Photo: BBC Newsnight Photo: BBC Newsnight

Des Freedman looks at the possibilities for change in the face of a hostile media establishment

Counterfire’s Socialist Explainers series

For some time people have been arguing that the internet would diversify the voices on offer in the media.Yet the same groups that dominated the old media now dominate online: the Sun, Guardian, Mail, Telegraph, Independent, Express and Mirror all reach tens of millions every month. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, the BBC’s TV news bulletins were watched by over 20 million people.

We still have a media system dominated by offshore billionaires and unaccountable elites with an entrenched hostility to radical ideas and movements.

These are the media organisations who vilified Jeremy Corbyn, ridicule any systematic attempt to redistribute wealth, and tend to back UK foreign policy because, apparently, it’s in the ‘national interest’. They may not tell us exactly what to think but, as the political scientist Bernard Cohen once put it, ‘they tell us what to think about’.

This matters because the constant stream of ‘official sources’ and pro-austerity and anti-immigrant arguments is bound to have an impact. The people who run the media certainly think they are influential. Straight after the Brexit referendum, the Sun’s editor commented: ‘So much for the waning power of newspapers’.

How then can we expect millions of voters to reject ruling class arguments and instead embrace progressive and anti-establishment ideas?

The first thing to say is that audiences are not simply ‘brainwashed’ by what they consume. You can tell because polls on almost all issues show audiences are consistently to the left of the media. That’s why despite the onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn, Labour won nearly 13 million votes in 2017 and over 10 million votes in 2019.

This is because people make their minds up according to their experience of life more than from the ideas they get in the education system or from the media.

As Marx put it ‘Consciousness does not determine life. Life determines consciousness’. If your experience is one of insecurity, low wages, lack of opportunities and police brutality, then you’re less likely to agree with a media that has promoted the benefits of a free market. It’s not that surprising, in this context, that the British press is the least trusted across Europe.

Secondly, the power of media messaging is fundamentally affected by what goes on in the world around us. Mass movements like the great anti-war struggles, anti-austerity campaigns and the Black Lives Matter protests affect the views of all those who take part in them and when they are big enough force themselves onto the media’s agenda. Once people are involved in collective struggle, we are far less likely to believe what we consume in mainstream media.

Genuinely national or international struggles can win the battle of ideas in wider society. The anti-war movement over Iraq for example helped convince the overwhelming majority in Britain and many other countries that the war was wrong, despite the fact that most of the media supported it. 

Historically, great revolutionary movements go further and challenge all the preconceptions in society. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, in Spain in 1936 or the French events of 1968 people’s ideas were turned upside down, all forms of oppression were challenged and working people started to take over society for themselves, bringing into question the very idea of class rule. In these circumstances the movement’s media becomes dominant and workers start to take over the old media institutions themselves. This is what Marx meant when he said that ‘in the process of changing the world, we change ourselves’.

socialist-explainers-1-lg.jpg Now part of a published collection of socialist explainers.



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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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