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Howard's End: Tools And Vassals For Rich Men

Tools And Vassals For Rich Men

By Maree Howard

When control of the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands there is even greater meaning to the title of the George Seldes book written in the 1930's, Lords of the Press. Mainstream media today is often accused of taking in someone else's washing, rinsing it in the PC spin-cycle, and then selling it. Maree Howard writes.

Media baron Rupert Murdoch said, "Monopoly is a terrible thing, till you have it." His empire might not be a total monopoly but it's close; - a global network of newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

Chances are that much of what you receive as news today has been fed to you by one of his news outlets through the newswire services.

But it's not just Murdoch. What you see, hear and read today is controlled by fewer and fewer people. This can mean that broadcast or print editors don't have to make judgments of their own on the news and can prefer others to make their decisions for them. The result? - an often jaundiced and one-sided view particularly in the area of foreign relations reporting which helps us understand our neighbours.

In my view, the independence of the new media Internet news is becoming vital to our understanding of local and world events.

A report commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) released in May, revealed that both journalists and the public are concerned media proprietors play too large a part in determining what makes news in daily papers, television and radio.

Bond University researchers found the public believes there is too much sensationalistic journalism and struggles to distinguish between news and comment.

One of the authors of the report, Professor Mark Pearson, says the influence of media proprietors figured prominently in the research. The survey found that both journalists and the public were concerned about that level of influence upon news and current affairs.

"In the journaist's comments we found there were examples given where journalists were reluctant to pursue certain stories because they felt it was counter to the commercial interests of their own organisation," Professor Pearson said.

The report also found that audiences believe the business interests of media organisations are the greatest source of influence on what they read, hear or see.

Journalists who fell out with leading proprietors had fewer career opportunities presented, the report found.

But then the Chairman of the ABA, Professor David Flint, said the new study shows proprietors have little influence over news comment.

There are moves overseas to censor the Internet which might mean that news of the future will delivered in the same sanitised way as mainstream.

I'm always puzzled to see the number of 'hits' to mainstream media websites which are really just clones of what has already been carried in print or broadcast form. It's almost as though the public is seeking confirmation on the Internet for what has already been written or broadcast in hard copy. But for me, it still has the same mainstream spin no matter what medium their news is delivered.

Apart from the Internet, freedom of the press in New Zealand seems to be freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to.

In 1931, Rudyard Kipling was scathing of newspaper barons when he said, " Power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."

And Thomas Carlyle said in 1841, "Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."

Destructive journalism fosters the belief that politicians routinely evade the truth and break their promises. It creates a climate in which trust in society as a whole dissolves; in which difficulties are magnified beyond all proportion; in which no one is believed to act except for the most self-interested of motives.

In other words, reporters focusing on point scoring and personality rather than the issues. If any greater evidence was needed of just how trite reporting has become in this country, we don't need to look any further than the media's recent handling of Christine Rankin's case in the Employment Court.

In that coverage many reporters seemed to think that the most interesting thing about the story is that they had arrived to cover it.

I always thought Rankin's claim was that by past actions, members of the government had shown bias and a closed mind to her being appointed again. A breach of fairness and natural justice - but you really wouldn't have known that from the media reports.

John Swinton was the former chief of staff of the New York Times and he made this speech to the New York Press Club in 1953.

"There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print."

" I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours had past, my occupation would be gone."

"The business of the journalist is to destroy truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet on mammon, and to sell their country for their daily bread."

"You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals for rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes."

There are just too many examples of media bias today. Sometimes it stems from a conscious choice by the reporter or editor and sometimes it can stem from sheer laziness and deadline pressures.

There is bias by commission, bias by ommission, bias by story selection, bias by placement of a story, bias by the selection of sources, bias by a journalist's opinion placed in a news story, bias by labelling and bias by policy endorsement or condemnation. And bias can even be revealed by using different type faces or emphasis in a story. In the end, it is a bias against human understanding.

Television and radio are also offenders of subjective opinions. For example, "An horrific crime occurred today when......" Well no, sorry, I'll decide whether it is an horrific crime when you present me with the facts as news. I don't want a talking head in my lounge room leading me in any particular direction, thank you very much.

Gough Whitlam spoke about television in 1982. He said, " Quite small and ineffectual demonstrations can be made to look like the beginnings of a revolution if the cameraman is in the right place at the right time."

Mainstream news reporting today has produced a wilderness of dumbed-down cave dwellers instead of the promised global village. Perhaps the darkest spot in modern society is a small luminous screen - and democracy is the poorer for it.

ENDS

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