Media Plurality And The Effect Does It Have On The UK’s Democratic Health

Using the theoretical framework of Lukes’ three faces of power, this essay will discuss the media’s plurality in the United Kingdom (UK). This response will determine the affect media practice, both from a pluralistic point of view and government approval have an effect of the democratic health of the country. Specifically, the effective participation, enlightened understanding and control of the agenda clauses of Dahl’s theory will be applied throughout the essay to see how media plurality should in theory enhance a thriving democracy, but in reality and practice, fails democracy in the UK. The essay will effectively be split into three parts, using Lukes’ three faces of power, explicitly, the issue method, setting the agenda and, manipulating the view of others theories will be applied

The first section will focus on the issue method and winning the argument and will discuss how the ideological decline of any significant left influence in political discourse during the 1980’s was heavily aided by a media predominantly working in tandem with the Conservative government.

In the interests of pragmatism, Thatcher’s electorally successful policy of neo-liberalism and free market economics strongly influenced the Labour Party to reform their policy to the right. Immediately after losing the 1992 General Election as Labour Party Leader, Neil Kinnock said “I say that the Conservative-supporting press has enabled the Tory Party to win yet again when the Conservative Party could not have secured victory for itself on the basis of its record, its programme or its character” (Blackburn, 1995: 267). Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader soon after John Smith’s untimely death in May 1994 made the transition to a more centre grounded Labour party begin in earnest and it was down to the issue method that this occurred.

How the agenda is set will be featured in the second part of this essay, specifically the practice of embedding journalists within a military corps during armed warfare and the control of information that is imposed on what the journalists can reveal. Embedding journalists demonstrates how the media operates in a sphere of consensus with government, in order to package, market and disseminate policies. Whilst it is understandable for strategic reasons that the armed forces would wish for circumspection from journalists in regards to discussing operational matters and location, in the interests of holding power to account, it is undemocratic to impose on journalists the condition of not being critical of military operations that have occurred.

Lukes third face of power, manipulating the view of others and the attempt of the printed press to crudely vilify any person who does not subscribe to a particular narrative will be discussed within the third section. As an empirical case study, the reaction of the Daily Mail, Simon Heffer in particular, to a satirical television programme, specifically a special edition of Brass Eye: Paedogeddon (2001) will be considered. Heffer’s disdain for the programme is his perquiste. However, it will be argued that Heffer’s attempts to berate anybody who enjoyed the programme as ‘psychologically sick’ was anti-democratic and an attempt to narrow political debate as well as stigmatising the enjoyment of satire through the most emotive and egregious method.

The election of Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, in May 1979 saw the commencement of a neoliberal economic consensus in the UK which has prevailed since. This was a significant change, “for the 35 years after World War II (1945-1980), Keynesianism constituted the dominant paradigm for understanding the determination of economic activity” (Palley, 2004: 6th paragraph). To Thatcher, the Keynesianism economic model was at best, an out of date ideology and her determination to end its influence on British economic policy truly came to the fore in with the budget speech 1981, delivered by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe.

The economic reforms were in no small way, aided by a national print media who were broadly supportive of both herself and the ideology she espoused. This is of course the prerogative of the media, but with such strength and volume of support for her economic changes and the mockery poured on any major public figure that disputed these changes, the plurality of the printed media and its effect on democracy must be questioned.

The Thatcher government policy decentralisation was enthusiastically supported by Rupert Murdoch and his media organs. Crucially, through parliamentary sleight of hand, Thatcher’s government managed to get his purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times waved through without a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Woodrow Wyatt, a man with considerable influence on Thatcher (Campbell, 2008: 34) and a contemporary employee of Murdoch claimed “I had bent the rules for him. Through Margaret, I had it arranged that the deal didn’t go to the Monopolies Commission, which almost certainly would have blocked it” (Aitken, 2013: 277). Along with this, nine years later, in October 1990, Thatcher did not refer the merger of British Satellite Broadcasting and SKY TV to the Monopolies and Mergers commission. “Thatcher was informed of these plans during a visit by Murdoch. She evidently did not object, even though the merged BSkyB was radically at odds with her current official policy of the Broadcasting Act 1990”. (Kelly, Mazzeleni & McQuail, 2004: 263).

The root of this democratic and media discourse can be set back to “the 1981 budget, which was a watershed moment, in which government policy signalled the end of attempts to sustain a co-operative low unemployment equilibrium through the use of neo-corporatist policies.” (Bean & Symons, 1989: 21). This approach to unemployment led to an almost inevitable confrontation with the trade unions, a confrontation Thatcher had been relishing.  Thatcher said in her memoirs, that she “preferred disorderly resistance to decline rather than comfortable accommodation to it” (Thatcher, 1993: 43). Both Thatcher’s desire for confrontation with the unions and her wish for how that confrontation would transpire was to be satisfied over the coming years, reaching a successful climax in March 1985, when the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went back to work with virtually no concessions gained on their original demands from the National Coal Board. This was arguably Thatcher’s defining moment and the aid of the popular national media on her successful campaign is a significant moment, both for democracy in the UK and media plurality’s effect on it. “It is commonplace to observe that the British labour movement lost the political battle with the Thatcher government, it is less frequently recognised that the Trades Union Congress and the Labour party also lost the public policy argument” (Cradden, 2014). The consensus of the modern prevalence of neoliberalism and the subsequent discourse from a predominantly Conservative sympathising print media meant that any challenge to the neoliberal ideology become the subject of derision. As well as being anti-democratic, this discourse from the media effectively set the agenda by delegitimised any debate or opposition to the neo liberal reforms and ensured the compliance of the people affected by these reforms by view of popular consensus.

Soon after the conclusion of the miner’s strike and its domino effect on union power and confidence, the popular media picked up a new cause célèbre.  Subsequently, any dissent to government policy, particularly from Labour controlled councils became synonymous with the term ‘loony left’, which increased significantly within media vernacular from the mid 1980’s onwards. With the Conservatives dominant in parliament, particularly after 1983 landslide election win and with the trade unions having a lot of their leverage stripped away by the Employment Act of 1982 as well as the defeat of the NUM, the only influence the left had in any policy making in the UK by 1985 was through local councils. A national print media predisposed to the Conservatives and now given licence by the division in the Labour Party largely poured scorn on these ‘left wing loony’ councils. “The myth of the ‘loony left’ became hegemonic: It offered an explanation for the breakdown in local government-central government relations and it allowed Thatcherite centralism to be presented as the only possible alternative to this breakdown” (Smith, 1994: 42/43)

The battle between the Leadership of the Labour party and the alleged ‘Militant’ tendency within the Liverpool City Council is a microcosm as to how the discourse was to set out and also posed questions to the ideological pluralism of the British media. In October 1985, Labour leader, “Neil Kinnock made a speech to the Labour Party Conference attacking Militant and their record in the leadership of Liverpool City Council” (Brocken, 2016: 91/92). Whilst by no stretch of the imagination unique, Liverpool council became a beacon for the media discourse of ‘left wing loonies’. “All national papers applauded Neil Kinnock’s attack on the ‘hard left’ of the party” (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 106) and the ‘loony left’ became a catch all media cliché for Labour councils immediately following this incident, a cliché that was successfully embedded into the electorate’s psyche. This influence is still prevalent today and contributes to the near unanimous vilification that Jeremy Corbyn receives in the printed media on a regular basis.

In this instance of setting the agenda, Ball explains in the communicative model of exercising power, that “in order to exercise power, two conditions must already have been satisfied. The first is that the power wielder must be capable of communicating certain things in certain ways; they must in short be a competent speaker. The second is that the recipient of such persuasive communication be capable of understanding it and knowing what kind of speech act it is” (Ball & Wartenburg, 1992: 20)

The stigma of any left leaning policy being branded as ‘loony’ by the popular media significantly harmed debate and democracy in UK politics and Ball’s second clause of exercising power is particularly pertinent in this instance. When Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 General Election, he said in his resignation speech that “the heroes of this campaign were Sir David English (Daily Mail Editor), Sir Nicholas Lloyd (Daily Express Editor) and Kelvin McKenzie (The Sun Editor). Never has their attack on the Labour Party been so comprehensive. This was how the election was won” (Butler & Kavanagh, 1992: 208).

In contrast to the support given to the Thatcher Government by Murdoch as quid pro quo, for neoliberal economic policy and the invaluable help given to him in taking over The Times and The Sunday Times; the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was the source of great exasperation to Thatcher’s government during the Falklands conflict, as they sought to set the media agenda and narrative during the conflict.

The BBC adopted a neutral reporting stance when it came to the coverage of the Falklands conflict. The BBC’s position juxtaposed that of virtually all other printed media, in particular, Murdoch’s organs during the hostilities. While The Sun, “enthusiastically ran competitions for the best anti Argentinian jokes, it also published crass and insensitive headlines, such as ‘Gotcha’, when 1,200 Argentines were killed as the Belgrano warship was sunk” (Christopher, 2015: 75) This was in stark contrast to the BBC’s coverage. The neutral undertones of the BBC’s coverage during the Falklands conflict led Norman Tebbit, Employment Secretary and trusted confidante of Thatcher, to say that “amongst the casualties of the Falklands War was the relationship between the government and the BBC” (O’Malley, 1994: 55). More significantly, “on another occasion, the BBC were attacked for allegedly revealing information on troop positions at Goose Green, to the detriment of the British Forces” (Philo, 1995: 96)

With senior government figures expressing consternation about the editorial stance of the national broadcaster on the conflict, questions do arise in relation to the government’s commitment to democracy and journalistic freedom. Alasdair Milne, Director General of the BBC, said “we always spoke of ‘the British’ then. One reason is that if you start talking about ‘our troops’ and ‘our ships’, then it is natural to speak of ‘our policy’ when you mean the present government’s policy, and then our objectivity would no longer be credible” (Mosco & Wasko, 1984: 286).

This was a blatant attempt at setting the agenda and narrative for the distribution of information by a government in a democratic society. Whilst the government did not get their wish and indeed, to the present day, British forces personnel are still referred to in the third person by the broadcast media during times of armed hostilities, there was a dramatic change in the circulation of information and agenda setting during any kind of warfare after the Falklands conflict.

The phenomenon of embedded journalism, which gave privileged access to journalists who adopted the official line was inspired by the UK government’s annoyance of how the Falklands conflict was reported by the BBC. “The strategy of embedded journalism allowed the military to exercise a more subtle form of information management. All embedded journalists had to sign a lengthy contract which restricted what they were allowed to report and prevented them from carrying private mobile phones or using their own vehicles” (Tumber & Palmer, 2004: 16). Whilst all war reporting has its obvious occupational hazards, embedded journalists were on whole safer within the environment provided by the forces they were reporting on than unilateral journalists, who were not part of the controlled environment that embedded journalists operated in.

Steel says that “the apparent blatant disregard for unilateral journalists in Iraq, could be seen as an act of aggression against none embedded journalists” (Steel, 2012: 151). This is particularly pertinent for the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, when “ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, Lebanese interpreter Hussein Othman, and cameramen Daniel Demoustier and Fred Nerac came under fire from U.S. Marines, even though their vehicles were clearly marked as press vehicles” (Steel, ibid). The very best that could be said about the American Marines involved in this incident was that they were incompetent. However, Deputy Coroner, Andrew Walker decreed in October 2006 that Lloyd had been unlawfully killed (CPJ, 2006: 1st paragraph).

Joseph says “the Ministry of Defence (MOD) analysis in 2003 of print output during combat shows that 90% of embedded correspondents reporting was positive or neutral. Most anecdotal evidence from embeds and the military is that the intrinsic nature of embedding may undermine impartiality” (Joseph, 2017: 548). With Joseph’s observations considered, the practice of embedding journalists contradicts the entire raison d’etre of the practice of journalism. “Even the most experienced journalist became, in effect, a propaganda tool for the government” (Edkins & Zehfuss, 2014: 162). Embedded journalism contravenes the duty and freedom of journalists, reporting in and for a democratic society and it complies both with Lukes second and thirds faces of power, being an obvious method of controlling the agenda and through that control, manipulating the view of others to a point of view consistent with the governments.

Also consistent with Lukes third face of power is the binary positions that the media imposed on consumers in relation to emotive subjects and their contemporary obsession with Paedophilia. This was particularly the case in 2001 when a special edition of satirical TV programme, Brass Eye was broadcast, entitled Paedogeddon. It was described in the Daily Telegraph as brilliantly satirising the media obsession with paedophilia whilst simultaneously, making as much use as legally possible with its salacity (Daily Telegraph, 2002: 3rd paragraph). Whilst The Daily Telegraph piece was fulsome in its opinion of Paedogeddon, it is fair to say that it was a lone voice in a sea of hostility from the popular printed media and their response was of such persuasive vitriol as to be anti-democratic. “There were sustained for those responsible for the programme to be sacked (News of the World, 29th July 2001) and the Daily Mail called it ‘the sickest TV show ever” (Schofield, et al, 2004: 125).

In the Daily Mail, Simon Heffer described Paedogeddon as “a programme that only a small proportion of the psychologically sick could have found enjoyable” (Stott, 2014: 273). Heffer’s quote is telling, both for his understandable disdain for the practice of paedophilia, but also his branding of people who had any enjoyment out of the programme as ‘psychologically sick’.  This not only closed down any democratic debate with an ad hominem attack on anybody who disagreed with that view point, but it inferred without directly saying that any dissent to his opinion was an endorsement of paedophilic practice, something that the vast majority of people would understandably not want to be identified with. In this instance, Heffer is complying with Lukes third face of power by using “confirmation bias and the acceptance of information without question when it confirms our preconceived views whilst rejecting information that challenges them” (Walker, 2011: 241).

In summary, this essay discussed the malignant effect the superficially pluralist commercial media have on the democratic health of the UK and questioned how pluralistic it is. Whilst a pluralist media system should in theory leave an open and free forum for democracy and debate, the almost unanimous ridicule to anything that questions neo liberal economic policy and the hysterical narrative in mass media coverage of paedophilia means that the democratic discourse has been compromised. The media’s complicity in the practice of embedded journalism during times of combat completely compromises their raison d’etre. They are not there as journalists reporting on the realities of warfare, they are effectively operating as a public relations service for the armed forces they are embedded within. Not only is this the opposite of what they are supposed to be doing, it is anti-democratic and with the use of the Lukes second face of power, setting the agenda, a prime example of state control of information.

A truly pluralistic media should lead to a thriving democracy. However, a report from the World Press Freedom Index in April 2017, had the UK in 40th place out of 180 countries. The report showed that “Journalists in the UK are less free to hold power to account than those working in South Africa, Chile or Lithuania.” (Gayle, 2017: 1st Paragraph). Whilst it should be of concern that what is ostensibly a democratic country is in 40th position in a worldwide table judging press freedom, it is also a sign that the UK model of pluralist media is failing in its prime duty of informing its consumers, holding power to account and thus, being of no benefit to the democratic health of the UK.  (3,047 words)


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