland was first, Canada ranked fifth, and the US seventeenth. Most EU countries did reasonably well. Countries from the former Soviet Union did poorly, as did most Middle Eastern Countries. Iraq, then under the control of Saddam Hussein, ranked 130th.
The rankings for 2003 are slightly different. Most EU countries stayed close to where they were previously. Canada dropped to tenth. The US was given two rankings, as was Israel. The dual ranking was given to address behaviour domestically and abroad. The US placed in thirty-first domestically and 135th in Iraq, five places lower than Iraq had placed under the control of Saddam Hussein and lower than Afghanistan (134), The United Arab Emirates (122), Iraq itself (124) and many other states not known for their enlightened attitudes toward the press.
The US drop in rankings, both at home and abroad, is a result of attempts to control the press. Bombing al Jazeera offices hurts rankings, so does arresting reporters. Attacking those who offer dissenting opinions does not help promote press freedom. The results are reflected in the rankings of Reporters Without Borders.
Attempts and actions that limit press freedom are not the only issues affecting the press. There is also the very effects that the press have on us through their reporting. Consider the massive number of Americans that believed that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were working together, and that Iraq was directly involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. Consider the number of Americans that believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Compare the attempts, including embedding reporters, to limit the news coming out of the invasion of Iraq. Those are all very real results of the media not doing its job.
Those are symptoms of a larger problem though. As media ownership has become more concentrated and media companies have developed interests in areas other than news gathering, analysis, and dissemination the news available to many has become quite one-sided.
For example, protestors against globalization, at least in its present form, are generally presented by the press as being Molotov cocktail wielding anarchists bent on the wanton destruction of private property. Less likely to make the news are the average citizens, many from developing countries, some who are risking their lives by speaking out, who are concerned with the very real issues surrounding the matter. What we see most is politicians and business leaders in very controlled situations appearing to have their pictures taken shaking hands.
How are those average citizens from the developing world represented when we bother to represent them at all? More often than not, the media shows them as poor people who have been whipped into submission and are being taken advantage of by those our governments oppose or as proof as the failure of socialism, or the ineptitude of non-western societies. Their only hope is that we in the west swoop down and save them with our offers of trade deals, financial backing from the IMF, and privatisation schemes.
This distorted view serves the western corporations well. It gives a reason for them to continue eroding workers’ rights in the developed world, offers an extremely cheap source of labour and resources from developing nations, and opens up captive markets for the delivery of essential services such as water. When it comes to globalization, media control is a must.
Not that there is a group of men in suits gathered in a dark room someplace plotting the takeover of the world. There is no overt conspiracy. There are a limited and ever shrinking number of people who control the news though. They are wealthy. They are overwhelmingly from the west. They are familiar with and share the views and concerns of the upper classes and business. According to a 2001 article by Robert McChesney, seven multi-national conglomerates dominate global media. Disney, AOL Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, and Bertelsmann control the vast majority of what we see, hear and, through that, think. There is a second tier of media power control by a few dozen companies. These few dozen companies and the seven big players own parts of one another and shore economic interests in unrelated companies. They are all dependent on advertising revenues, often from corporations with shares in their company, to turn a profit.
It does not take a vast conspiracy for the corporate-controlled media to present only what promotes the interests of corporations at this point. Several individuals working towards a similar goal...deregulation and unfettered capitalism...will have the same effect. Stories that present alternate views or may be unpopular with advertisers make their way to the cutting room floor. Journalists who insist on doing such stories find themselves working in the alternative press.
A homogenous society dedicated to consumption is in the best interests of the corporate media. Globalization is their friend. As usual in the modern world, trade and profits are put before the needs of people or the greater good. The internet and the alternative press offer some hope, but their scope and influence is still limited and the corporate media is not without influence in these areas, especially on the internet.
Most news agencies have a daily business report, but there is no corresponding time dedicated to labour issues. Most people are more directly and immediately effected by labour issues than business issues though. Perhaps the first step on getting the media back on the right track is to convince some of the large media sources that it would be in their best interests to provide equal time to labour issues. Perhaps the first step is stop buying their news.
Reverend Blair was raised in Saskatchewan and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He comes from a long line of social activists and cried on Tommy Douglas before his first birthday. His column appears biweekly on Vive le Canada.