'MSM' or 'feral beasts'?
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Below is an extract from Chapter Eight of Warring Fictions. This comes from the section of the book about the Puppet Master. It uses the example of the media as a case study, to tease apart the difference between Puppet Master and non-Puppet Master explanations.
‘MSM’ or ‘feral beasts’
To sketch what the Puppet Master is and isn’t, let’s look at the media. Conspiracies about the mainstream media (or MSM) have become commonplace in recent years – with sentiment going far beyond the left’s traditional disdain for certain publications. This has led to left populist protests against titles like the New Statesman, and to the creation of ‘alternative’ news outlets like The Canary.
Perceptions about how news works are central to the Puppet Master. The idea that the press are the comms wing of the elite is embraced by the populist left and the populist right. Both blame the ‘establishment’ media for the failure of their ideas to cut through. Both feel the press uphold, depending on the perspective, either ‘neoliberal’ or ‘multiculturalist’ ideologies.[i]
But both left and right populists chronically overestimate the extent to which these publications deliberately embed certain opinions. And they underestimate the extent to which the press are responsive entities – who know their audiences and have an incentive to reflect their views.
There have been countless instances of the Puppet Master myth being applied to the media since 2015.[ii] Let’s take a Crispin Flintoff comment piece in The Independent, ‘The Jeremy Corbyn story that nobody wanted to publish’.[iii] This was a 2016 article about how the press were refusing to report a poetry and comedy tour by pro-Corbyn celebrities. It begins as follows:
Yesterday, I wrote a blog about the Jeremy Corbyn tour … which the media had failed to cover. I wanted people to know about the existence of the tour, but I also wanted to alert people to the fact that none of the newspapers I contacted were interested in reporting it. Journalist after journalist told me that the story was ‘not newsworthy’. ‘Not newsworthy’ is obviously not a scientific term. It’s purely subjective. And it’s also plain wrong.
The problem begins with the fact the tour was in fact covered – in The Independent and The Telegraph.[iv] But the real issue is with the deeper assumptions. The definition put forward by Jan-Werner Müller – author of What is populism? – is that populists “claim that they and they alone speak in the name of the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’.”[v] Flintoff does this (on behalf of Corbyn) throughout. He bases the article on the premise that Corbyn – and, by association, the pro-Corbyn arts tour – has overwhelming popular appeal. And from here he concludes that only censorship from those who want to maintain “top down politics” could explain journalists’ lack of interest. Even Flintoff’s flexible understanding of “subjectivity” shows this, with its implication that his preoccupations chime exactly with the public’s, but are suppressed by elites. “Many in the media may oppose Corbynomics,” he concludes, “but, in the end, they have to respond to the people’s interest.”
Articles like this do no real harm. But they reflect a wider social explanation which sets people on the wrong course. Nowhere in Flintoff’s piece, for example, does he countenance the possibility that most of those performing on his tour aren’t especially famous, and are usually better-known for their left-wing politics than for their comedy or poetry. Thus, there’s little ‘new’ in the story. Nor does Flintoff consider the harder truth that the proportion of the population who like radial poetry, avant-garde comedy and Jeremy Corbyn is, rightly or wrongly, pretty small (Corbyn was exceptionally unpopular when the piece came out.) The path of least resistance for journalists – especially those with right-of-centre readerships – is to not write about these things.
So, are we claiming the print press doesn’t give left-wingers a hard time? Of course not. Two studies have analysed the media around Corbyn, and found the content overwhelmingly negative. One concludes that “the degree of antagonism and hatred from part of the media has arguably reached new heights,”[vi] and the other points to a 2:1 ratio of negative to positive coverage.[vii] Although few politicians of any colour are presented positively, Corbyn has had it especially hard. Labour leaders before him, like Kinnock, Brown and Miliband, also had a tough time. And Tony Blair only got a stay of execution by focusing in microscopic detail on media management. So, the press presents a challenge for progressives. At its worst it’s sensationalist, pessimistic, simplistic, intrusive and irresponsible.
However, there’s a difference between acknowledging – and disliking – this on the one hand, and identifying why, on the other. The Puppet Master analysis provides one explanation. It says our MSM propagates deliberate misinformation from ‘the establishment’.[viii] It regards the media as an instrument of ideological control, and sees attacks on Corbyn as part of a drive to discredit socialism, led by people guarding their interests. You only have to spend a few seconds ‘below the line’ on a Guardian opinion piece to find this sentiment (although many now say that even The Guardian is a tool of the ‘deep state’).[ix]
There’s an alternative to the Puppet Master assessment, which is to see the media not as part of an immoral grand design, but as the symptom of an amoral process. This interpretation says papers are in fierce competition, driven by bottom lines and falling readerships. They’re sustained by content which titillates, scandalises, and gets people nodding along – which brings brand loyalty to the title. In other words, they’re institutionally conservative with a small ‘C’, more than they’re ideologically Conservative with a big one.
This perspective sees the press as ‘feral beasts’, as Tony Blair put it in 2007.[x] It’s a vision of chaos not conspiracy. It regards right-wing coverage as the product of a population at least half of which hold right-of-centre views. And it also observes that right-wing preoccupations are often more visceral – making easier hornets’ nests to kick. It’s the idea of a media styled on ‘Big Brother’ not in the 1984 sense but in the Channel 4 sense: salacious, knee-jerk, thoughtless, catering to every whim and impulse.
New Labour’s notorious spin came from this conviction. The media environment was seen as a free-for-all, characterised by groupthink, cults of personality, a race between titles to expose individuals, and an appetite for creative destruction. The Labour press operation – now seen by left populists as an elite conspiracy – was an effort, wrong-headed or not, to manage this chaos.
Choosing one or another of the above assessments doesn’t sway how you feel about the media. Those who believe the ‘feral beasts’ analysis have no more love for the press.
Moreover, if we apply Occam’s Razor, the ‘feral beasts’ perception seems closer to the truth. The Media Reform Coalition, who authored one of the above reports about the negativity of Corbyn’s coverage, provided the following clarification:[xi]
There are no doubt some professional journalists and editors who have knowingly and willingly used their platform in an attempt to discredit Corbyn’s leadership from the outset. There are also likely some who have knowingly and reluctantly accepted the editorial ‘whip’ of their pay masters. But most simply believe that they are covering the stories that matter to their readers or viewers, or to the public at large, and in a way that will resonate strongest with them... This is important because if we want to try and tackle the problem of media bias, we have to first understand it in all its complexity.
Other research suggests something similar, with a chicken-and-egg interplay. Research by MORI describes a “complex dynamic system with various points of feedback between media and audiences.”[xii] And a four-decade-long study into immigration rhetoric in the Australian press discovers a sophisticated back-and-forth between government, media and the public, with all three reinforcing and reflecting each other – the result being a race to the bottom. As the author points out, “divergence from popular opinion by democratically-elected governments is an unsustainable political position.”[xiii] This doesn’t excuse the politicians or journalists in question, but the analysis is significantly different to left populists’. It suggests weakness is the problem – not coercion and propaganda.[xiv]
Indeed, a majority of journalists consider themselves left- rather than right-wing. The ratio is 3:2 in favour of the left, even among very senior figures in the sector.[xv] If there’s a right-wing propaganda campaign at play (rather than short-term editorial decision-making), then it runs against the ideals of the top brass.
Is this really what’s happening? Columnist Hugo Rifkind describes how, when writing editorials for a Murdoch paper, top-down missives were non-existent.[xvi] And former Observer Political Editor Gaby Hinsliff writes that “newspapers thrive commercially by reflecting, not driving, readers’ opinions.” People like reading things they agree with; successful publications play to this.[xvii]
Of course, Rifkind or Hinsliff ‘would say that, wouldn’t they’? Yet looking at the breakdown of readerships, they have a point: the editorial lines of different titles tend to loosely correlate with public opinion. The Mirror, Guardian, Independent and I, for instance have a combined monthly readership of about 69 million (including online and mobile readerships, which is how most consume The Guardian and Independent). The Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, Sun and Star have an audience of about 103 million.[xviii] This is a big difference, but not completely unrepresentative. At the time of writing, the proportion who say they’d vote for right-of-centre parties and for left-of-centre parties is roughly split.[xix] And, 2017 aside, the right usually over-performs in elections.
Corbyn’s explicitly far left brand of politics was only shared by around 10% of the country when he came to office. And he did little at first to increase this, refusing to engage with the press and making clear how out of step with the other 90% he was (e.g. by refusing to wear a poppy). The path of least resistance for the average journalist being to go with the grain of public opinion, Corbyn was a gift. When he did electorally better than expected in 2017, the hostility lessened considerably for a time. This wasn’t because Corbyn had become less of a ‘threat to elite interests’ (quite the opposite), but because he’d showed himself to be more in step with public opinion.
Coverage of policy issues reveals the same thing. In the UK, the Hope Not Hate research already touched on shows that just over a quarter of the populace are squarely pro-migrant, with a quarter strongly anti-.[xx] The remaining half (dubbed ‘the anxious middle’), have milder anti-migration views.[xxi] Generally speaking, about three-quarters say migration should be reduced to some extent. Papers’ editorial lines aren’t a million miles from reflecting this.
And if we look at a left-wing issue for which there is public support, like NHS funding, we find that even the most conservative papers strike a progressive tone. Likewise, the right-wing press’s coverage of bankers has been extremely hostile since 2008[xxii] – undermining the idea that the media seek to distract us from a racket of financiers at the top.[xxiii]
So, while the print press is more right-wing than the country as a whole, the order of magnitude isn’t huge. There remain two readers of left-of-centre papers for every three readers of right-of centre papers. The idea that the left-wing instincts of the country are suppressed by ‘the powerful’ doesn’t stack up.
Some might say the issue of causation remains. Couldn’t the high proportion of right-wingers be a consequence of the fact that the press has brainwashed people? Likewise, with popular opinion on migration: doesn’t this show that elite propaganda is cutting through?
With headlines like ‘It was The Sun wot won it’, this is a tempting idea.[xxiv] However, research finds that “People who don’t regularly read any papers have very similar views… [to] the whole population, while readers of particular papers show heavy slants in concerns.” In other words, those who don’t consume print media aren’t more progressive. They’re simply closer to the mean average.[xxv]
In other words, the press’s effect is to inflame, magnify and polarise. Whether it’s The Guardian splashing on the Panama Papers or The Express focusing on the Calais Jungle, newspapers are a constant reminder of the things which people are angriest about.
In fact, looking at the range of British print titles, it’s hard to see anything approaching a pro-establishment, MSM ‘hegemony’. Most papers present themselves as voices against the establishment – on vastly divergent grounds to each other – and speak for pockets of strongly held opinion. If the press are pushing a ‘neoliberal’ agenda then it’s certainly a confused one, ranging from Express to Independent, via Financial Times and Daily Star.[xxvi]
Of course, this isn’t to say there’s no top-down element. As discussed, the Puppet Master overestimates rather than fabricates the reaches of power. It’s clear that at certain junctures publications intervene in ideological ways. And it’s clear that most owners have political views, which their papers reflect at election time. Yet even here, the buck usually stops with the reader.[xxvii] The Express supported Labour in 2001, sensing which way the wind was blowing.[xxviii] The Mail, despite having backed the Tories at every election since WWII, wasn’t above serialising Call Me Dave, Lord Ashcroft’s extended attack on the sitting Conservative Prime Minister. The Telegraph, the ultimate establishment bulwark, broke the MPs’ expenses scandal, drip-feeding the revelations about the Tories over a week. The Sun backed Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, and led the attack on cuts to tax credits[xxix] – sensing that their readers would oppose George Osborne’s proposals.
There are countless other examples, ranging from The Mail’s coverage of the Windrush scandal to The Sun’s writing up of the 2012 Olympics.[xxx] The most blatant example of all is many papers’ support for Brexit. This prioritised the instincts of readers over the recommendations of every ‘elite’ going – the government, the business lobby, the military, the judiciary, etc.[xxxi]
Another facet of the ‘feral beast’ interpretation is the view that the preoccupations of the right are more visceral. The political psychologist George Lakoff describes the difference between left and right as being between ‘systemic’ and ‘direct’ causal reasoning.[xxxii] The former are abstract, concerned with the whole ecosystem around an issue. The latter are based on cause and effect. A left-winger might say there’s a systemic link between deprivation and crime, for instance. A right-winger would say that nothing directly forces someone in poverty to offend.
This has implications for the media. A direct argument like “throw criminals in jail so they can’t do it again” is easier to build a headline around than a systemic argument like “look at the socio-economic factors that lead people into crime.”
To the extent that the press are disproportionately conservative, this is a big factor. The right’s advantage with the media comes less from Puppet Master propaganda than from a way of thinking which chimes with the needs of headline-writers. Ideas which move the debate away from ‘A+B=C’ reasoning will always be a harder sell.
Underlying this is a separate argument, about what we mean by impartiality. Are we asking the media to represent the full range of opinion? Or are we asking them to present an objective ‘truth’? I’d say fact should always override the balance of popular opinion. There’s little to be gained by a TV debate about whether climate change is happening, no matter what the public thinks. But the airtime given to different perspectives is harder; there’s no scientific fact suggesting more redistribution is better than less. The most we can hope for is that the media reflects its public.
People often become believers in the Puppet Master because they confuse these things. A personal opinion, which they regard as self-evident (e.g. nuclear unilateralism is the only moral policy), isn’t held by the general population. Politicians who believe it aren’t invited by the electorate to run our institutions. Journalists who champion it aren’t as widely read. As a result, a narrative develops that it’s being censored.
Overall, there’s little evidence of the press colluding in a hegemony rather competing in a cut-throat market. One could argue that we’ve been duped – that the press sporadically criticise the government on pre-agreed points, to make the rest of their propaganda credible. Yet this requires a set of assumptions which fail the test of common sense.[xxxiii]
[i] Attitudes to the broadcast press are symptomatic of this. Left populists suggest the BBC is the mouthpiece of the right – “shaped” by “supporters of government, big business, the free market and western foreign policy.” Right-winger believe the opposite. The claim that Jon Snow had been heard shouting “fuck the Tories” at Glastonbury drew many suggestions of bias from the right; Nick Robinson’s support for the Conservatives many decades ago now draws the precise same response from the left. It is telling, in itself, that 14% of Brits regard The Express as left-of-centre overall (presumably because it’s to the left of their own position), and that 18% see The Guardian as right-of-centre (presumably for the same reason in reverse).
[ii] Both McDonnell and Corbyn themselves have repeatedly claimed this media conspiracy is at hand. Corbyn’s speech on the matter in August 2018 attacked “print barons” and “establishment gatekeepers,” who are “wedded” to the Tories and “corporate interests.” This “tightening oligopoly” exert a “stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination.”
[iii] ‘The Jeremy Corbyn story that nobody wanted to publish’, The Independent, Crispin Flintoff, 2016.
[iv] ‘Celebrities to tour Britain in “Jeremy Corbyn For Prime Minister” musical show’, The Telegraph, Michael Wilkinson, 2016.
[v] Capitalism in One Family, Jan-Werner Müller, London Review of Books, 2016.
[vi] ‘Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From Watchdog to Attackdog’, Bart Cammaerts, Brooks DeCillia, João Magalhães and César Jimenez Martínez, London School of Economics and Political Science, July 2016, p.12
[vii] ‘Should he stay or should he go? Television and Online News Coverage of the Labour Party in Crisis’, Dr Justin Schlosberg Media Reform Coalition in association with Birkbeck, University of London, 2016
[viii] Paul Mason describes how the right-wing press “run fake stories about the Labour party to stop it winning the next election.” And in the run-up to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, our friend Owen Jones described right-wing elites as “frightened” by Corbyn and “nervous” that he’d succeed. Jones suggested that, within the country, most shared Corbyn’s policy platform, hence the press’s effort to discredit him. Jones explained that there were left-wing “majorities in favour of everything from hiking taxes on the rich to improving workers’ rights,” and that elites “know that when Corbyn and his supporters are given prime slots on TV, radio and in the mainstream media, however hostile the media spin is, millions of people…will often be nodding along.”
[ix] The Chomskyite site Media Lens is the ultimate example of this, describing the “propaganda role of the liberal media, particularly The Guardian, in propping up power.” They refer to George Monbiot as “a corporate lightning rod conducting the raw energy of outrage and dissent down to the safe little ‘box’ of The Guardian website [where] his readers are regaled with state propaganda, corporate adverts and assailed by the poisonous, system-supportive beliefs of his corporate colleagues.” Others call The Guardian “the conservative elite’s liberal counterpart,” accusing it of a “deep and destructive establishment bias” and “pro-Zionist” censorship, thanks to the “influence of powerful special interests.”
[x] Blair described the press as obsessed with “impact”: “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out... A vast aspect of our jobs today … is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity.” Hugo Rifkind, former Times leader-writer, described this in 2012 as the difference between two distinct world views (epitomised by Blair and Brown contrasting interpretations): “Tony Blair would say that the press tore apart Gordon Brown because he was rubbish, because it was fun, because it was just so damn easy, because a mindless sort of group-think took hold and ordinary humanity flew out the window. Whereas Gordon Brown thinks it happened because two or three powerful men, for ideological or commercial reasons, entered into a conspiracy to get rid of him.”
[xiii] ‘Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia’, Ben Doherty, WP-15-126, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper, no. 126, University of Oxford, 2015, p.11.
[xiv] In the UK the story is the same. If we look at net migration levels, mentions of migration in the press, and pubic preoccupation with migration over time, we see a self-perpetuating process: government figures about rising migration are reported; these are amplified by the press; concerns among the public increase; pressure on the government to ‘deal with immigration’ rises etc. See ‘Shifting Ground: Report 1’, Ipsos MORI, 2012, p.5.
[xvi] “Newspapers are lousy places to cook up any sort of conspiracy,” he writes. “Every time I hear Tom Watson declare that News International was deftly running a shadow state, I suppress a guffaw. Put it this way: you wouldn’t want to take the trains.” ‘It’s the clunking fist school of conspiracy’, The Times, Hugo Rifkind, June 2012.
[xvii] ‘The battle against irrelevance’, Progress, Gaby Hinsliff, March 2016. This links to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘motivated reasoning’, whereby people subconsciously seek material which confirms existing biases.
[xviii] NewsWorks, Market Overview, Readership (Multiplatform), 14th March 2017. Note: the Evening Standard and FT are not included, due to the subtler lines these publications take – left-wing socially, and right-wing economically in both cases.
[xix] The Institute for Global Change puts the figures at 15% right-wing, 20% centre right, 33% centrist, centre left 21% and left-wing at 11%. The Social Market Foundation puts the numbers at 10%, 15%, 45%, 17% and 13%. So, depending which of these you go with, the right:centre:left ratio is either a third:third:third or quarter:half:quarter.
[xxii] See, for instance, The Sun’s hostile depiction of Bob Diamond or The Mail’s sustained coverage of the Fred Goodwin case. Whether or not this was simulated for commercial purposes, it clearly illustrates that neither paper was dancing to the tune of high finance.
[xxiii] Owen Jones, for instance, writes of a “concerted attempt to re-direct people’s anger…away from the powerful.” He explains that “elite politicians” and the media have worked “hand in glove” to “vilify” immigrants and benefit claimants. Elsewhere he suggests public figures “nakedly act as the hired hands of a wealthy elite.” The Establishment, p.xi and p.294.
[xxvi] The Chomsky explanation for this might be that, as he put it “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” The problem with this is that a spectrum which ranges from Katie Hopkins to Russell Brand – and from The Canary to Breibart – is very wide indeed. It’s hard to see what “limits” are being put on this range.
[xxvii] The authors of Audit of Democracy found that “political affiliations of the UK’s national newspapers have become significantly more fluid… There is a powerful rationale for the press to follow suit, if only to avoid alienating their own readers.”
[xxix] ‘Tax credits cut bonkers: We launch campaign to aid low-pay workers’, The Sun, Craig Woodhouse and Ben Griffiths, October 2015.
[xxx] Interestingly, The Mail, in spite of its generally nationalist ideology, led the media charge in seeking out the killers of Stephen Lawrence. And they splashed similarly on their front page when there was an attack on an asylum-seeker in Croydon in 2017. The primary cause of The Mail’s commercial success is that they raise awareness of threats, and it seems that in both of the above cases they sensed that their readership would see hate crimes and murder on the streets a threat to decency and patriotism. Likewise, The Mail led the charge when Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy – which they had supported – resulted in the Windrush Scandal. During the height of Olympics-mania in 2012, meanwhile, The Sun took little encouragement to laud “marvellous modern Britain” when the national mood became one of pride in diversity: “A ginger bloke from Milton Keynes, a mixed-race beauty from Shefﬁeld, an ethnic Somali given shelter on these shores from his war-ravaged homeland. This is what Britain looks like today.” More recently they exposed the mistreatment by the car insurance industry of people called Mohammed. As one commentator puts it, “If press barons really had powers of mind control then Zac Goldsmith would be running London and Hillary Clinton would be in the White House.”
[xxxi] Once papers’ reach is factored in, 48% of all referendum-focused articles were pro-Leave and 22% pro-Remain. The authors conclude that “In what was a very complex decision [Brexit’s] detailed issues were underplayed and when they were covered this was done in a highly partisan way... This approach chimed well with the preconceptions of voters who already had firm positions but probably less so for voters seeking high-quality information to make up their minds.” ‘UK Press Coverage of the EU Referendum’, David A.L. Levy, Billur Aslan, Diego Bironzo, The Reuters Institute, 2016, p.5-8
[xxxii] Lakoff explains: “Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation.”
[xxxiii] The same arguments apply to countless other areas besides the media. The book Bluffocracy, for instance, by James Ball and Andrew Greenway, points to a culture of chancers, ‘all-rounders’ and broad-brush generalisers, winging it to the top of our institutions, at the expense of experts. As with the difference between MSM and feral beast, this represents a fundamentally different critique to that made by the populist left, in texts like The Establishment.