Prime Ministers, Politicians and the Government are all faced today by a concentration of media owners. With fewer businesses now controlling the mass media the diversity of debate is narrowed with an increased control over the politics being written. The affects of a shrinking media ownership have given way to a possible new Marxist or critical theory. Rupert Murdoch is one of the most famous capitalists in the media industry. He owns Sky News and controls the Sun and the Times newspapers. In the UK alone, Rupert Murdoch owns almost 35% of distributed newspapers.
He has impacted the media industry in a tremendous way and his corporation has gone from being a successful business to a thriving enterprise by entering the prominent media stations and countries. However he makes no attempts to cover up his own agenda. He openly makes statements such as, “For better or for worse, our company … is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values. “1 His views are consistent with those cited in Noam Chomsky’s pamphlet ‘Media control: the spectacular achievements of propaganda. 2
He states that we exist in a spectator democracy, which is regulated by an elite group to create a different version of reality as a result of manipulating the media. Although newspapers in the UK are significant, television is particularly important to politicians, often more so than newspapers. Even a mere two minutes of exposure during peak times can enable politicians to address larger populations than they could ever reach in a lifetime of canvassing public meetings. 3 The BBC is well regarded for their news coverage during a crisis, which is usually the time politicians, are desperately wanting to air their views.
For example during the Iraq war viewers turned “to the BBC as a source of news in overwhelming numbers. “4 With the BBC dominating the world of news in the UK it is no surprise that Murdoch wants to use his power to shift the BBC into a niche “quality” market, catering only for the minority middle class interests. It is for these reasons that I base the discussion of democracy on the hostile relationship between these two media corporations. The question of this paper asks whether, the battle between the private sector (Murdoch) and public Sector (BBC) media corporations is a threat to UK democracy?
In order to answer this, the paper will be split into two main discussion areas. The first section will examine the amount of power Murdoch exerts over the UK Government and how this control has threatened the BBC. The second part focuses on whether his threat to remove the BBC could transcend into a threat on UK democracy? In order to analyse what impact the removal of the BBC would have on UK democracy, the reliability of the corporation must be tested. This will be done using The Propaganda Model developed by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky.
A final analysis of what impact the media has on its audience will be briefly examined in order to come to a logical conclusion. Throughout the essay references will be made to key theories and models in order to provoke critical thinking. We first begin by examining the amount of power Murdoch exerts over the UK Government. The book ‘Power without Responsibility’ states that “The media do have some political autonomy. “5 In the case of Murdoch this statement could not be truer, for example “Murdoch wields considerable power… and is often wooed by politicians to persuade him to favourably cover their campaigns. 6 The partnership between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch began in 1995 when seemingly Tony Blair did a deal with Murdoch in return for switching his papers to support the Labour Party overnight. However the question over political autonomy goes back over a much longer time period. In 1992 the Sun’s headline “It’s the sun wot won it for John Major”7 brought the question of press bias to a head. The view that the media were able to change the voting minds of the public is supported by the hypodermic model, which claims that those who control the media control the hearts and minds of the public through the propaganda they disperse.
At the same time it challenges the views of Blumler and McQuail (1968) that claim people do not react directly to political media messages. 8 Although nowadays Blumer and McQuail’s theory would probably carry more weight as the public are increasingly being educated on the extent and effects of propaganda. However Murdoch’s power over the government extends beyond just election time. His papers continuously manipulate stories to increase the popularity of the Government. He does this in return for favourable Government policies, which allow his enterprise to grow and dominate all other media stations such as the BBC.
For example in 2003 the Communications Act was passed reforming the rules on media ownership to promote competition and investment. The Act has opened up the market for business tycoons like Rupert Murdoch to buy broadcasters such as Five, thus increasing his dominance in the broadcasting industry. So how exactly does Murdoch manipulate stories to suit the government in return for these favourable policies? Well the following are just a couple of current examples taken from a large selection. Firstly during the week commencing August 18th 2003, “The Sun” newspaper began an ongoing series of articles on asylum-seekers.
It stated that “the problem of asylum-seekers is out of control” and Tony Blair must “stem the flood of people entering Britain illegally. “9 At this point ask yourself why ‘The Sun’ would launch an attack against its closest associate? Well it’s been suggested that the timing of the campaign was off crucial significance. It is no secret that ‘The Sun’ has always supported Tony Blair on the Iraq war and in return Blair’s first interview at the end of the war was with Trevor Kavanagh who is ‘The Sun’s’ political editor.
However, although Blair and Murdoch tried to justify the case for war, prospects of Labour winning the next election were doubtful. In an attempt for Labour to gain control once again, some believed Murdoch used his paper to divert attention away from the war and set up the ‘anti-immigrant campaign’. He proclaimed that the Labour Party should be convicted for neglecting to combat asylum-seekers and this should be the basis of whether they serve another term in parliament (not the Iraq war). An article taken from the ‘The Mail Online’ further emphasises this claim.
It states that “Downing Street knew all about the campaign well in advance… Three days later, bang on cue, the Home Secretary came to the rescue. “10 The second example also demonstrates Murdoch’s close relationship with the Government, as well as highlighting how his control over the Labour Party has threatened the BBC’s existence. We look at how Murdoch’s papers supported the government in the battle with the BBC over the contents of the “weapons of mass destruction” dossier. Murdoch attacked the BBC in an almost uniformed pattern from the Sun, to the Times, to the News of the World.
He wanted to tarnish the objectivity of the BBC – the very perception that pulls in so many viewers. He therefore set out a campaign to portray BBC as anti war and anti Government. The Government could not have asked for better support and Murdoch could not have asked for better timing! The communications bill was just around the corner and therefore a prime opportunity for Murdoch to enter into terrestrial British TV. In return for Murdoch’s support he knew that the passing of the communications Act would be inevitable, paving the way to his entry.
In addition to this Murdoch knew that by placing the BBC in the worst possible light he would help threaten its funding from licence fees. The BBC is dependent on these fees and any threat to them will prevent them from continuing in their present form. The timing could therefore not have been any better as far as Murdoch was concerned, because in 2006 the Royal Charter, under which the BBC operates, expires. “The scale of its activities… and the way it is… funded are being questioned as never before. 11 Murdoch therefore acted like any other MNC and capitalised on his biggest asset, his relationship with the Government, to destroy his competitor, the BBC. The reality of Murdoch achieving his goal seems all but too real; especially now the date of the Royal Charter seems a short distance away. So if Murdoch were successful in his mission, to shift the BBC into a minority-viewing sector, what affect would this have on the UK’s viewing public? Well the only way this can be answered is to measure the popularity and reliability of the BBC, which we now move onto look at in detail.
The BBC was formed in 1922. The Director General, John Reith underwent a testing period during the General Strike in 1926. He was well aware that the BBC’s conduct during the crisis was the basis of its survival. A wider audience on a national basis was created as a result of the strike. Although the number of licence holders was only two million this figure represented a far greater number of listeners. For example ‘communal listening’ took up a large proportion of listeners who gathered in halls and outside shops to listen to BBC news.
The BBC has thus marked its space as a well regarded broadcaster during a crisis, a status they still hold today. An ICM poll revealed that “61% of people questioned said they did not believe the BBC was politically biased. “12 This suggests that the majority of viewers do believe in the BBC’s impartiality but there are still minorities who are yet to be convinced. This maybe due to the criticism BBC have received from both the Government and press over the Dr Kelly incident and supposedly anti war spin. Murdoch’s paper the Sun wrote, “How can we ever trust the BBC again?
Its behaviour over the Dr David Kelly tragedy has been disgraceful. “13 However the BBC’s former Chairman Gavyn Davies, defended the BBC’s coverage of the war. In response to Alastair Campbell’s allegation over the BBC’s war coverage Gavyn Davies states “the BBC’s overall coverage of the war… has been entirely impartial. ” 14 This recent debate has posed the question of whether the BBC are impartial, pro-Government or anti Government. This question is key to our debate and will be examined using The Propaganda Model developed by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky.
The Propaganda model focuses on the “inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass media interest and choices. “15 The theory is taken from the book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ and offers five filters. These filters are thought to sift through the news and decide what should or should not be published. The filters proposed are 1. Flak (disciplining the media), 2. Ownership (the size, owner wealth, and profit orientation), 3. Funding (advertising), 4. Sourcing (the reliance on information provided by government authorities) and 5.
Anti-Communist ideology (a national religion and control mechanism). However the model only focuses on corporate media and therefore the second and third filter do not fully apply to the BBC, as their main responsibility is to the public and not shareholders. Nevertheless ‘ownership’ and ‘funding’ can be substituted with ‘governors’ and ‘licence fees’ respectively which are filters unique to the BBC. Earlier we discussed how the BBC has been under constant attack from Murdoch’s papers. The Propaganda model terms these reactions as ‘flak’ and can be produced by wealthy individuals such as Rupert Murdoch.
Flak is used to criticise one media institution for their coverage of a particular event, such as the Iraq war. The idea of ‘Flak’ could possibly be the reason why many assume that the BBC is anti war and anti government. However a study headed by Professor Justin Lewis, deputy head of the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University considered the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky over the coverage of the war. The results found that the BBC was the most in favour of the Government through out its coverage over the Iraq crisis.
Left Wing press issued the findings in The Guardian sub-headed “A survey of the main broadcasters’ coverage of the invasion of Iraq shows the claim that the BBC was anti-war is the opposite of the truth. “16 The Guardian’ also published the BBC’s response when Baghdad fell on April 9, they stated “BBC reporters could hardly contain themselves in their haste to endorse the victors. “17 Another filter which we apply to the BBC is that of Governors (Ownership). The BBC board of governors is heavily politicised. This change came about in the 1980’s under Margaret Thatcher’s regime who before approving an appointment asked, “Is he one of us. 18 According to the BBC website “Twelve Governors act as trustees of the public interest and regulate the BBC. They are appointed by the Queen on advice from ministers. “19 When BBC chairman Gavyn Davies was appointed one of the “chief complaints… was… his friendship with Chancellor Gordon Brown. “20 The Propaganda model suggests that ‘ownership’ of media institutions such as Murdochs empire is a reflection of his own views and agenda’s. In the same way the BBC could be accused of representing the views and agenda’s of its board members and regulators.
For example Lord (Richard) Ryder of Wensum was appointed Vice-Chairman of the BBC on 1st January 2002. He too like Gavyn Davies had close ties with the Government. He was “Political Secretary to Margaret Thatcher between 1975 and 1981 and was elected MP for mid-Norfolk in 1983. “21 Gavyn Davies and Lord (Richard) Ryder are representative of the type of individuals appointed to the board at the Governments discretion. From a pro Governmental background it seems unlikely that these individuals would challenge their own beliefs in the Government and likewise for the Government to appoint someone who maybe a threat to them.
This suggests that the BBC is confined to what they can or cannot publish about the Government and that the beliefs of these governors shadow what the public hear and see. Although this is a logical assumption, the recent resignation of Gavyn Davies in the wake of the Hutton report contradicts this argument. An online BBC article stated that “recent developments have seen relations strained as Mr Davies defended the corporation, accusing the Number 10 press office of attacking the “whole integrity of the BBC. 22 This is not the first time the BBC have challenged the Government. During the 1956 Suez Crisis the BBC refused to support the invasion policy even though the Government had requested that they do. The BBC’s reasoning was that they wanted to portray a balanced outlook by broadcasting both the Egyptian and government’s view. However the idea that the BBC is constrained in what they broadcast is further emphasised by a third filter recognised as ‘Funding’ (advertising) but for the purpose of this discussion I focus on licence fees, which is unique to the BBC.
The BBC is a “public corporation dependent on government funding but claiming a high degree of autonomy from the state. “23 The renewal of the Licence fee in 2006 is at the Governments discretion. Therefore challenging the Government would certainly not serve in their best interests. The constraint felt by the BBC as a result of the licence fees goes back to the days when radios were the primary source of broadcasting. During the General Strike in 1935 talks between a communist and a fascist – Harry Pollitt and Sir Oswald Mosley was due to be aired in a series on the British constitution.
However because Harry Pollitt had recently made a speech about his support towards armed revolution The Foreign Office protested against the talks being aired. The BBC were backed into a corner when the Postmaster General wrote to them stating that because their licence fees were up for renewal, it would be in their best interests to comply with governments demands. The licence fees have therefore caused havoc for the BBC, a problem that still continues today. However the licence fees does not only cause a filtering problem. It also causes a restriction on the publics right to freedom of choice.
Why should one have to pay for the BBC in order to watch ITV? Although many of the rivals of the BBC have a commercial agenda in its demise, such as Rupert Murdoch, many campaigners view the fees as an infringement to their rights and freedom in a social democracy. So just as Murdoch enforces his views upon us through his newspapers the BBC enforce their broadcasting upon us too. The only difference is, if one wanted to read the Guardian they would not have to buy the Sun as well, but if one wished to watch ITV they would have to pay for the BBC too!
The BBC’s defence is that a licence fee allows them to run a wide range of public services free from adverts and independence from political interests. The licence fee thus creates a viscous cycle, which stems from the BBC wanting autonomy from the Government but ultimately depends on them to continue in business. This dependency is further highlighted by Noam Chomsky’s fourth filter known as ‘Sourcing’. The BBC like many other media outlets are dependent on certain individuals and bodies in providing them with information to broadcast.
They therefore require the co-operation of political actors. 24 The task of accessing information is normally performed by the corporate sector including Government bodies and officials. There is a clear mutual dependence here; politicians are concerned with how they are portrayed and on the other side “journalists depend on access to key party figures for information. “25 These politicians reward journalists who portray them favourably with information and access to highly regarded information but deny this level of access to those who are less sympathetic to their agenda.
The diversity of debate is therefore narrowed and the BBC, like many other broadcasters, is hesitant to telecast certain parts of the news to avoid harming the very people that supply them with the stories. The BBC is at a further disadvantage because the pressure on them to cut costs is so high they are unlikely to peruse other avenues of sources. The final filter is the ideology of anti-communism. “This ideology helps mobilise the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. 26 Anti-terrorism and anti-communism both offer fundamental views of the world. The BBC usually portray Terrorist acts as stand alone events that has no relevance to any historical episodes. In trying to answer why these attacks took place the BBC have focused on Bin Ladens aim to destabilise America because of its support of Israel.
But have been extremely careful not to mention that this was “American foreign policy backlash, or “blowback” of covert deeds done abroad, as the CIA calls it… Osama bin Laden was cultivated, funded, and armed by the CIA to help further America’s foreign policy objectives at that time. 27 However a recent article featured in the Guardian Unlimited contradicts this and states that during the Iraq crisis the BBC did what good journalism ought to do ” probing and questioning insistently – things that the government would rather not discuss. ” It went onto say that the BBC “did not do what some US broadcasters – notably Fox – did, and act as a patriotic national cheerleader. “28 Having applied the Propaganda model there is enough evidence to suggest that the BBC is most definitely restricted in what they can and cannot broadcast.
It especially highlights the BBC’s dependence on the Government and implies that they represent Government interests, after all their future depends on the Governments response at the next Royal Charter. Evidence from this discussion therefore suggests that the BBC is pro-Government and thus bias in its reporting. What is also evident is that Murdoch will use all his powers like ‘flak’ and his hold over the government to bring down the BBC. However whether this threatens UK democracy is only measurable by comparing the levels of propaganda used by the BBC against who ever becomes its substitute.
No doubt Murdoch would be first in line to take over, now the Communications Act will allow him to buy Channel Five. He could consequently merge Five with Sky to knock out ITV and become the national force in TV. When comparing the extent of bias between these two media sectors it is evident that the BBC would be considered less bias for two reasons. The first is because some of the examples used in this discussion show that the BBC have challenged the Government on a number of occasions in order to present balanced views to the public.
Secondly the BBC are only bias towards the Government because they depend on them for the licence fee renewal. However Murdoch and the government have a more sinister relationship with mutual dependency. The Government relies on Murdoch to promote its policies and views and Murdcoh relies on the Government for favourable policies, which help his business become more profitable. Although The Propaganda Model provides a firm basis upon which to analyse the extent of bias it has failed to credit the audience with any level of understanding of propaganda.
With the BBC’s row over the recent Weapons of Mass destruction dossier the BBC showed their viewers that during a time of a crisis they were not willing to be tied down and bullied by the Government, which was further emphasised by the resignation of Gavyn Davies. Such episodes highlight to viewers that the BBC are trying to reflect their mission of an impartial news provider but the circumstances in which they operate prevents them from portraying a balanced outlook.
This view is further emphasised by The Uses and Gratification’s model developed by communication researchers like Katz and Blumler who see the audience as active. It credits the audience with more involvement in actively making conscious and motivated choices from all the media messages available. 29 In retrospect of what has been discussed we can conclude that upon applying the Propaganda Model an underlying feeling has kept re-surfacing. The feeling that, if the BBC had a choice they would like to be an impartial news provider.
However due to the hold the government has over its licence fees the BBC are restricted in what they can and cannot broadcast. The recent resignation of Gavyn Davies sent out a message to the public that the BBC will take a stand over the Government in a crisis situation. When this attitude is coupled with the increased education on propaganda and fewer rigid followers of parties today, the UK people are more likely to sympathise with the BBC and thus its demise would certainly affect UK’s democracy to a certain extent.
More so, the threat to democracy would be heightened if Rupert Murdoch were to act as a substitute to the BBC. If anything has come out of this discussion, it is that Murdoch poses a much higher threat to democracy, then the BBC does. After all Rupert Murdoch uses propaganda for personal gain and growth and has a firm hold over our Government – which begs the question, who actually controls our country, the Government or business tycoons like Rupert Murdoch?