Following the break for Easter we are now looking at two contrasting views of the media and how it mediates information about what is happening both locally and internationally. Firstly there is a Marxist analysis, which focuses on ownership of media and the accompanying power to portray events in a way that is beneficial to the interests of media proprietors. Many Marxists would see this portrayal as forming part of a hegemonic relationship between the owners of media corporations and the consuming public in which the latter passively consent to the ideas being put to them as individuals not wishing to step outside the norms of what is culturally acceptable in a culture that is defined by the capitalist mode of production. Contrasted with this class-based, historically determinist view of media ownership, production and distribution is a liberal pluralist model that sees the media as made up of many different elements that merely reflect the many different views within society, although a sophisticated liberal pluralist analysis would acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between media producers and their audience.
Politics as an arena of struggle for power and how that struggle is represented in the media comes particularly into focus in this phase of our studies. Industrial disputes as a highly visible manifestation of societal conflict, although not as highly politicised as in previous decades, are also worth examining in terms of how they are reported in mainstream and other media. Marxists in particular would see the reporting of industrial disputes by media owned by wealthy capitalists as biased against workers and favourable to management or employers. Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) has carried out research on industrial disputes in Britain, in particular the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and claims to have found a bias against the striking miners. This is not to say that GUMG is a Marxist group, but their findings would certainly confirm the views of Marxists regarding media coverage of industrial disputes. Others, including Alistair Hetherington, have looked at media coverage of events such as the Miners’ Strike and have not found the bias alleged by Marxists and other critics.
In terms of party politics, in Britain at least, support for either Conservative or Labour contenders for office, has been blatant and obvious at times. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper famously had a front page headline asking the last person to leave Britain to turn out the lights as a clear sign of their disapproval of Neil Kinnock and his Labour Party as a prospective Prime Minister and party of government respectively. Another Murdoch tabloid, the Daily Mirror, published a front page headline urging a vote for Labour at a subsequent election. This may reflect a desire on the part of the owner of these newspapers to influence the outcome of an election or it may be a matter of choosing a likely winner and gaining influence before they are actually elected. Either way the practice poses serious questions for any democratic society and how power is exercised therein.
However the implicit or explicit criticism of Marxists regarding the power wielded by capitalist owners of media is not some sort of value-free, empirical analysis by disengaged academics. Marxists view themselves as articulating the interests of the ‘working class’ in a perceived struggle between that class and a powerful capitalist class. Many Marxists, whether employed in academia or not, don’t just analyse power relations but seek power and influence for themselves and others they see as being in the vanguard of a workers’ struggle against capital. When they have come to power, from the former Soviet Union to China to Cambodia, their regimes have often been marked by mass murder and slave labour. They have also almost invariably placed far greater control on the media than is in place in non-Marxist societies.
Although we have never had a Marxist government here in Ireland we do have the experience of a small group of Marxists gaining a huge amount of influence within the national broadcaster, RTE, at a time when the country was convulsed by conflict and the reporting of that conflict was done in a way that reflected the highly partisan views of that small clique of ideologues. Although I wouldn’t be a great admirer of Vincent Browne’s style of broadcast journalism, he has written incisively and damningly of how the views of members or supporters of the former Workers’ Party came to hold disproportionate influence in the current affairs department of the national broadcaster at a time when factual reporting would probably have served us better than ideologically-driven anti-nationalist bias http://politico.ie/politics/4442-eoghan-harris-and-the-workers-party.html . We will never know whether the protracted conflict in the North might have been brought to an earlier conclusion in the absence of Section 31 censorship or Marxist propagandists at RTE but the truth is usually a better healer that distortion and marginalisation.