The scandal involving News International’s phone-hacking and corrupt deals with world governments was not the exposure of a ‘rogue operator’. Instead it merely exposed, in dramatic style, the underlying basis of the media under capitalism. Run by multi-national corporations, their purpose is to promote the interests of their billionaire owners.
In the 21st century, the links between media and government have consolidated decades of growing co-operation, overlapping into a revolving-door complex which sees spin-doctors shuttle between governments, media outlets and PR agencies.
In the advanced capitalist countries, much is made of the ‘imminent’ collapse of the newspaper. It is true that all the major dailies are loss-making and free media and the internet is hastening this demise. Surely the laws of capitalist competition mean that bosses ought to let loss-making newspapers collapse and be replaced by a higher (more profitable) form of media production?
The answer to print media’s longevity lies in the role of ideas in class society. The dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class.
The reasons are twofold: firstly, membership of the ruling class and privileged layers allows access to education and the leisure to become immersed in all expressions of culture. The second is that it is the capitalists who control the media, either through outright ownership, or through their control of the means of mass production and dissemination (TV stations, satellites, printing presses, art galleries).
For example, Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer in the USA has a massive impact on popular culture by dictating what it will and won’t stock, forcing artists to tailor their creative expression to what is acceptable to Wal-Mart.
The majority of cultural works such as books, films and art reflect the attitudes and ideas of their creators – predominantly members of the ruling class, who’s cultural output it aimed at alternately masking, justifying and promoting the social form which guarantees their privileges.
But before being exposed to the public consciousness these ideas must be packaged and sanitised by the distribution networks, who are not concerned with such abstract notions as truth or artistic integrity, but the financial impact on the company’s profits and image. The arena of distribution and marketing is where the capitalists’ power really comes into play in terms of commercial control over artistic content.
Just think of all the album covers, books and films which have been censored, replaced or banned outright, as was the case with the sequel to the Human Centipede (google it).
Companies like Wal-Mart refuse to stock certain works because those works contradict what Wal-Mart sees as the social attitudes and values of its customer base. However, since its customer base is hardly a niche market, it is clear that what it is actually concerned about is the power of reactionary lobby groups advocating against abortion, blasphemy and swearing, and in favour of marriage, abstinence and other equally regressive social institutions.
While dominant ideas and popular culture are interlinked in the public consciousness, with the rise and fall of social norms dictated by changing customs, new technology and social movements, capitalist control of production ensures the unchallenged pre-eminence of certain values. The most obvious example of this is in the portrayal of women, and particularly women’s sexuality in popular culture.
The rise of the struggle for sexual liberation with the advent of the Pill and a new wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s is now reflected by the commodification of this liberation. In the west, women’s bodies are no longer hidden away, but rather exposed, subjected to an unrealistic beauty norm and sold back to men and women on Page 3, in lads’ mags and beauty pageants.
The 21st century has brought us the idea that women should be juggle childcare and cooking with a desire to break through the glass ceiling. Equally racism did not disappear with the US civil rights movement. Now it takes the form of nationalism, Islamophobia and ideas of cultural superiority.
But clearly the task of maintaining a system of ideas which says capitalism is invincible, that there is no alternative, and that ‘we’ve never had it so good’ cannot be left exclusively to artists and intellectuals, whose relation to capital is not based on the direct exploitation of workers. That is, the material privilege of authors, artists and journalists doesn’t depend on their ability to increase exploitation. It is this relative independence from the permanent struggle between classes over the distribution of social wealth which permits intellectuals to promote ideas which undermine or directly challenge the status quo.
This then, is the principal reason for the existence of a loss-making print media. Newspapers provide a further dimension in which to wage the battle of ideas in society. For example, French broadsheet Le Figaro is owned by the same capitalist who also owns the biggest TV station and a company holding huge government contracts in construction and defense.
Needless to say, Le Figaro is a consistent champion of increased military spending, even when this results in contracts worth billions of euros for fighter jets which stand rusting in depots because they are too expensive to be sold on the international market.
Apart from the media, education is the most important battle-ground of ideas in society. The Tories recognise this, which is why they are making pro-marriage relationship education a central plank of the curriculum in their ‘free’ schools and academies.
Certainly, they won’t say that women suffering from domestic violence should remain married at all costs… but if you hammer the supposed benefits of marriage to your health, family and happiness into children for years, then that will do the job of ensuring the growth of utterly reactionary attitudes to divorce and women’s role in the home.
Censorship and the state
Different countries have varying degrees of regulation of the mass media. This regulation can be overt, in the form of state or self-censorship, or through ‘independent’ regulators who use guidelines and fines to enforce some level of neutrality.
Such ‘impartiality’ counts for nothing, however, when the editors who determine content owe their positions to unnaccountable governments and millionaires determined to promote their own world-view.
In the many semi-colonial and dictatorial countries, a government-owned media is the norm. State control over the media is simply the clearest expression of its role in presenting and interpreting the dominant ideas in society. The western media dismisses government-controlled media as biased propaganda – ignoring that it too has its paymasters who pull the editors’ strings.
In countries with high illiteracy and poor access to education, a state-run media achieves the dual tasks of mystification and indoctrination. Mystification is achieved by masking the roots of social and economic oppression, indoctrination is achieved by tight control over content, preventing news of domestic protests and sanitizing international coverage.
The elevated levels of censorship in wartime, through self-censorship and the use of the Official Secrets Act is the most developed expression of the ruling class’s need to control the flow and appearance of ideas in society. The example of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan where the entire media agreed to the government’s request not to report the fact is just one relatively minor example of how freedom of information is ultimately always subordinated to the ‘national interest’. The national interest in its turn, is defined according to the interests of those with the most power in society.
So we see that we live in a society where control of production and distribution of ideas by a social elite simply results in the reproduction of the same oppressive ideas and social values which maintains that elite; i.e. promoting social attitudes which enforce the oppression of women, and preventing the organisation of the majority against this tyranny by using racism and religious intolerance to stir up artificial divisions.
The rise of social media
The 21st century has thrown up many challenges to the existing means of media control. Many claim that the spread of the internet and particularly social networking has fundamentally shifted the balance of power away from the media barons in favour of the masses,.
This is an illusion. Despite the hype, the Arab Spring was not sparked, mobilized or organized via social networking. In countries with very low internet coverage, the mobilization of millions through a few thousand tweets never looked credible. Certainly the internet can be a powerful tool in the hands of those organizing to defend their rights, but it can never substitute for the living democracy of councils of workers, youth and unemployed.
The idea that social media is somehow empowering the working class, is just another reflection of the private media’s ability to shape our conception of our place in society, and what constitutes power.
The prominence given to the role of social media by the capitalist media reflects its efforts to mask the democratic organization of millions of Egyptian workers in new trade unions, local committees and popular militias. This newfound power drove the revolutionary general strike which brought down Mubarak. Of course, the western media barons are not likely to accurately report the tactics of a revolutionary working class, instead they promote the elite, partial and atomized ‘democracy’ of the internet.
In reality the Arab dictatorships clamped down on internet access within days, while the freedom of internet in the West is tolerated only while it doesn’t challenge the social status quo.
Nevertheless, revolutionaries must use every form of media available to spread socialist ideas and everywhere expose the propaganda behind the ruling class ideologies. The struggle against censorship laws is a permanent task of socialists in order to enable the working class to play its part in the battle of ideas.
Therefore we fight for an end to all forms of censorship in the print, online and broadcast media.
We campaign for the right to organize politically within education and the workplace.
We oppose private ownership of the means of producing and disseminating information.