Do people believe all what the media tells them in relation to politics, or anything else come to think of it? The answer, despite some protestations to the contrary, is probably yes. Should they? Probably not is the answer. Before any of our journalist friends get upset, there are some good journalists, and some poor ones too. My complaint though is less with journalists than the organisation of the media and its relation with the sphere of politics. I am here talking about conventional mainstream media, not, except peripherally, social media.
Please also note that I am not referring here to the current discussion in the UK about the relations between the media and individual politicians. I am, though, going to suggest that there is an inherent tendency in relation to political discourse for the media to accept, uncritically, the shorthand political conclusions offered to them. I will try to demonstrate the validity of this suggestion using a number of examples.
First, let me relate a brief anecdote from my time in Brussels as a European Commission official in the late 1970s. A journalist friend of mine then was a Brussels correspondent of the Financial Times. I happened to read a piece she had written which seemed to me to be less than accurate and with an even more inaccurate headline. I tackled her about the piece and she somewhat abjectly responded by blaming the editing of the piece and the headline on the sub-editor. She was an excellent journalist and a friend so, reluctantly, I was persuaded to accept, in part, her off-loading of the responsibility for the distortion.
Second, I will relate another anecdote from my time as Economic Adviser to the European Parliament on Economic and Monetary Union in 1998. I was contacted by the BBC to take part in a programme on the Euro and flown to London as an expert on the issues involved. I was interviewed (recorded) and it soon became clear that the director of the programme had already decided that the line to be taken in the programme was to rubbish the Euro. Not surprisingly I was not called to appear on the live programme and my interview did not appear. I should say that this bias in programme-making was something I had come across before. In the previous cases I had been on the side which was the one chosen for the programme and I had duly appeared.
These two ad hominen examples from my own past experience (there are others I could mention) obviously cannot prove any systematic bias in the way the media operates. However, they are suggestive of a potentially serious and substantive problem of distortion. So let’s move to the present day and look at a few issues where the problem does appear to be more serious, and perhaps embedded in the way the media operate as far as political reporting is concerned. This is a particular problem for the broadcast media which is where most people gain their insight as to what is happening in the world.
A Political Economic Example
On coming into office, the UK Coalition government clearly decided to promote a particular political story about the UK public deficit. It blamed it on the outgoing Labour government. Notwithstanding the fact that most economists regard this proposition as nonsense, the story has continued to be told. As recently as the 2012 post budget debates the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander MP, was still posting the same message. I should say that media interviewers themselves start to yawn at the repetition of the gross distortion; though it is never actually challenged.
Even the more sensitive and honest souls on the government side still maintain that the labour government was responsible for a substantial structural deficit, i.e. after taking account of the substantial impact on the public deficit of the cyclical aspect of the global financial crisis. But even here, as was actually pointed out in her blog at the time by Stephanie Flanders – the BBC economics editor, there is a caveat to be entered. At the time of the budget in June 2010 the newly set up and independent Office of Budget Responsibilty (OBR) recalculated what economists know as the ‘output gap’. This is the assumed gap between the actual output of the economy and the estimated potential output of the economy. Without going into any technical detail (there are a number of other assumptions that are made, e.g. on the responsiveness of tax revenues) the output gap bears an inverse relationship with the structural deficit, i.e. the smaller the gap the higher the estimated structural deficit. The OBR’s revision in 2010 doubled the structural deficit; at a stroke.
Please note that I am not here questioning whether the OBR was right or wrong in its revision; such revisions are necessary from time to time, though the magnitude of the revised estimate of the structural deficit was surprising. It was also convenient for the incoming Coalition government to be able to blame the outgoing Labour government; though no government spokesperson bothered to explain that it was simply a revised estimate.
A Foreign Policy Example
The second example is a sensitive one and I want to be very careful in describing what I perceive as perhaps, a well-meaning, but unfortunate distortion in the reporting of the current conflict situation in Syria. The media have taken on the usual, but obviously biased, description of the Syrian government as a ‘regime’. Whenever, politicians decide that they wish to oppose a foreign government the propaganda description of regime is applied. The appellation is not directly linked to the issue of ‘democracy’, but often it is. For instance the Chinese now have a government. The government used, in the ‘bad old days’, to be a regime, but though the political structure has not changed, Western governments are not going to use the term regime.
If this were all the distortion which occurs, it probably would not matter very much. But the distortion – amounting to propaganda – goes on. Statements of attacks and pictures on social media by the various opposition (rebel?) factions seem to be taken at face value. Statements by the Syrian ‘regime’ on the other hand are regarded as suspect and likely to be ‘propaganda’. It should be recalled that the Syrian ‘regime’ held a referendum on a new constitution, with a, reasonably high, reported 45% turnout; far higher than local authority elections in the UK. The whole exercise has been under-reported.
The position is admittedly difficult for the media as Western governments have already, somewhat precipitately, ‘recognised’ the Syrian National Council (SNC). In fact the SNC is one of the opposition factions, but it has members who are exiles from Syria and living in Western countries. Moreover, the Western governments and political elites seem to have decided that Syria is a larger version of Libya. The media seem to have followed this line uncritically; despite its obvious defects and dangers. There has been some coverage – though not in news bulletins – of the fact that Syria has a number of ethnic and religious groups. The Assad ‘regime’ is a minority Shia grouping, but it is effectively a secular government.
The majority Sunni groupings are being supported (and possibly armed) by Saudi-Arabia while the Syrian government is being supported by Iran. Having intervened disastrously in terms of outcomes in Iraq, one might have thought that some caution might be applied when there are, in Syria, similar ethnic and religious tensions.
For sound humanitarian reasons, Western governments are urging the cessation of violence, on both sides (the UN-brokered ceasefire is a valuable step forward). They are recommending a political dialogue between the opposition (despite there being various political and military factions involved, including the self-styled Free Syrian Army) and the Syrian ‘regime’. However, at the same time as calling for dialogue, the media report UK government ministers calling for President Assad to resign. Clearly there is a need for a new political settlement in Syria and one which allows a great deal more democratic freedoms. An external (to Syria) UN convened and mediated conference with attendance from Syrian government and opposition representative would seem to offer a way forward. A more even-handed approach from Western governments would seem to be required.
The Problem with the Media
There are two points I want to make about the above two examples. First, leaving aside the tendency of politicians to be ‘economical with the truth’, it is the task of the media, in a democracy, to question politicians on the intellectual basis of their statements. The media should then translate any intellectual criticism of the politicians into language that the general public can appreciate. These days there is almost no intellectual challenging. Instead, we have a great deal of hectoring of the politicians with no great benefit in terms of understanding of the issues. Even when there is comment or explanation from an expert, either the media’s own or an outside expert, the previously agreed headline comment is frequently repeated and ignores the expert comment. This aspect of the politico-media dimension is exemplified in the first example above, the reporting of the UK public sector deficit.
The second point I want to make refers mainly to the second example. Here we see the acquiescence of the media in promoting a biased political position. I am not here – before anyone leaps to challenge me on behalf of the many innocent people killed by the Syrian government forces – arguing that proven cases of such killing should not be reported. I am arguing that in any conflict there are two sides and propaganda intervenes. Clearly if you are the country fighting a war, you will need and will use propaganda. But where one is an observer the aim of media reporting should be to avoid simply siding with one of the parties to the conflict.
A Way Forward?
We do not live in a perfect world and there will always be some distortion in the media, but it should be minimised. We also live in one where there is no editing of the ever-expanding social media. There are many positive aspects of social media; not the least of which is to permit disaffected and sometimes oppressed groups to communicate rapidly around the world. But we should not allow the social media to provide the intellectual basis of our opinions on issues of concern to humankind. The conventional media have an important role to play. The reporting and the editing function is critical in presenting an undistorted picture of critical issues, particularly, as I indicated at the beginning of this article, the broadcast media.
I could have taken the extreme example of Fox News from the US to make my point, but extreme cases make bad law. The main remedy for biased reporting and presentation in the news media lies with a number of people: the senior management of the broadcasting organisations involved; the programme makers – directors, producers, researchers – and the presenters, interviewers, and reporters.
But we must all seek to challenge the reporting biases and provide our own analyses.
The author, Michael Lloyd is a member of the Editorial Board of Read-Online.Org. He is a Senior Research Fellow, Global Policy Institute, London, and Director of LCA Europe Limited. (Contact: Michael.Lloyd@read-online.org)
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Read-Online.Org
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