As published in the British Journalism Review
As views that frame stories shape their message, “free market” and “growth” propagandists control the news.
By Daniel Simpson
When G20 leaders met in London this spring, it seemed there was only one question to ask: could they save the world? Whether you take your news salmon-tinted from the Financial Times, prefer it balanced by the BBC, or glean the basics by osmosis via The Sun, the story is the same. Understandable, perhaps, given the scale of global crises, and the lack of bright ideas on how to respond, at least among powerful G20 governments.
Their London summit solution, a $1.1 trillion bailout for the moribund financial system, was as preordained as the media chorus that hailed it, give or take the odd caveat. After two days of photo opportunities, the G20 agreed to pump less money into the International Monetary Fund than they spent last year on weapons. But to assuage journalistic doubts, their mantra was simple. The final communiqué made a dozen references to “restoring”, “supporting” or “sustaining” growth, apparently oblivious to the prospects of success, not to mention the hideous consequences. According to the philosopher John Gray: “The project of promoting maximal economic growth is, perhaps, the most vulgar ideal ever put before suffering humankind.” It is also the most suicidal. Because of the way we live, more growth means consuming more oil, coal and gas, and clogging the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which stays there for a century, heating it up. Three days before the summit, an FT headline screamed: “Drive for growth ‘will ruin planet.’” This revelation was buried in the news-in-brief section. And it duly vanished down the memory hole, despite originating from government advisers, whose views are generally used to frame the news.
Other papers reacted similarly to the Sustainable Development Commission’s announcement that economic meltdown, like climate change and resource depletion, is “directly linked” to “our reliance on debt to finance the cycle of growth”, making mass death in our lifetimes ever more likely. Even The Guardian, which touts its eco-credentials in an annual “sustainability report” called Living our Values, tucked its write-up away in the business pages. It did, however, quote the conclusion: “Prosperity without growth is no longer a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity.” Yet no one put these words on the front page, let alone ran what ought to have been the FT’s banner headline: “Everything we stand for could kill us.”
Some stories scarcely make news because their premises aren’t going to inform policy – and reporters see their role as relaying what influential people say and do. This means they tend to foghorn received wisdom, while narratives that contradict it are rarely aired. Even when they are, they’re barely heard, because they don’t get recycled even as background, unlike the assumptions of big business and government, which routinely reappear to help put comments from officialdom “into context”. As a flunky in the White House once claimed, those in power have a “right, if necessary, to lie”. He clearly believed his hype, because this statement was also a lie, unless the journalists who reported it agreed. Harold Evans, the former Sunday Times editor, was mocked by some for urging staff to ask themselves: “Why is this bastard lying to me?” Unfortunately, many still don’t ask. Instead they churn out reams of propaganda. As newsrooms downsize, and the space they have to fill keeps expanding, this process gets ever more brazen. Reporters lack the time they need to find stories, never mind investigate them, so they rely on pre-packaged content from the PR industry.
DISTORTIONS ARE CUNNING
Its multi-billion-dollar influence is insidious. Outright falsehoods are rare, if only because they’re too blatant. Most distortions are more cunning, using omissions, seductive narratives and soundbites to inveigle their agendas into print. Whatever the facts reveal, what matters is how they’re presented. PRs control access, monitor interviews and coach clients on tailoring talking-points to journalists, from whose ranks they’re often poached for higher salaries. Every story needs its angle, a hook for readers and lines to keep reeling them in. PR makes these products ready for market, so the media frequently use them as supplied.
That’s not to say professional journalists have no standards. They just rely on what a British government propagandist once called “the principle that you can report anything that a source says, regardless of its veracity, provided that you report accurately what the source has told you”. What’s true is almost irrelevant, provided rivals also run it. The result is mediocrity of the lowest commercial denominator: consensus for fear of losing market share. Meanwhile, the views that frame stories shape their message, and whoever constructs this frame dictates the news.
A Chinese philosopher was once asked what he’d do if he had power. Thinking it over, he said he’d start by changing the names of things. If they’re incorrect, he argued, speech does not sound reasonable, which stops things being done properly. And when things are not done properly, society’s structure is harmed. Punishments don’t fit crimes, and people don’t know what to do. The philosopher’s name was Confucius, and he’d seen how language defines what people can think. “He was talking about Unspeak,” argues a book of the same name by Steven Poole, which defines the phenomenon as “an attempt to say something without saying it” – a phrase or word that contains a whole unspoken political argument. “At the same time,” writes Poole, “it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” Terms like “pro-life” and “tax relief” are especially economical examples, and far less crude than Orwellian “newspeak”, which reduced and simplified the English language in order to make alternative thinking impossible. How do you argue against life, or for imposing unpopular burdens? But the longer-winded tropes of “public diplomacy” carry keys to their own undoing. You just have to pay close attention.
It has not been hard to spot, for example, that “the international community” means America’s cohorts. Other embedded assumptions take more unpacking. The “free market” doesn’t really exist, but because its true terms are unspoken they’re hard to convey. The “protectionist state-backed redistribution of wealth to shareholders at the expense of the wider world’s well-being” wouldn’t fly past sub-editors, regardless of accuracy. Growth, meanwhile, is a means, whether to prosperity or merely expansion. To make it an end in itself defies reason, especially now that the conditions that made this aberration possible are ending. But that’s yet to be accepted by those in power, let alone the average style guide.
Conceptual frames sneak into stories, immune from rules on sourcing or evidence. Much comes down to priorities. Is it more biased to talk of kickback-fuelled arms sales as “Britain’s aerospace industry received a massive boost”, or to throw away the press release and cite “a massive dent to credibility on human rights”? Three guesses which angle won in busy newsrooms, including nominally crusading ones. PR slime has smeared itself everywhere. “When I started on local papers,” The Guardian’s Nick Davies recalled in a speech, “if you wanted to write a story about a hospital you phoned the hospital, you talked to the hospital manager or a doctor. Now you deal with a PR.” Companies hire them, as do charities. Even terrorists have spokespeople these days.
The industry is so powerful that it’s co-opted half its critics. Seduced by “ethical” business talk, young idealists help executives spend small amounts on Good Works to offset the Bad Stuff they do to get rich. Yet corporate law “forbids any motivation for their actions,” notes the lawyer and author, Joel Bakan, “whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers”. There’s “no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves”, only “to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders. Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal – at least when it is genuine”. That doesn’t stop its advocates talking it up. They even use exposés as teaching aids.
THE STAKES GET HIGHER BY THE DAY
The other speciality is front groups, set up to convince us coal isn’t polluting, or that genetically modified crops could feed the world, as opposed to making money out of poor people. Then there’s technology that’s always round the corner, such as hydrogen cars, which deter Americans from weaning themselves off oil. Like claims denying climate change, these dreams are promoted by fossil fuel companies, which admired how Big Tobacco dealt with passive smoking laws. They even hired the same PR firm.
As our continued dependence on carbon speeds up climate change, the stakes get higher by the day. Since 2000, global emissions of greenhouse gases have been rising more than two per cent a year, or as fast as the UK economy’s average growth rate. To stand a hope of averting cataclysm, however, they have to drop sharply in the next five years. Longer-term targets matter little, because what’s been emitted already remains in the atmosphere. Even if we stopped adding to it tomorrow, there’d still be havoc wreaked by rising temperatures. To peg these back below the United Nations danger marker (at two degrees above pre-industrial levels, a dangerous figure in itself), emissions from energy use need to be cut by 10 per cent a year for the coming decade. That’s twice as sharp a contraction as the current recession that world leaders want to reverse. Promising otherwise doesn’t tend to win elections. Nonetheless, warns Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research: “If economic growth is not possible with reduced emissions, then we need a planned economic contraction.”
That’s a tough sell to consumers, to say nothing of governments or their corporate backers. But there won’t be a future to get rich in if warming continues. G20 leaders claimed they would “accelerate the transition to a green economy”. As their summit started, however, BP sacked a quarter of its solar workforce, blaming the recession. Shell has already outdone its rival, pledging never to invest in wind or solar energy again. So much for going “Beyond Petroleum” – originally a BP ad campaign – as was discussed for a generation without governments mandating it, or subsidising any alternatives but nuclear power. Don’t blame us, executives splutter, despite their minimal spending on renewables. As Chris Mottershead, BP’s “global advisor” on energy and climate change, stressed before standing down last year: “It’s not our job to solve the climate problem; it’s merely our job to make sure the options are available.”
If the only corporate imperative is to maximise profits, whose job is it to change the rules? Unless governments cure our addiction to endless growth, we’ll have to force them, which means the media will have to help activists make their case, as clearly and as frequently as possible. For now, we get adverts for airlines and ethical lifestyle porn. Where solutions are offered they’re hopelessly piecemeal, like changing light bulbs. Little wonder, then, that in last year’s Climate Safety report scientists accused journalists of making public action seem “futile and in some cases too late to make a difference”. It isn’t. We just need to lose our illusions.
Fighting back against framing ought to be easy, but the noise machines that skew news are of industrial strength. When PR pioneer Edward Bernays launched the business of conning people 100 years ago, he said his aim was the “engineering of consent” to manage society, using “intelligent minorities to mould the mind of the masses” and keep them docile. Since America and big business had similar interests, he argued, consumerism could marshal the herd. Inspired by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, he sought to stimulate people’s yearnings and sate them with products. But the creed he sold the public differed subtly. Companies met the desires that politicians couldn’t reach, he said, making capitalism the essence of democracy, and PR the machinery of government. Or as one Cold Warrior, one-time U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Lovett, put it: “If we can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities, we should be able to sell our very fine story in larger quantities”, and preserve America’s disproportionate riches. The historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf blames this post-Second World War “business assault” for “a major political shift that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan, the subsequent tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, the elimination of regulation, and the severe cutbacks in social services”. And, no doubt, the state we’re in today, with overworked newsrooms dependent on second-hand material from governments, companies and news agencies.
Unless editors intervene, or the powerful object, demonstrable untruths can quickly become “common knowledge”. Like it or not, neutrality is elusive. Either journalists are agents of change, or they’re someone’s useful idiots. The least radical option is to try to be accurate, even if “the truth” is inexpressible. Websites abound with names like Source Watch, PR Watch and Corporate Watch, exposing vested interests and hidden agendas. And old news stories are full of forgotten facts, quotes and context. Searchable archives of these nuggets could help resurrect them as evidence for alternative narratives.
CHALLENGE OUR PROGRAMMING
Framing the context credibly is as vital as finding things out. But questioning the status quo takes time. Pieties are hard to subvert in one-liners, and changing how we think requires extended breaks from “productivity” to challenge the programming we got at school, from society and from TV. Bloggers are no less constrained, unless they’re financially secure. This in part explains the copy-and-paste nature of most “independent” media. Freedom from corporate culture doesn’t abolish groupthink, nor guarantee insight, entertainment or accuracy. And the internet’s duelling echo chambers can obscure as much as they reveal.
“Being adversarial sounds righteous,” wrote Professor Samuel Freedman, in his inspirational Letters to a Young Journalist, “except when it is a mere reflex, just one more way of imposing black-and-white absolutism on a world washed in greys.” Still, if journalists were truly public servants, they would overthrow the tyranny of novelty, cease doting on powerful sources and set humanitarian news agendas of their own. There might not be magic answers out there, but there’s plenty of marginalised thinking, and it needs more prominence than policymakers and editors grant it. Or do we have to ruin the planet before we rethink priorities?
For journalists, undoing framing has consequences, especially if “success” correlates to expressing the “dominant” framework. It is easier to say what people want to hear, and hard to spot that’s what you’re doing, or whose interests it serves. But how else can public lying be confronted? After Watergate, and a life listening to U.S. presidents spout fiction, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee concluded: “Newspapers generally lie because people lie to them.” This was sometimes accidental, he thought, because so little was ever revealed in its entirety. “The truth emerges, and that’s how it’s supposed to be in a democracy,” he said. “That’s still true, but seizing the pieces is getting to be harder and harder.”
The 2003 invasion of Iraq proved his point. People knew “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” before a leaked memo from Downing Street showed the head of MI6 said so. When Britain published a briefing on Iraqi weapons, Times columnist Simon Jenkins panned the “worse than half-hearted” prose, and historian Correlli Barnett wrote: “Tony Blair’s dossier is larded with the customary weasel words that Saddam ‘may have’ or ‘almost certainly’ does or ‘will have’ this or that”, while offering “no compelling evidence”. But scepticism wasn’t front-page news. Even papers later denounced by Blair as “feral beasts” shied away from saying he’d committed “the supreme international crime” of initiating war of aggression, in the words of Robert H Jackson, chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg. None called for his prosecution or even analysed the obstacles preventing it. These didn’t warrant a mention until actors staged a trial in a London theatre.
That came fours years later, along with Alan Greenspan’s claim to be “saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Whether that meant controlling it, or just helping companies cash in, the press didn’t deign to report until activists scooped them. After all, Blair had declared that: “The oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.” By the time he stood down, hundreds of thousands were dead, and the war had been rebranded several times. Only press stenography made this possible. When the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be of mass non-existence, stories were framed with claims about democracy, or reconstruction, about anything, in fact, except occupying Iraq. The spin-doctors learned from Napoleon. You don’t have to censor the news for effective PR. You just have to bury the truth until it no longer matters.
● Some of the material in this article has appeared previously in a spoof edition of the Financial Times